If there is one thing I have not properly learned throughout a lifetime that started longer ago than I care to mention, it is not to speak before first engaging my brain, or what’s left of it. Last night, in attempting to compare the state of the club I supported from puberty, Bristol Rovers, with Bournemouth, I did it again.
I suspect it is down to a lingering, albeit now sub-conscious, bitterness on my part, after all that has happened with Bristol Rovers over the past nine years. Just seven years ago, Bournemouth were on the brink of liquidation with fans collecting money in buckets in the town centre but now, barring a 19-0 defeat at Charlton Athletic this week, to quote the BBC website they will be “mixing it in the billionaires’ playground of English football’s top flight.” Meanwhile, last Saturday Bristol Rovers demolished the part timers of Alfreton 7-0, having already secured a place in the Conference play offs some weeks ago in front of a bigger crowd than Bournemouth managed last night against Bolton Wanderers. What I had not reckoned with was the facts: this was no miracle, no fairy story. Would Bournemouth’s ascent to the starry heights of the richest league in the world have happened without Maxim Demin?
Maxim who? Demin is another Russian billionaire who has made his money through petrochemicals. He doesn’t do interviews, hardly anyone knows anything about him. But he throws millions of pounds at the club, so that’s all right then, isn’t it? Well, I didn’t see anyone at Bournemouth complaining last night when they duffed up Bolton Wanderers 3-0 to effectively secure promotion, but the reality was exposed some time ago when Bournemouth’s administrator Gerald Krasner summed up Demin’s financial influence at the club: “He’s made the difference between Bournemouth being just another Championship club fighting for survival and now having Premier League status.” In a single sentence Krasner exposes the truth: Bournemouth bought promotion to the Premier League.
This is not to decry the work done in saving the club in the first place or indeed the brilliant management of Eddie Howe and it would be wrong to suggest that they are the only club operating this way at all levels of the game. But look beyond the gushing headlines and the reality is actually far more reflective of a game that is rotten to the core.
Bolton, Bournemouth’s victims last night, are in debt to the tune of some £172m with no obvious way of paying it off. In fact, their losses in the last financial year came to an eye-watering £9m, so things are getting worse, not better, but these examples are the template of, and the norm for, English football. Foreign ownership, massive debts and sometimes both. These clubs are in competition, but not in the way that we know it in business. They seem to be in a race to see who can spend the most money that either comes from a foreign, often little known and unaccountable foreigner, or by simply spending money they don’t have. And if the authorities really care, they don’t seem to do much about it. Supporters are rarely stakeholders, just customers in another business. The club may be theirs in spirit and by history, but the money men own the bricks and mortar and the fans live in a kind of footballing serfdom.
Bournemouth’s renaissance started before Demin came along and whilst my initial comparison with Bristol Rovers may have initially been fair, other comparisons are facile. Rovers could have been better run but it is hard to compete in a largely unregulated market which allows and even encourages little known foreign billionaires to further distort it.
Seeing Cherries fans celebrate on Sky TV last night and part of you, as a football fan and human being, could not help being pleased for them. After all, what has happened to them is way beyond a dream. For the next year (only?), they will be visiting some of the greatest names in world football, many of whom are also owned by oligarchs and assorted foreign billionaires. It’s a Thatcherite sporting dream.
The Mirror, the so called newspaper of the working classes says today, “Forget the nonsense that a Russian investor takes the romance out of this remarkable achievement.” Well, why? It certainly does for me. If this is romance, then so was the crash of Lehman Brothers and the near collapse of Lloyds TSB and is this was a fairy tale then so was the Loch Ness monster.
The question people always ask is, “What if someone like Demin came along to your club, offering to throw millions of pounds at it? What would you say, then?” My answer will always be no. Ask me 20 years ago and I would have looked no further than the money, but the governance and financing of modern Gordon Gekko ‘English’ football leaves me cold and one day it will eat itself.