Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Is The EFL’s Test For Being A Club Owner ‘Fit And Proper’?

Posted on 21 October 2020 by Alex Bidwell
The outside of Macclesfield Town FC's stadium, Moss Rose, a blue corrugated iron building with the club's name, crest and lead sponsor in large letters.
Moss Rose, the former home of the wound-up Macclesfield Town. Credit: Ben Sutherland

On 16 September 2020 when the High Court finally wound up Macclesfield Town FC after 12 previous adjournments, a 146-year old institution died. After 12 previous adjournments, Judge Sebastian Prentis deemed that owner Amar Alkhadi had had ample opportunity to pay off creditors and that he could see nothing that reassured him the club would be able to pay its £500,000 debts. The club was dissolved, and in October all remaining assets were auctioned and the club were expelled from the Football League.

Given the dire leadership from Alkhadi, who repeatedly paid playing and non-playing staff late, or not at all in the cases of former managers John Askey and Sol Campbell, the ending was grimly predictable. The COVID-19 pandemic, which left the club unable to rely on gate receipts, merely confirmed their fate.

There is however a sense of regret among the football community, due to a feeling that Macclesfield becoming the second club to be wound up in the last year was, to some degree, avoidable.

Alkhadi was the embodiment of deplorable ownership. Fans protested against him, displaying ‘AMAR OUT’ on the scoreboard against Grimsby Town on Boxing Day 2019, and he had a multi-season record of late wage payments. Last season alone, players were paid late eight times. Consequently, players went on strike for their league matches against Crewe Alexandra and Plymouth Argyle and their FA Cup tie with Kingstonians in the FA Cup. Points deductions soon followed.

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While Alkhadi’s faults and mismanagement are blindingly obvious, should the EFL not be questioned about their role in Macclesfield’s downfall? Should they have investigated further and tried to help Macclesfield out of the hole they were in, rather than allowing for them to be closed up for a sum that many would consider a mere drop in the ocean in modern football? In short, should they shoulder some of the blame?

According to Macclesfield’s former ticketing manager Andy Gate, “the EFL did not want to deal with Macclesfield” in a constructive manner, but rather wanted to “kick them out of the EFL, so they were not their problem anymore.”

“There is a clear problem that needs to be sorted out by the EFL and the FA, with stronger ownership tests, and a thorough look at their own model and how they run the league to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Fit And Proper?

Both points are pertinent given the inadequate ownership tests, which Gate branded “a disgrace”, and the doggedness with which the EFL pursued the case against Macclesfield Town.

In June, the EFL deemed the initial panel’s suspended two-point deduction for paying players late to be insufficient, and so called for another panel to review Macclesfield’s case. In August, a follow-up panel handed Macclesfield a four-point penalty in addition to their two-point suspension, specifying that all six points would apply to the 2019-2020 season. Subsequently, Macclesfield were relegated to the National League, wound up by the High Court, and expelled from the Football League four days before the season began.

The case of Bolton Wanderers brought into sharp focus the application of points deductions by the EFL. Bolton were relegated and docked 12-points for going into administration in May 2019, and in November of that year an independent arbitration panel handed Bolton a suspended five-point deduction for not fulfilling two fixtures over the course of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 season. The EFL appealed this, in their words, “lenient” punishment, but lost and were left “disappointed with the verdict”.

It seems strange for the EFL to be so determined to inflict further punishments and suffering on clubs who are facing times of real hardship. Should they not be aiming to help these clubs out of the holes they have found themselves in rather than burying them?

That does not mean providing parachute payments to incompetent or greedy owners. Rather, it means more rigorous ownership tests and regular checks on clubs that are failing to meet standard requirements (such as on-time wage payments), and for owners rather than clubs to become the target of punishments.

“If you deduct points … you’re then moving the club to a new owner with a big disadvantage. You punish the wrong person. That’s structurally designed into the system. It needs changing and the EFL need to realise it.

 

“If the EFL is the gatekeeper through ‘fit and proper’, they own the problem. So anything that goes wrong is down to them, because they’ve said ‘this is a guy who’s fit to do it right.’ So that that has to change. But after that, you’ve just got to control it. You just got to control it so people aren’t getting in above their heads.” – Andy Holt, chair of Accrington Stanley, on the Totally Football League Show

Football clubs are often lynchpins of their communities, and have immense sociocultural importance attached to them. The EFL must reconsider their current rules and regulations relating to owners, or we will see more Macclesfields.