Tantamount to theft?

Dave Saltmanin Editorial

Theft is a term usually used for someone stealing from somebody else, so could you use the word in the same context, where a business is failing and knowingly sets up new accounts with little or no way of being able to repay the money?

We can talk about the high street names such as Woolworths, Homebase and Maplin, or even Carillion; businesses that have been poorly managed, then failed and left a supply chain in disarray with no future work and unpaid invoices. The same can be said of many companies in our Industry that have folded leaving unhappy creditors, perhaps lucky to get 10 pence in the pound back from the liquidator, only to see the directors of the wound-up business somehow secure the assets and start afresh with a clean slate. Carrick, as I mentioned in my last foreword, being a prime example; as some say, "the phoenix from the ashes".

Football is a business too and, having spent nearly thirty years working in the professional game, I find it difficult sometimes to understand how many clubs exist at all. Both at amateur and professional level, club owners get all starry eyed and invest a disproportionate amount of the income into the playing staff to try and attain a higher level. Usually this leads to poor cashflow and spiralling debt, but this is where I find professional football quite unique. Whilst there is a heavy reliance on the fan base to raise money and/or provide voluntary work to help make ends meet, third party contractors inevitably must wait many months for payment and often don't get paid at all. The thought of taking a prominent club to court, (something that only HMRC have been prepared to do) scares many that make their living in the sports sector, who fear a backlash.

In my time working at clubs such as QPR and Northampton Town, I've been through insolvency, where the groundstaff were the only people left at the ground; the administrator recognising that the pitches still needed to be maintained to secure a new owner.

As I write this, the national news is talking about Aston Villa struggling to pay HMRC for outstanding PAYE and Insurance contributions, and both the Sun and the Daily Mail have run articles on the woes at Oldham Athletic in recent weeks.

My own experience this last year at Oldham has probably been as bad as any club that I have worked at. When the club first approached me in April 2017, the pitches were not in good condition. The club also wasn't financially in a good place and was under a winding up petition with HMRC. We said we would help on a pro-forma basis, working with their groundstaff. At the time, I remember saying to our Finance Director that the club were spread betting their debts, but we took it on. As the season went on, players and staff were being paid late nearly every month and our bills weren't being paid either.

With false promises and little or no communication, we were finally left with no choice but to start a winding up petition on the club.

It wasn't a nice thing to be forced to do, but having now received much of our money and the club also having to pay the legal costs associated with the courts, my thoughts remain with the staff at the club, whose future hangs in the balance. They are a hard working and conscientious team, whose love and life is for the club, yet work for an employer who disregards the basic needs of paying people on time, so they, in turn, can pay their own bills.

The recent takeover at the club was closely scrutinised by the EFL's lawyers, yet the new owner seems less able to manage a football club than his predecessor. The arrogance within football, unlike any other sport, suggests that people and businesses will continue to take 'a hit' because their bills aren't being paid.

I think it's time the EFL revisited its regulatory and due diligence requirements to protect employees and suppliers of these financially suspect clubs.

Dave Saltman

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