18th August 2017
What does our club stand for?
At this crucial time for Spurs, it is important that the club stands for something more than financial prudence. On the pitch, Spurs have long been known for playing a certain type of football – entertaining, with a flourish – even if at times our team of the moment has been a pedestrian one. It was the 1960s side in particular that established our image in the nation’s consciousness. Since then, to many opposition fans, we have come to embody style over substance; mostly elegant football, many great individual players, just not enough silverware.
But, off the pitch, what does the club itself stand for? Not our fans. Not our players. But the club itself? Daniel Levy has often stated that he regards himself as a ‘custodian’ of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. He recognises that the club has existed for 135 years and will continue long after any individual has departed. In one sense, he, Joe Lewis and ENIC may ‘own’ it (or 85% of it) for now, but our fans and the community ‘own’ it, in reality. Without us, it’s just a balance sheet; a few physical assets (stadium and other property), a bunch of player registrations, some replica shirts, a handful of legal contracts and financial liabilities (debt and equity). Without us, it’s a brand with no value.
Does it matter where the money comes from?
He divides opinion but I’m inclined to take Levy’s statement at face value. As Jermaine Jenas said recently,
“Levy has definitely got that humane side to him and the reputation he seems to have of being a horrible or tight man is just plain wrong.”
Ultimately, Levy can only be judged after his tenure is over. And if ENIC sells control of THFC to some dodgy buyer for maximum profit, his ‘custodian’ credentials will come under threat. But if he makes himself a very rich man whilst also ‘handing the club over’ to another suitable owner-custodian, his legacy may prove to be substantial.
Some Spurs fans would have preferred a Russian oligarch or Middle Eastern country to have bought Alan Sugar’s shares back in 2001. We might now have PL titles and even CL trophies to show for it. There is no denying that ‘running THFC as a business’ rather than as a rich man’s toy has made the challenge of catching the original Sky 4 and, latterly, Man City, even harder than it would have been with money to burn.
But I’ll never forget taking my kids to Stamford Bridge about fifteen years ago to see a CL game. Chelsea lost 2-0 to Besiktas. Their fans were giving their players some serious four-letter verbals. And one fan right behind us screamed “Oi, Veron, you useless c***, I pay your effing wages!” This is a long established right of football supporters. To see the players as ‘working for them’. The plumber spends his cash buying a ticket so the pro footballer can earn money doing something the plumber would love to do for free (if he could). That’s how professional football works. And how it still does in the lower leagues.
Listening to that fan, I thought, well no, actually, you don’t pay Veron’s wages. Chelsea were running a serious financial loss at that time. It was really Abramovich who was funding Veron’s wages. The fan was kidding himself. If Juan Veron had heard the guy’s impotent rage, he could have just smiled and stuck two Argentine fingers up at him.
Now, I’m sure that fan would point to Chelsea’s titles and gloat that it’s all worth it. I mean, who cares? Fans want trophies and reflected glory. Does it matter where the money comes from? If some foreigner wants to subsidise our pleasure and success, why should an individual Chelsea or Man City supporter care?
What is a football fan today?
But the financial link between fan and player is important. Where does all the money to pay a player £15 million per year actually come from? Surely no player would be paid anything like that much if the relationship between plumber and player, between terraces and pitch, was still as direct as it used to be in the 70s and 80s, before the Premier League and Sky TV subscriptions moved the goalposts.
Nowadays the definition of ‘fan’ is different. We have overseas fans and armchair fans. You don’t have to stand on the terraces to be a football fan any more. You may rarely (never) go to a match. You may stream rather than pay for a TV subscription. You might not even own a replica shirt. Your fandom is, essentially, ‘free’. I would never argue such fans cannot be real fans. But others are paying a fortune in ticket prices, travel and food, domestic and overseas TV subscriptions, and club merchandise, to fund the huge transfers, salaries and agent’s fees now being spent by clubs.
The English Premier League no longer works like the rest of professional football. What is more, the lifestyles of premier league players no longer bear any resemblance to those of their fans. It is a ‘working class game’ played by modern day aristocrats. Until the 1970s, many British workers were still paid weekly and their wages were expressed in weekly amounts; 100 quid per week, etc. Nowadays, almost any regular job worth over £25,000 p.a. is quoted as an annual salary. Imagine the press reporting that a fat cat CEO or Hedge Funder was on £200,000 per week, instead of the £10 million p.a. it adds up to! But that is the quaint language that football still uses, as if the amounts are somehow not quite as large if they’re divided by 52.
And, one way or another, that money comes out of our own pockets. A massive transfer of wealth from the working man to a select few. Whilst in return, our connection to the players is nothing like it used to be. Instagram and TV interviews give us the illusion that we know the players. But it’s a one-way relationship. One of the great things about Pochettino’s Spurs team is the tangible bond between our players and fans. Remarkable in this day and age.
There was a lovely snippet on Spurs Community recently. In the early 60s the writer recalled travelling to White Hart Lane by tube for a match. A few stations after he used to climb aboard, Bobby Smith (the Spurs and England centre-forward) got onto the same train to travel to the stadium to play in the same match. As late as the mid-70s, I remember being in a local N17 pub after a midweek game when most of the Spurs team came in for their post-match pint; players and fans mingling together happily.
Just do it, Levy
Nowadays, Spurs are often criticised (sometimes blatantly, sometimes by innuendo) for failing to spend, spend, spend. Our transfer dealings and wages policy are used by the media, pundits and some fans as a stick to beat us with. If only Levy wasn’t so tight-fisted, we’d have more trophies in the cabinet, so the theory goes. Walker wouldn’t have walked and Danny Rose would have kept his mouth shut.
Well, maybe. Speaking personally, I’d be very happy for the likes of Kane, Dele, Toby and others to be paid more in line with what they could earn elsewhere. But I trust Levy and Pochettino to make that call. Spurs have been transformed on the pitch as well as off it over the past 15 years whilst being run sensibly and making a profit. Levy’s made mistakes. Any CEO has. But he’s stuck to his guns. As I wrote back in April (Post 4) “Tactics affect battles. You win some, you lose some. But strategy is what wins wars”. Building THFC into a financial and football powerhouse is a long term project.
However, the club does have to stand for something more than just financial prudence. In last Friday’s Daily Telegraph (11th August), there was an investigative report on how Premier League Clubs are paying “workers below a living wage”. These workers are the stewards, catering and security staff, programme sellers and store shop assistants. According to the Telegraph, many match day staff are paid under £9.75 per hour (the London ‘living wage’). Spurs didn’t come out of the report too badly but still our Club is “unable to guarantee all casual staff are paid the London Living Wage”.
From next Season, I will be a member of the Tunnel Club at our new stadium. I am paying a large amount per season for the privilege of sitting just behind the manager and players and (less importantly to me) high quality booze and food. But I will feel deeply uncomfortable if I’m served by staff that aren’t being paid properly. Indeed the whole idea of a ‘Club’ for me is developing and enjoying a banter relationship with regular barmen and waiting staff, much as I would in my local pub. If they’re constantly changing or demotivated, it will not be the full experience I want.
Levy has stressed the importance of the whole Stadium development project to the local area and community, the job creation and opportunities in a deprived borough of London. He’s right to do so. But I would like to see the club go a bit further and ensure that every worker at the new stadium is paid at least the living hourly wage, ideally a bit more. This would cost a fraction of Spurs’ total wage bill. But not only would it improve the lives of the match day staff at the club, it would say something about what THFC stands for.
Of course I’m not saying Spurs should run at a loss to pay stewards and waitresses way above market rates. But if we are looking after those at the bottom of the pay scale, when a player like Rose sounds off to the Sun, it says more about him than it does the club. As it stands, there is a perception that we are tight for tightness’s sake. We are building a truly world class stadium. Let’s make a statement about all those who work in it and not just our wonderful players.
Let’s do it.