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Transfer spending is out of control – clubs need saving from themselves

The government will announce on Wednesday its white paper to enshrine in legislation an independent regulator for British football. As we are so often told, only one club, Portsmouth, has entered administration in the 31-year history of the Premier League. That has long been the argument against regulation. Bankruptcy is for the little guys. Yet everyone from the richest in the Premier League, its ordinary rich, and the poorest of its rich, know this cannot go on forever without another casualty.

There is much that a regulator could do to damage the Premier League, not least in the hands of a government for whom recent financial projections have framed them as the Everton of developed world ruling administrations. But that does not preclude a role for regulation. The game needs robust financial controls that protect every club from the arms’ race of the Premier League.

These levels of owner investment will eventually create a victim. One wonders how much, for instance, it has cost Southampton’s owners to buy their club and finance a new squad. Could it be that Sport Republic has already spent £400 million to be bottom of the Premier League? Even Brighton and Hove Albion, currently the league’s model club, have outstanding loans of around £337 million to their owner Tony Bloom.

At the other end, the putative sale of Manchester United with a gross debt of £680 million, drags on. One can only guess at what disadvantages potential new owners see at having to pay £5 billion just for the keys to a club that needs a further £2 billion in infrastructure investment. That is before one gets to the part of buying and selling players.

There must be a better way, and it is because the clubs have never been able to agree to it that they find themselves in this position. Why does the most lucrative league in football’s history require so much owner investment to keep it alive?

‘Like children, what clubs really need are some boundaries’

The weakness of the Premier League’s profit and sustainability regulations is that they are retrospective rather than immediate. One suspects there is no appetite to start rewriting history should a breach be found. No serious league wants the revisionism that exists elsewhere, with league titles changing hands in tribunals and pages of deductions and asterisks. The Premier League’s investigation into Manchester City’s finances, that few dare mention, drags on into a fifth year. One might forgive Chelsea for believing that they can find a reason for the Premier League not to investigate them either.

In the meantime, the current carries everyone else along: Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Everton have spent more than £500 million over seven years to be in a much more precarious position than when Farhad Moshiri took over. This can still be a league where exciting players are signed and ambition thrives, without so many clubs having to feel that they must edge along the precipice to stay there. The wealth is there. It feels like the clubs, unable to reach a consensus between them, want to be told. Like children, what they really need are some boundaries.

In the absence of any, the only current option seems to be risk. As for deciding the kind of people who own clubs, there is no prospect of the regulator making disqualifications on the basis of a dubious human rights record if the country in question is an approved trading partner of the British government. Even with a regulator there would have been no barrier to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund investment in Newcastle United. There are already robust rules about proof of funds for new owners – the question is what they do next.

No doubt Boehly and his consortium partner Behdad Eghbali have a plan for Chelsea, as so many have for their clubs in the past. Yet the higher the stakes grow, the more extreme these plans become, and the greater the jeopardy. They need saving from themselves. 

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