As is now customary for August, there was a manic flurry of ever more ridiculous transfers taking place this week, with yet another world record fee paid to take the Brazilian superstar Neymar from Barcelona to PSG (followed – of course – by the player demanding a loyalty bonus from the club he had just left). However, those looking for a name to upstage the new €222m man would surely have not been disappointed on Monday to hear the announcement that ex-Arsenal, Liverpool and Stoke City winger Jermaine Pennant had – at the age of 34 – signed a two-year deal with Isthmian League Premier side Billericay Town.
Whilst the transfer may have raised a few eyebrows, it shouldn’t – Pennant will be playing alongside ex-Premier League regulars Paul Konchesky, Jamie O’Hara and Kevin Foley in Essex this season, with the Non-League Daily claiming the wage bill at New Lodge is now allegedly exceeding £32,000 per week – an absolutely astronomical amount for a seventh tier club (colourful owner Glenn Tamplin claims his motivation for buying the club was “disillusionment” with the “business-like” nature of the Premier League). Yet whereas attempting to purchase success is a pastime typically reserved for the footballing elite, Tamplin’s spending is further proof that there is an increasing trend below the Football League to emulate this approach: instead of billionaires, read millionaires.
The New World Order
In a level of football where financial margins between clubs are often fine – resulting in a more balanced playing field – this downscaled path to glory is quickly tilting the equilibrium. Recent examples of clubs who have catapulted themselves into the football league via the aid of their financial clout – and subsequently thrived – are easy to find, with Fleetwood Town and Crawley Town the two most obvious “success” stories (although in Crawley’s case doubts over the source of their investment continues to plague them, with allegations of money laundering reinforcing existing question marks over the role played by previous boss Steve Evans – who has a conviction for tax fraud offences). With the Football Association’s notoriously relaxed attitude towards the behaviour of club owners, it seems anyone who wants to buy a football club can find one on the cheap below the fourth tier (Newport County’s return to the Football League was funded by a EuroMillions lottery winner), and as a result there are numerous clubs keen to follow in this path; a quick glance at this season’s league tables is proof that – for these clubs at least – progress is being made.
The wider ramifications of this are starting to become clear. Last year, the UK football monthly When Saturday Comes ran a piece on the Lancashire club AFC Fylde, who at the time were portrayed as a stress-free alternative for Blackpool fans looking for some escapism from the Oyston family’s disastrous ownership; whilst the Tangerines look to have turned the tide on their post-Premier League nightmare (on the field at least), next year it is a viable reality that the two clubs could be competing in the same division – with Fylde likely to hold the financial upper hand. This is an increasingly familiar story across the country, with fans disillusioned by matters higher up the pyramid often reverting to the more simplistic charms of their local non-league offering; yet can a club that achieves success because it has more money to spend than its rivals really be considered a refreshing change from the predictability offered by the footballing status quo? Indeed, the Darwinist nature of the National League and its two feeder divisions offers stark contrasts between these bold new would-be powers and the falls from grace of many former Football League stalwarts; as the likes of Crawley and Fleetwood spend freely (Crawley paid £275,000 for Richard Brodie whilst in the National League – still a record fee for that division), the likes of York City, Stockport County (who have both been relegated to the National League North recently) and Torquay United (who’s woes on and off the pitch read like a footballing soap opera) are almost a living, breathing warning about the perils of financial mismanagement within the game. This of course goes without even mentioning the plight of clubs like Hereford United and Scarborough Town, whose previous owners no doubt had the same ambitions – yet have now ceased to exist completely, and operate only as fan-run phoenix clubs.
Of course, detractors of this argument will point out that the lack of money in non-league football is often used as a media reference point to highlight the contrasting gluttony of the Premier League, and that therefore more resources lower down the pyramid is a positive thing. Better players will be attracted to clubs and as a result the playing standard will rise, cash will be filtered down to the grassroots level (which is of course what everyone wants) and there will be a fairer (albeit downscaled) distribution of funds across English football. However, without even alluding to the negative impact it has on the integrity of the competition, it is not a fair distribution of funds; it can also be damaging to the health of the clubs themselves, especially when a benefactor is using a club as at best, a sentimental investment, and, at worse, a vanity project. As the Premier League (and indeed the Champions League) continues to be a contest of resources, it is a “depressing state of affairs” (as the journalist Bryn Law described it on Twitter) to see non-league football become a microcosm of the big time.
Football’s Eden Project
All this is not to say that an owner spending money at a club is automatically a bad thing however; after all, fans everywhere are happy to berate their club’s owners for a perceived lack of investment (especially at this time of year). Indeed, if the downside to having a sugar daddy is the inevitable realisation for fans that the owner will one day get bored and disappear with their money, then the alternative approach of installing an infrastructure, building for the long term and having a sustainable and logical strategy should surely be lauded – literally in the case of Forest Green Rovers owner Dale Vince. Rovers – who were promoted to League Two last season for the first time in their history – are the latest former non-league side to benefit from disproportionate investment, yet are seemingly set apart from the other examples in this piece by where the money has actually gone; Vince has implemented a large number of significant eco-friendly developments at the club (including banning red meat, using solar powered grass mowers and the creation of the world’s first organic football pitch) as opposed to throwing “petty cash” (as Tamplin refers to it) at ex-Premier League stars, and has stated the club’s recruitment policy is actually based on the ‘Moneyball’ scouting system (designed to highlight players either undervalued or available at minimum cost). Whilst of course it is not all plain sailing (Vince has amassed debts of over £5m, despite claiming these are peak losses), the evidence suggests Rovers are simply a football club trying to do things differently off the field, with success on it a bonus to, and not the primary target of, the available resources – whether or not that is a bad thing is open to debate.
Essentially though, Forest Green seem to be the exception to the rule. Whilst Glenn Tamplin may argue otherwise, his Galacticos project at Billericay is a risky venture (despite claiming to have generated huge increases in match day attendances to support his spending), with numerous other clubs such as South Shields (who featured Julio Arca on their books last season) pursuing similarly speculative paths in their attempts to usurp the notoriously saturated sixth and fifth tiers of English football. That these clubs show such ambitions is of course not a negative thing – the opposite, in fact – but they should take heed of the explicit warnings posed by the clubs they are replacing. Fans meanwhile will be dismayed – if they are not already – that the supposed sanctity of non-league is not immune to football’s financial evolution, and that regardless of if the stakes are in millions or billions, Essex or Paris, Jermaine Pennant or Neymar – money will always seemingly talk.