It’s the time of year when photos of footballers lying on sun-kissed Balearic beaches are ten a penny. But away from the holiday snaps dominating Instagram, there’s an altogether different picture of life as a professional footballer. It’s a reality that Peter Varney is familiar with.
The former Charlton chief executive, who oversaw eight seasons of Premier League football between 1997 and 2008, returned to The Valley for the 2011-12 season and helped the club win promotion from League One. Having also served as Executive Vice Chairman at Ebbsfleet Utd, Varney understands the less heralded side of lower league football.
“I went to a Macclesfield game last year and sat in the bar afterwards. Of the six players that were in there, two of them were in tears. They hadn’t been paid, one player’s car had been repossessed and another had been told that he’d defaulted on his mortgage. That’s the bit that people don’t see,” says Varney.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Ken Loach film. Unfortunately, it’s also increasingly symptomatic of the financial uncertainty facing the lower tiers of English football.
With games set to be held behind closed doors for some time, teams in League One and League Two remain unable to generate match-day revenue, their main source of income.
In a bid to reduce the pressure on club coffers, the EFL has introduced a salary cap that will limit spending on squad wages (including taxes, bonuses, image rights and agent fees) to a maximum of £2.5m per season for League One clubs and £1.5m per season for League Two clubs.
For Varney, the measure represents something of a double-edged sword.
“The salary cap was needed because, in a way, the clubs needed protecting from themselves. You’ve seen the massive overspending: most of the EFL clubs are in financial trouble. So, there’s been a need for a protection mechanism,” he says.
“Having said that, if you take League One, for example, Sunderland’s average attendance last year was 30,000 and Fleetwood’s was 3,000, but they are now operating on the same budget. Essentially, this is a charter against the biggest clubs in the lower leagues. They have the ability to spend more because they have higher attendances and generate more in sponsorship, but now Sunderland and Fleetwood, to use my example, are on an equal footing.”
The salary cap also has the potential to affect clubs which are promoted from League One, an experience Varney knows well from his time at Charlton. He has concerns for teams looking to emulate that 2011-12 campaign.
“They’re going to land in the Championship, playing against a team which might have a £25m-£30m budget, whilst they’re operating on a £2.5m budget. You can have exceptions to the rule, but money talks at the end of the day and that will make it really difficult for a club that’s coming up from League One into the Championship.
“I think the gap between the Premier League and the Championship is already quite big and I think that the gap between League One and the Championship is going to be similar.”
Supporters of the salary cap have argued that the measure should force clubs to focus on developing younger players, as wages paid to squad members under the age of 21 do not count towards either the £2.5m limit in League One or £1.5m limit in League Two.
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Varney, though, is cautious about placing too much of an onus on those at the beginning of their careers, suggesting that an adapted form of the five-strong substitute bench might offer a way of gradually introducing younger players to first team football.
“Kids can play a part, but in the rough and tumble of League One, for example, where it’s very physical, it’s really hard for a kid who’s 17 or 18 years old and still growing. There’s also the mental side of playing 46 games in a season. It’s really hard for kids to come in and bring success.
“I think they missed a trick with the five substitutes rule. I would have retained it but said that fourth and fifth substitutes have to be under 21 years old.
“They’ve spent a lot of money, from the Premier League down, on the Elite Performance Plan, and it seems a nonsense to me that you can’t put two kids on the bench and if you’re winning 4-0 or 5-0, start to blood them.”
The economic pressure facing clubs at all levels of the game places even greater focus on following a sensible transfer policy, something Varney highlights as key to the recruitment which helped Charlton to promotion in 2011/12.
“We were given £4.2m as a budget and quite a few other clubs, at that time, such as Huddersfield and the two Sheffield clubs, had budgets of around £6m.
“We put a figure against each position and if the manager (Chris Powell) went over that figure or I went over that figure, then that money had to be deducted from the budget allocated to another position.
“That was absolutely fundamental to signing eight players on the first day of the transfer window, because everything had been planned out.”
The summer of 2011 saw 23 players arriving at The Valley, with 18 heading in the opposite direction. Whilst forward planning was pivotal in coordinating the turnover, Varney recalls some slightly more unorthodox tactics playing a role in the signing of striker Yann Kermorgant.
“We’d been after Yann for virtually the whole of the window, but the problem was that he was on double the amount of money we’d put aside for his position.
“I remember just saying, ‘I think we’ve got a reasonable chance of getting promoted with this squad and you’re the last part of the jigsaw puzzle. What about if you take the figure that we’re offering you and if we get promoted, we’ll build in what you would have got had we been able to afford it?’ and he just put his hand out and basically went, ‘yeah, you’ve got a deal’.”Embed from Getty Images
Varney, who is now Executive Chairman of Integral Sports Management, believes a similarly common-sense approach to scrutinising prospective club owners might help prevent some of the problems which have dogged the EFL’s ‘Owners’ and Directors’ Test’.
“In the construction industry, on the bigger contracts, you have a performance bond, which guarantees the performance of the contract. I think football needs to do something similar.
“When you apply to be the owner of a club, if you don’t produce a bond – which would involve being independently verified for your wealth and your ability to fund the club – you don’t pass go.
“It stops this nonsense of someone taking control of a club, in Charlton’s case for a pound, and then the ownership issues playing out over a number of months. Stop it at source.”
Varney believes that without action to address governance issues, football runs the risk of becoming a victim of Parliamentary intervention.
“There are already a number of MPs expressing concern about what’s going on.
“Lots of clubs in the lower leagues are located in town centres and could be open to predators who just want the ground and the real estate. I know a couple of MPs who are becoming very active and the government’s manifesto states that football governance is on their radar.
“So either football sorts this out or it faces the prospect that this all gets sorted out by government. And that’s never a good thing.”