Playing the long game

Playing the long game

One of the UK’s most experienced corporate advisers to football clubs, Iain Young, talks financial tactics with BQ on the future of the beautiful game.

When Glasgow Rangers pressed the administration button last month, message boards and radio talk show glowed with heated opinion on what’s to be done with the beautiful, but financially volatile, game.

Pundits trotted out familiar lines about history and tradition while others called for wage caps, cheaper tickets and lower transfer fees. Amid the throng of an ongoing debate which throws together sporting, business and consumer voices, though, there are the few that have a true picture of the financial forces at the heart of the game.

They are the dealmakers, lawmen and investors that have seen at close hand the circus of suits which operates in the shadows, unseen by the paying public and TV cameras.

Among them is Iain Young, consultant at Edinburgh-headquartered national law firm Morton Fraser. He acted for Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov in his takeover of Scottish Premier League club Hearts in 2005 – a transaction that preceded a period of upheaval at the club in terms of pitch-side and boardroom personnel changes.

Before his time at Morton Fraser, Young also acted on the floatation of Nottingham Forrest and the restructure of Watford FC, while he currently serves as a commercial adviser to well heeled London outfit, Queens Park Rangers.

“I’m not wearing my insolvency hat in that one,” he says of the latter role with one of England’s richest football businesses.

Given that he works at both the ‘have’ and the ‘have not’ end of the football spectrum, few have as clear a picture of the state of the game’s finances as Young.

It’s refreshing to hear, then, that he believes there are reasons to be cheerful in Scotland despite the current crisis facing one of Europe’s most famous clubs.

“The positives are that attendances have held up well and there are beginning to be signs of clubs outside the old firm making a bit of an impact in the league. I think the quality of player that is coming into Scottish football is improving gradually and the other positive is that over recent years whilst we haven’t qualified for a major world soccer tournament the quality of the Scotland national team has improved incrementally,” he says.

“That’s reflected in the sense of the number of Scottish international players playing their football in the top tier of England.

“I don’t think we should under serve ourselves. We’re no worse off than our northern European counterparts. I would imagine that teams in the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Belgian leagues are financially not much better off than they are in Scotland. Even countries with a football pedigree as successful as Holland, have seen some of their teams go into administration, like Feyenoord, who are former masters of the European game. In Italy teams like Fiorentina have also been through the insolvency process. So no country is immune to it.”

Young believes, in securing a financial future for Scottish football, the sport’s governing bodies must play their part in creating an environment which allows Scotland’s band of Premier League clubs to become more competitive. A more even spread of wealth is also imperative, he says.

“Whether the reduction of one of the two old firm teams is a good thing or a bad thing is open for debate. I wouldn’t like to prejudge the issue. Certainly the recent events at Rangers mean one of the two old firm teams will have to cut its cloth accordingly. There is also the spectre that if Rangers don’t qualify for Europe or they are not permitted to play in Europe, the income they receive will obviously be adverse to them.

“On the other side of that coin, does the fact that Celtic will be dominant over Rangers mean that TV companies will be less interested in paying the sums of money they currently pay for the Scottish football product?

“I think anything that encourages football clubs to look at their financial management and how they operate has got to be a good thing though.”

As Young says, it’s no secret that Scottish football has struggled to attract sponsors in recent years, with cup and shirt backers proving hard to come by.

“I think the reason is two-fold. Firstly there’s the fact that there’s only likely to be two clubs in the current scenario that have a realistic chance of winning the league. Secondly, [Scottish] teams don’t perform well in European competition compared to their southern neighbours.

“If you look at the reason why English football clubs have been successful, it’s because high net worth individuals are prepared to come in and invest large sums of money and the wages are probably the highest in the world if not Europe. Is it likely that Scottish clubs will attract similar large scale investors? The answer is probably not.

“In the absence of someone wanting to come along and use one of the Scottish clubs as an investment vehicle to do well in European competition I think the Scottish football market would struggle to attract sponsors of the pedigree that are required to allow it to grow exponentially.”

Of course, there was a time not so long ago when it was the English football world that gazed on in envy at its more attractive, lucrative Scottish counterpart.

“When English clubs were banned from Europe, Rangers and Celtic could attract the top British players to play for them using European football as a carrot. That no longer exists and I think it’s going to be very difficult for Scottish clubs to break out of the current malaise which isn’t a particularly upbeat message but a fairly realistic one.”

Young agrees that Anglo-Scottish contests may be a route worth treading, both commercially and, from a fan’s perspective, to breathe new life into flagging competitions.

“The question is persuading the larger more affluent English clubs to fit that into what is already a very busy time for them. If you look at a club like Stoke City, last season with involvement in Europe and the FA Cup, they played in excess of 60 games. So clubs like that would struggle to fit another cup into their time tabling.

“Perhaps the attraction lies in cross border cup competition for teams that haven’t qualified for Europe. So you would take out the first three or four in Scotland and the remaining clubs would compete in a tournament against the top English clubs that don’t qualify for Europe.”

Rangers were not the first and are unlikely to be the last big British football name to fall into administration. But in the dark months ahead for what is currently a financially failing sport, the expertise of figures like Young could prove the spark that could, as the pundit would say, turn the game around.