Neil Atkinson looks at the situation at Barcelona, what it means for football, and the bigger picture around governance, competition and equality in the game…


GOOD afternoon.

It’s long this, so settle in.

The news that Barcelona may well have to reduce their wage bill by 200m a year before they are allowed to register new players is startling.

There is something reminiscent of classical mythology around this, that they were lucky enough to fly so close to the sun, that they had the greatest player ever and it transpires that the toll for having the greatest player ever is having had the greatest player ever. At some point if you want to fly so close to the sun, then your wings will melt.

Because make no mistake about it, while there are many reasons Barcelona have ended up in such a mess, Leo Messi’s wages haven’t helped. The idea here isn’t whether or not Leo Messi is worth his wages. It is, instead, the cost of building a side around Leo Messi which is worthy of him and which is able to benchmark him.

Conservative estimates place Messi’s salary to date – prior to any extension – at around the 600k a week mark without including signing on fees, bonuses or image rights. That means that footballers who start every week for Barcelona can ask for a third of Messi’s wage (which is perfectly reasonable given football is a team game) and find themselves earning around as much as Liverpool’s current highest earner on basic pay.

Barcelona have ended up here for a variety of reasons. It includes fear; fear that Messi goes elsewhere, to one of the clubs bankrolled by a state and the attendant loss of status, on the one hand, and loss of proximity to the sun, on the other. Football makes rational people lose their minds.

Their wages to turnover is out of control reportedly, in excess of 100 per cent. That now they cannot register new players doesn’t suggest a system that is working as it should – it shouldn’t be allowed to come to this in the first place – but a system that is working to a degree.

Which brings us onto the oft-hinted at discussion of football reform within this email.

In this email here, sent on June 23, we began to lay out some strands around how football could rethink itself. There are many ways this could happen. What underpins what will be argued here across the next few weeks is primarily looking forward, being inclusive, improving the professional game at all levels.

To do this we need to make clear what our guiding principles will be.

The first is that we need to eradicate English men’s football’s cliff edges. This is best summed up by the reality of the Championship. The steps either side have become far too great and what it leads to is clubs spending way beyond their means.

This piece by Daniel Storey mentions two things. The first, which matters most, is the reality that Championship clubs on average spend 107 per cent of their turnover on wages based on 2018-19 – the last normal year.

This is unsustainable. Further to this, Storey’s piece is one of the few you will read in the wider press which acknowledges the sheer philosophical unsustainability of the most financially significant game in the whole of world football being contested by the sides ranked between 23rd and 26th in England. A good marker for The Crouch Report will be if this fact finds itself openly discussed anywhere.

The Championship is the mess that it is primarily because of the Premier League. This is due to the pot of gold at the end of that particular rainbow on the one hand and because of parachute payments on the other. The pot of gold makes people act irrationally and irresponsibly and we need to have frameworks that deal with that.

But parachute payments really, truly don’t help. Parachute payments are the Premier League’s way of protecting its clubs from the realities of the Championship. They are decided on by the Premier League.

Twenty-four Championship clubs got £72 million from EFL distributions and £74 million from PL “solidarity”. Total £146 million. The total parachute payments to relegated clubs was £258 million. Let’s put it another way – parachute payments amount to ONE-THIRD of total turnover of all 24 Championship clubs.

This season Norwich City and Watford came straight back up. Bournemouth made the playoffs and it took an excellent Brentford side who have been plugging away at this to stop them.

The Premier League would have had to make further payments to Norwich and Watford had they not been promoted. They have decided not to share that allotted cash with the EFL and instead pocketed it.

That money could have massively helped EFL sides. That money would easily mean that women’s teams could get the same prize money as men’s in the FA Cup (more than twice over, I suspect – we’ll get back to how little doing that could cost). That money could have gone to a programme which supports young people being thrown out of the game.

That money was instead trousered by the Premier League and will, I suspect, help pay back the TV money rebate. Do note, you’ll have seen no howls of outrage from those journalists desperate to slaughter the clubs who were eager to join a European Super League.

The cliff edge is also a problem at the other side of the Championship too. This Athletic piece from 2019 describes a trend which has continued that the gulf is too wide between League One and the Championship.

League One clubs get less than 1m a year from league television money vs the approximate 8m the Championship sides get. This means it is a very, very difficult league to survive in, to plan for and to gear up to be part of. The Championship is a great competition with some marvellous clubs. But it is a massive problem.

The second principle we will work from is around strengthening governance, financial regulation and sense of club purpose through all 92 teams and competitions.

Structures can strengthen the game and support its growth, keep it close to communities but open those communities to the world. Clubs should be able to consider the type of team they would like to be and then work with regulation and governance to help be that club.

All clubs should be able to dream and we’ll get to that, but on the other hand all clubs have a specific community based role to play.

One of the things this throws up is the question of the Football Association. Ultimately it is meant to have been the body that regulates the game in this country. Fundamentally, evidently, it has failed. We wouldn’t be having all these conversations if it hadn’t.

Indeed, it has arguably been failing since the 1920s if not before and is, in many ways, a litany of failure. 

What the FA has morphed itself into has a role to play, but it is very difficult indeed to not conclude it has abdicated its main, defining role. Regulating the professional game in England (and, in a sense, Wales).

This doesn’t make it unique in terms of associations. UEFA and FIFA are a mess. My timeline is often filled with raging at the skies at the FAI. The SFA have had a recent nightmare. These were organisations often set up over a century ago. Time plays tricks.

A thing to remember through this discussion is that next year it is 30 years since the creation of the Premier League and Champions League. To contextualise that in football terms, 30 years before the creation of the Premier League and the Champions League Bill Shankly still hadn’t won a first division title.

The purpose of reforming football has to be to make it fit for the way the world is now, not how it was then. Acknowledging that certain structures changed over time and that the challenges have changed doesn’t have to mean that they cannot be refitted in some way, but they may well no longer be able to be refitted for their original purpose.

It is fair to say there would still need to be a body which fulfils many of the functions the FA has taken on for itself. But it now needs to be regulated on whether or not it is achieving its aims. And that is OK. Things change and can be made better.

The third principle we will need to work from is that the game has grown increasingly diverse, that that is a good thing and needs to be continually encouraged. We need to welcome the idea that supporters are disparate – locally, nationally and globally.

This geographic diversity does matter in that we want our leagues to be the very best in the world and we want our clubs to be open to the wider world. We want the best football we can get and we want to invite the world to it. 

Fans who can attend games are often in privileged positions in supporter communities and no supporter has a divine right to be at every match. There is an importance to “legacy fans” but the game exists for everyone. Legacy cannot simply equal (ageing) white men.

What makes up a supporter community has changed for a number of clubs in a number of distinct ways. There is no one size fits all to this. There has to be not just an acknowledgement across the board but a desire to be inclusive from the top of all the tops down in the game. That means supporter organisations and fan media as much as it means governing bodies.

There are times when I see some talk around the game and it feels that people whose instincts are to be as diverse as possible in lots of areas find themselves dipping into traditionalism and nostalgia where football is concerned, creating great blocks and acting as though that is the way it not only is but should be.

In short there are times where it feels like Andy Burnham thinks all football supporters are either season ticket holders or tourists. Andy is both sound and just an example (and don’t get me wrong, there are lots of these people who are mostly sound as well).

There is an enormous spectrum between someone who has just fallen in love with football for the first time and someone who has been going for 20 years and *both of these positions are equally valid for consideration and so too are all the spaces in between*.

As an example the very nature of season tickets creates an issue. Think about what a season ticket is – a guarantee you can go to all 19 (if in the Premier League) home games for a large sum of money upfront.

That means if you are a parent the expectation is the other parent will carry out the childcare responsibilities unless there are enough season tickets for all. It means you can still make the game when they move the game at relatively short notice. It means, at long-standing clubs like Liverpool, you either are someone who has bought a season ticket at the right time or know someone who has.

When Liverpool win something and have a parade there is huge diversity on the streets; more so than in the ground but there is the spectrum between someone who has just fallen in love and someone who has been going for 20 years every week.

Someone needs to think about these people when we think about the future of football. The worry is that nobody ever will because it is very rare there is mention made.

Football isn’t a test. There isn’t an exam at the end. I wish I liked England more. The reason why is because I would love sitting down and watching a match with people who don’t watch football who get to love it for the first time, who get to understand that the boring bits are sound because the exciting bits are amazing.

There is nothing better than sharing the game. It is always someone’s first time at Anfield. It is always someone’s turn to fall in love.

One of the things striking about the current movements and crisis in football (and I have listened to many a panel now) is how rarely women’s football gets anything more than a cursory mention. “Yes, yes,” they say. “We need to do something about the women’s game.”

The context matters and rarely gets an airing because it is so deeply miserable. The women’s game was effectively made illegal in this country in 1921. That lasted 50 years. What restarted in 1971 didn’t take the women’s game back to 1921 but to 1861. Only now does its timeline approach 1921. Bear that in mind. Don’t be a prick. I’m sick of it.

But women’s football doesn’t therefore have to copy men’s structures, or if it does it should do so for the best reasons: to best carry out and popularise the game.

I’ll be honest – we will demonstrate at times, across the emails to come, some of the same quasi-ignorance as those panels I mention and I apologise for that staggering hypocrisy in advance. The primary reason for that is that these emails will become about how the money has to move as much as anything else.

But the truth is that a substantial sum of money has to move towards the women’s game with the aim of stimulating growth and the promise of more to come. What men did to the women’s game for those 50 years has a price to be paid and right now is the time to start paying it.

And that is also why – my hypocrisy, that price, those actions – it needs to remain as independent from the men’s game as possible.

Our fourth and final guiding principle is arguably the most important, the one which is never ever discussed on the panels either, the one which brings together the three above. It is this…

This is meant to be fun.

Football is a leisure activity. It could be the best one in all the ways. The best one to play, to support, to build community and identity around, to watch on television, to talk about, to dream about.

It’s the one that unites the globe, the one that gets people to fall in love with the city I am from and adore, the one that makes me cry, the one which best combines individual brilliance with collective endeavour. It is the one that should be for everyone.

It is the one which can always get better.

We miss that. Or rather they do. The nostalgics, the people committed to our yesterdays rather than our tomorrows. Those whose idea of changing football simply prohibits change they don’t like rather than imagining a better way to come.

When we discuss structures and governance and regulation and diversity the primary reason for doing so should be to make it actively as good as possible, not just cordon off to try to make it less bad.

Having been part of setting up Spirit Of Shankly back in 2007-8, one of the things I always say is that that sort of thing isn’t fun. That isn’t the fun bit. You can meet interesting people and learn something about yourself and others but protesting against ownerships is no barrel of laughs.

Proper governance and regulation would mean that you wouldn’t have to slog through the streets. It would mean being able to focus on the leisure activity.

The growth of the global English football brand and ongoing continental success ought to have been linked to pyramid support financially, culturally and aspirationally. It ought to have turbocharged the women’s game. It still could.

We should want the best leagues we can have and the best players playing here and we should want those leagues and structures to get us the best and most exciting possible games with the most we can riding on them and we should want to protect those players. We should want the world to watch and we should want people in this country to be able to watch too.

We should want the way we set the competitions up to ensure that every season every league team should always be able to plausibly dream of European football next season. Continental football is a social good. It gets people out of the house.

We should ensure that getting beat, getting relegated doesn’t mean that clubs are destroyed but we should do so in such a way as not to give them an unfair advantage the following season.

We can do all that relatively easily as long as we opt for it. We can choose fun.

That went on. Started with Barcelona, ended here. To reiterate then for what comes next. Four principles:

1. Tough on cliff edges, tough on the causes of cliff edges.

2. Governance, regulation and purpose for the 21st century, not the 19th.

3. Actually Football For All. By all we mean the whole world. Because we will go big or we will go home and for the purposes of this we have no home.

4. This is meant to be a laugh for everyone as much as is possible. Let’s make it so.

All the best. We get cracking next time out.


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