Taking the PSR

Alex Whybrow raises an approving eyebrow at Villa’s recent dealings.

It’s easy to be cynical these days. With everything that’s happening with modern football, plus, you know, pretty much everything else in the world, cynicism is perhaps the only sensible state of mind. It feels like everyone only acts in self-interest, and no matter what the story, the only reaction is – how does this impact me and my interests?

So when we see football fans of different teams looking out for us, I think it’s really important to acknowledge and appreciate it.

The Financial Fair Play regulations were introduced in 2011 by UEFA, and in the Premier League in 2013, to prevent clubs from falling into financial difficulties. A way of saving clubs from themselves, in a way. Or at least, from owners that were acting not in the best interest of the club – risking putting them in danger of going bust. Football clubs are more than just sports teams – they are a major part of local communities all over the country. They are a source of employment for hundreds of local people. People devote their lives to supporting these institutions, and we have seen too many fall by the wayside because of owners that are just not up to the task of running a football club.

With that in mind, the response to some of our transfer dealings so far this summer, from fans of clubs not involved in the transactions, has been heart-warming. I just wasn’t expecting so many fans to care so much about the financial security of our club. Especially from fans of teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs – clubs who, in the past, could have been accused of acting purely in self-interest.

But they’ve all come together, with a level of scrutiny that really is beyond the call of duty, to ensure that the long-term financial security of Aston Villa is protected. It nearly brings a tear to the eye. This truly is The Beautiful Game.

I’m kidding, of course. Everyone is only looking out for themselves, and I include Villa in that. No club in the Premier League acts for ‘the good of the game’, unless it also happens to benefit themselves of course (that is the dream, because that self-interest comes with a delicious dose of moral high ground).

I’m not going to pretend that I am 100% comfortable with our recent transfer dealings, especially as it means dealing with a club like Chelsea. I completely understand why we are doing it, and part of me is proud of the club for it. We’ve tried to change the rules (got voted down), so now we are trying to work around the rules. We’re being clever – and no one likes a clever clogs.

Are the valuations for our players over-inflated? I really don’t think so. We wouldn’t be selling Kellyman unless we were in this position, so it would take a bid of around £20 million before we would consider it, I’d have thought. Otherwise we’d just keep him – he has an incredibly high ceiling and Unai clearly likes him. He’s very similar, in so many ways, to Carney Chukwuemeka – who we received a similar amount for and no-one batted an eyelid. We were struggling around mid-table then, which presumably impacted the level of scrutiny we were afforded? Of course, he’s no Rhian Brewster…

As for Tim, I’ve always liked him and would not be surprised if he became a regular for Everton by the end of the season. I think he will look quite cheap, but he needs to play more football. He didn’t get enough time on the pitch to prove himself last year – which I think has brought his value down. I really think we could have got more than £10 million for him if we’d have sold him last summer.

The disappointing aspect for me is that I love watching our academy, and I love seeing the players break through into the first team. All fans do, right? It’s one of the purest joys in football, seeing a young player who has come through the ranks to make their debut. (Of course, both of the players we have sold have only been at the club for a few years, so it’s not exactly the same).

It shouldn’t be the case that teams see these academy products as a way to improve the balance sheet, rather than the first team. It can’t be good for the players to get passed around like commodities (although I’m sure the signing on bonus softens the blow). How will it impact their career? Will Dobbin get enough game time with us? Will he go straight out on loan? Will some of his, or any of these other players’, potential go unfulfilled?

Who knows? It doesn’t feel right, but the way the rules are structured means that this is the most efficient way for us to get a squad together that can compete in the Champions League. We have over-achieved since Unai came in, but that will catch up with us unless we continue to invest. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve done everything how I would want us to – we haven’t just chucked a load of money at the squad (our average net-spend over the last five years is the tenth highest in the Premier League). We hired a manager that could get the best out of the squad (and then some). We’re building up revenue off the pitch (that could be another article in itself). We’re selling players at peak value (like Douglas, like Grealish). We are investing in youth football. We’re debt free.

We did make a huge mistake, of course, when we hired Gerrard. He was hopeless, and all of our financial challenges that we are currently going through can be directly traced back to that appointment. We reacted to it well though – he went before he could do any more damage, and we got rid of the bloke that hired him. Make a mistake, react, make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. That’s how I want my club to be run.

So in terms of regulations, I don’t think it would be better if teams could spend unlimited amounts. I do believe that something needs to be in place to protect clubs – you don’t want teams running up hundreds of millions, or even a billion pounds, worth of debt – surely that would be the sign of a club in crisis…?

Also, you don’t want clubs spending a fortune every transfer window, put every new player on a massive contract only to then decide that you need to sack your manager and start again every year. Again, that would set off alarm bells.

And if clubs did break any rules, you would want swift justice. You couldn’t have a club that has been found to break a ton of the rules to just carry on as normal. What kind of message would that send? If the owners can’t run the club within the rules, shouldn’t the authorities step in? The club needs to be protected from these people. Right?

I don’t know what rules would be fair. I really don’t. There needs to be a balance between protecting clubs from dodgy owners, but at the same time allow for clubs to invest and try to improve. I read earlier today that 28 of the last 30 trophies in this country have been won by five clubs. There cannot be anyone that truly believes that the way things are is good for the game. But I guess, no one really cares about ‘the game’. They care about their club. I don’t blame them, I’m the same.

But it does feel like there is a shift happening in football at the moment. Clubs like us, Everton and Newcastle seem to be realising that there’s an opportunity to close the gap, so it’s naturally a concern for the clubs that have had it so good for the last decade or so. And that’s why our transfers are being looked at with more suspicion.

Most importantly, though, isn’t it just shit being a football fan and having to worry about all this? I’m not an accountant, but if something impacts my club, I’m engaged in it. I don’t want to know what amortisation means. I don’t want to care how many hospitality packages we’ve sold for Bournemouth at home. I don’t want to look at the squad photo for the new season and try to work out which of those players are saleable assets. When a youth player makes his debut, I don’t want my first thought to be “Oooh, we could get £8 million for him in the summer”.

It’s all dogshit. And don’t get me started on the ‘coefficient’ that used up far too much of my brain power last season.

It’s all here to stay, though, at least for the foreseeable. But might I suggest that if journalists and fans of other clubs are genuinely concerned about the financial health of football, they may need to put their scrutiny elsewhere. Us selling Tim Iroegbunam for £10 million is not destroying the game, but it may be a symptom of something that we’ve all known for a very long time – football is broken. We’re just trying to find ways to make the shattered remains work for us – just like every other club. Given the reaction from other fans, maybe this time we’re onto something.