‘The thing with football clubs,’ says Steve Parish, ‘is that they’re very resilient. If you go back 150 years you won’t find 100 tie companies that are still in business. But almost all of the football clubs, one way or another, still are.’
Not that Parish is wearing a tie, or socks. He is a very modern football club chairman, bouncing through one of Jason Atherton’s Mayfair restaurants on his way to the next meeting. Crystal Palace are among the resilient clubs that made it, out of two administration episodes and now seven seasons in the Premier League.
And this being the week that Bury went to the wall and Bolton stopped fractionally short of it, Parish’s thoughts on saving those beyond the elite are pertinent.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish offered his guidance on how to run a football club
Palace, under his stewardship, are now the tenth longest serving club in the top division. Yet that does not mean he is unaware of how it feels to peer over the precipice at oblivion. When he took over in 2010 Palace did not own its stadium, had no training facility and, at one stage, just six contracted players.
The club faced a battle to remain in football’s second tier that was only won on the final day of the season, while still in administration. ‘We had to pump millions in to keep going,’ Parish recalls.
‘We were that close to being Bury. The country was deep in recession, there were no buyers and we were lucky to be allowed to remain in administration from January to June.’
The company that had bought Selhurst Park had collapsed. So had the bank that called in the company’s debt. Parish was now negotiating with a second bank, offering to buy what was valued as a £12m asset for £3.5m. ‘They thought I was a property developer,’ he says. ‘They thought I was going to buy it cheap and make fools of them.’
The deal was off. Then hundreds of Palace fans turned up outside the bank headquarters. ‘I got a very surprised call asking me who are all these people?’ Parish explains. Suddenly the deal was back on.
He remains convinced that controlling property is one of the key factors in saving and protecting football clubs and would also rid the game of some unscrupulously opportunistic individuals.
His word come in the week that Bury were expelled from the football league
Hundreds of Palace fans turned up outside the bank to protest and the deal was back on
‘Bury is a sorry tale,’ he says. ‘In a bigger context, though, the problem is how do you protect clubs? Everybody is talking about the owners and directors test – but if the club’s only worth £1 to the buyer, we’re a bit beyond owners and directors, don’t you think?
‘And good people get in trouble with businesses, too, so I don’t think you necessarily solve it by just making sure good people are in charge. What is a good owner anyway? There is one in the Premier League who isn’t even allowed in this country. But he’s been a fantastic owner for his football club.
‘I used to get a lot of calls about little clubs and investment opportunities and it was usually all about property. As land gets increasingly scarce, the property is the draw because football grounds are big spaces.
‘When we needed to do something at Crystal Palace we met a lot of people who were interested in us, but only from the property side. I’d say to them: ‘What do you mean – around the edges?’
‘But you knew what they really wanted. The big problem for a club like, say, Coventry, has been losing the freehold of their stadium. If the government passed covenants around football grounds saying football always had to be played there, it would make it a lot harder for this to happen. I’m sure Bury will come back – because they still have Gigg Lane. While there’s a stadium and you can call a team Bury, it still exists. And someone will start it again.’
Bury lived beyond their means, that is the bottom line, and Parish knows the pressure to be a crowd pleaser and gambler. ‘All of things fans stand outside the ground and say when it’s gone wrong, are the complete opposite of what they want from the guy when he’s got it,’ he says.
Parish understands the temptation to listen to fans who want the club to spend big
‘It all starts with over-spending, that’s the ground zero, and I understand how people get caught up whether it’s a win, or survival, or just what the fans want you to do – because there’s not a supporter out there who doesn’t want an owner to spend frivolously.
‘And you can become massively encouraged by that, or you can listen to the mob on Twitter who want to have a go at everyone about everything, but it’s important to spend time with the other fans, the real fans, who are much more sophisticated.
‘They still want you to do a lot of very different things at once – to plan, to invest, to make good decisions on the hoof, to grow, to stay in the league comfortably, but at Palace they have stared down the barrel of the club being extinct. Maybe not the 15-year-old ones, but that’s why they’re not as in tune sometimes. In the Premier League we do become flotsam and jetsam to the latest opinions doing the rounds.
‘Yet you look at Bury and what would have helped? Bigger solidarity payments from the Premier League, would that have saved them? Wouldn’t they just have spent more? If we provide an internal safety net, say ‘spend what you like because the Premier League will bail you out’, where is that going to end?
‘We don’t govern these leagues, so there would have to be a package of measures to ensure they are more prudent if the Premier League offered greater financial support. But I’ve been in those EFL meetings and it’s a very difficult situation to manage. Some clubs want salary caps, others want no constraints because they’ve got investment.
‘There are a lot of new owners, a lot of old owners and a lot of risk because football clubs are cash hungry, even if they’re making a profit. Everyone turns up a little fraught, a little pissed off and it’s difficult to get consensus. And it’s 72 clubs, not 20 like the Premier League. Everyone is talking at once. And all the new owners think they have the gift of alchemy and the rest of them are doing it wrong.
‘I was like that, first time. Everyone is a successful person, the smartest in their field many of them. They all know how to do a deal, get a deal, sell high, buy low. Yet naively they think the people before them didn’t know how to negotiate with television or sponsors. I feel for the league over Bury because they’re getting blamed for something they couldn’t prevent unless everyone wants to vote for changes. It’s easy to take a populist view.’
Pep Guardiola changed his mind about shutting the transfer window early, unlike Parish
That is something Parish cannot be accused of in football. He is often the stick in the mud at Premier League meetings, the chairman who goes against the majority vote.
Along with Newcastle, Palace were one of only two clubs to oppose the big six taking a larger share of overseas rights, while Parish also voted against shutting the transfer window early – from the start, in 2017, with four other clubs, and not wise after the event like Pep Guardiola, who initially backed it but has now changed his mind.
‘Madness. And still madness,’ he says. ‘It’ll get changed back this time, surely? Surely? I was astounded it didn’t change last year, really. And I’m pretty sure that some of the managers now saying it should go, were the ones saying to bring it forward two years ago. I saw the logic, yes, because we were playing matches against teams that might be trying to sign one of our players, and that skews the competition.
‘Then you had clubs being destabilised, so they just wanted it over. And we took the vote in September when it was all very raw. But I think they thought Europe would follow suit and instead they gamed us, so it was nonsense.
‘With the overseas money, I’m not disappointed where we ended up. I don’t think the big clubs were ever going anywhere. They didn’t make any moves. But I understand the point. When this started and the financial division was decided upon, the overseas rights were three shillings and sixpence. So I get that. Nobody in the 14 outside the six thinks we don’t need those guys. They drive a massive amount of the league’s popularity.
Parish thinks there needs to be a fight about the way FIFA and UEFA set the agenda and profit
‘My point was: no more. I don’t want an inch to take a mile. We’ve got to be able to get in there. There has to be a connection. Bournemouth have to be able to play in the Champions League if they merit it, as Leicester did. The fact Palace can go to Old Trafford and give Manchester United a game is still very, very important.
‘Look, the Champions League money has doubled in recent years and everyone was a bit asleep at the wheel on that. But if we further distribute the money differently it won’t help anyone. Nobody wants to watch the Premier League equivalent of Barcelona 7 Levante 1. Europe are trying to pull the drawbridge up and stop it being a meritocracy, so I’m pleased there are clubs in England who are not in line with that.
‘Manchester United don’t think they should be in the Champions League just because they are Manchester United. The years they don’t qualify they’ll tell you they don’t deserve to be there. They don’t want to cheat. They’ve got good owners who know what happens when you go against football’s culture. They know the risks of that. OK, so Manchester United are not in the Champions League this season, but we know they are in rude health, really. And eventually, they’ll get it right.
‘But you should never underestimate the propensity for people to spoil a good thing. So my problem with UEFA and FIFA now is everything they do is just a money-making venture. The governing body of the game make the rules and set the calendar and also compete with you for tournament income.
‘The plan for the Champions League was to ship £2 billion from the domestic leagues; and because they control the calendar they can do that. So the governing body set the agenda and also run the tournaments for profit? This is a church and state issue. They are transferring money from other businesses and setting the rules that allow them to do it.
The 54-year-old saw how the introduction of VAR could help the underdogs against top sides
‘You can’t balance these things. There needs to be a fight because this will threaten the existence of smaller clubs, and it will keep happening until the tournaments are separate from the governing bodies. They should be about the good of the game, and this isn’t for the good of everyone. And the only benefit we’ve got is that they’re always fighting each other because UEFA don’t want FIFA’s World Club Championship because it would banjax the Champions League, and so on.’
One vote Parish did win was for the introduction of VAR. He sat in the directors’ box at Old Trafford highly delighted that his prediction for the new technology came true.
He thought all along it would advantage the smaller clubs and as last Saturday Palace achieved their first league victory at Manchester United since December 9, 1989, it seems he was correct. United were furious that VAR calls went against them; Parish quietly smug about his hunch.
‘Look, I don’t love it, and it won’t stop controversy, but I think if VAR favours anyone it is the underdog,’ he explains. ‘Think of the biggest calls so far. Manchester United at Paris St Germain. You couldn’t see them scoring. Without VAR they’re not winning that game. Then the two matches Tottenham have had against Manchester City. One of them is a history-changing game because they get to a Champions League final eventually after that. And no-one even saw the infringement.
Palace were on the favourable end of a number of VAR reviews at Old Trafford last weekend
‘I’ve been to Old Trafford many times, I know what the crowd can do up there, the pressure they place on referees. An underdog won’t ever be winning by many and for the last 20 minutes will probably be hanging on.
‘Before, the referee is unlikely to overturn a winning goal, or an equaliser, for United because the crowd are going mad. But, suddenly, I’m sitting there as the chairman of Crystal Palace and there’s a chance a man away from the stadium, away from any influence, might come in for me.’
Not that Parish and Palace are still in need of help or handouts. They just remember the days of being nearer to Bury than Manchester’s giants. With football being such an attritional business that is really no bad thing.