Wigan Athletic’s collapse into administration a fortnight ago has invited serious questions about the governance and financial landscape of English football. Many of those questions have inevitably been levelled at the EFL and specifically their version of the fit-and-proper persons test.
As with the demise of Bury last year, the financial difficulties at Bolton Wanderers and with every other crisis club since the test’s introduction in 2004, there have been calls for the EFL to simply strengthen its parameters.
It is not that simple, however. The power to change the test lies not with the league but with the clubs.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Any change to the EFL fit-and-proper persons test – or the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, to use its proper title – must be voted on. Regulatory amendments have to earn the support of a majority of EFL clubs and a majority of Championship clubs, who carry more weight than those in Leagues One and Two.
You would imagine, considering the level of criticism which the test attracts and the clamour for a more sustainable football landscape, that tougher measures would be a popular idea. You’d be wrong.
Last week, The Independent contacted 70 EFL clubs – all minus Wigan and the defunct Bury – to assess whether there is an appetite for a stricter Owners’ and Directors’ Test in light of recent events at the DW Stadium and at Gigg Lane last year.
Only five responded – two from the Championship, one from League One and two from League Two. Only one of those five explicitly expressed their support in principle for reasonable regulatory changes which would prevent clubs from entering financial difficulties.
It should be noted that many clubs in the EFL’s two lowest tiers are effectively on an indefinite hiatus, with no date set in stone for the start of the 2020-21 season and many staff furloughed. Championship clubs are playing and operating largely as normal, though.
Why the reluctance, then? The simple answer is that a stricter Owners’ and Directors’ Test would make the process of selling a football club harder.
It is something which has undermined the test since its introduction, long before the pandemic. Now, at a time like this, amid warnings that clubs as high as the Championship could cease to exist before the start of next season, why would you obstruct your only escape route?
In its current form, the Owners’ and Directors’ Test requires prospective owners to provide proof of funding and to clear a list of ‘disqualifying events’. The general rule remains that if you are allowed to own a British company, you are most likely allowed to run an English football club.
In Wigan’s case, EFL chairman Rick Parry has said both the International Entertainment Corporation and Next Leader Fund takeovers passed the test with no reason to suspect what may follow. It is not thought that either takeover would have been blocked by a stricter test which could realistically be approved by a majority of clubs either.
There are legitimate questions about what a stricter test would actually look like: not only what criteria the clubs might agree on, but what would be legally enforceable.
Richard Scudamore, the former Premier League chief executive, told the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2008 that football’s authorities cannot simply apply a “we-don’t-like-the cut-of-your-jib” rule. But Scudamore was immediately reminded by one former Labour MP of his earlier remark that “sport is different”.
And for all the questions about pre-emptive ‘fit-and-proper’ tests, it may be time to discuss what happens when clubs have already fallen into crisis.
As a source at one Championship club told The Independent: “It’s all well and good tightening up the Owners’ and Directors’ Test but if the current ownership group runs into difficulties and either can’t or won’t fund a club, what do you do? Who takes over the funding whilst a new ‘suitable’ owner is found?”
At Wigan, that responsibility has predictably fallen upon the fans. The supporters club’s ‘Let’s Hang On’ campaign has raised £163,000 of a £250,000 target at the time of writing. That money is being used to ensure that Paul Cook’s side can fulfill their remaining matches – funding travel and accommodation to away games – as they fight to ensure that their suspended 12-point deduction does not result in their relegation.
The fans’ only priority is safeguarding the future of their football club. If only the priority of the clubs themselves was the same.