I can’t believe it’s not a Big Buttery Audit Vat

25/07/2014

ITFC Academy

 

by Gavin Barber

Lots of people ask for money. Most of us – me included – conduct a kind of instantaneous, subconscious cost/benefit analysis of each request before giving a response. Context is important. Earlier today I was asked for a charitable donation and gave the full amount, without hesitation. The charity was a random teenager who was 10p short of his bus fare. I paid in full because a) I could afford it, and b) it would mean that he could end his long-running argument with the driver, meaning that I could finally get off the sweltering pavement, onto the bus, and on with the rest of my life. Philanthropy and self-interest, perfectly married in a moment.

Rightly or wrongly, if you’re prepared to ask people for money then you need to be ready to make them feel that they’re Doing Something Good or Getting Something Back, or, preferably, both. Which is why the decision to ask supporters for cash to fund ITFC’s bid for Category One Academy status was such a bold one. And, on the basis of today’s announcement that the bid has failed, a potentially ill-advised one too.

We are told that the bid for Category One status has failed to reach the required 75% standard by just 0.3%. Who knows what complex algorithms lie behind this outcome? “IF facilities.PITCH >64% AND coaching.YOUTHDEV >72% THEN value academy.LEVEL must = 01”. That sort of thing. Maybe. Myriad factors, we are told, are considered. Investment. Coaching. Facilities. It all gets churned into a big buttery Audit Vat, and for ITFC it apparently comes out at 74.7% proof.

One could speculate on the maturity of a process which allows for such fine margins of error in an area of such inexact science; one could speculate further on how the application of the audit process might vary between clubs of different levels and status – particularly given that this whole thing was begat by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), itself yet another downwards kick from the jackboot of the super-rich clubs into the faces of the rest.

And yet. You can only play the hand you’re dealt, and ITFC’s response to these challenges was, firstly, to opt rather defiantly for Category Two – like a spurned suitor petulantly de-friending the object of their affections on Facebook – only to decide that, actually, we did want to play with the big boys after all. But we needed someone else to pay for it.

That initial decision was important. ITFC weighed up the options available under EPPP and decided that Category Two was the least-worst of them. Or perhaps that Category One was not worth the risk. Not only was there a 5,000-strong petition raised in protest, but statistics provided by the Ipswich Town Supporters’ Trust proved that investment in Academies was more than likely to repay itself several times over in revenue from player sales, and transfer fee costs saved. Category Two, however, remained the preferred option at that time. It was a decision that now appears to have been costly, both in footballing and financial terms. Perhaps one that Marcus Evans now regrets.

And yet. When Town did decide to pursue Category One status – and let’s go right out on a limb here and suggest that the potentially beneficial effects of Category One on the overall balance sheet may have helped to prompt Marcus’s change of heart – it was the supporters who were asked to foot the bill. Not just a few quid for some fluorescent cones and training tops, but a sizeable chunk of the overall funding required for Category One.

Ipswich Town FC is part of the Marcus Evans Group, a multinational conglomeration of Stuff which employs squillions of people to make gazillions of dollars. It is not, perhaps, the most obvious cause when it comes to charitable giving, yet several supporters decided that it was worthy of donations. In issuing that appeal, ITFC sent out two distinct messages: firstly, that a Category One academy was a nice-to-have rather than a must-have, and supporters should therefore be expected to contribute to it. And secondly, if it was an enterprise inextricably attached to a cause, rather than a business decision about allocation of resources – as would presumably be the case in every other division of MEG – then supporters could arguably be seen to carry an implicit level of blame in any subsequent failure to achieve the desired outcome.

Like I said earlier, you can ask people for money any old time you want, but there’s an implied contract in any request for funding, particularly for a private organisation with an already-significant cashflow. And here we come back, rather cynically perhaps, to our two tests for charitable giving: am I Doing Something Good and will I Get Something Back?

The answer to those questions would both have been ‘yes’ if ITFC had found an extra 0.3% from somewhere. But we didn’t. We failed on the margins. And yet – as frustrating as it is to apparently miss out by such a tiny amount – it is always the case that, like a first serve in tennis, if you aim for the margins, you risk hitting the wrong side of them.

It’s easy, of course, to point the focus of attention towards those who carried out the audit. EPPP is a disastrously ill-thought-out initiative, so there’s no reason not to assume that the processes which underpin its implementation might also benefit from some improvement. But however flawed the process might be, the story to take from today’s announcement is surely not the fact that ITFC missed out on Category One by 0.3%, but that we put ourselves in a position whereby that might ever have become an issue. Why aim for the margins? Why look at the criteria and the processes, and decide that scraping around for 75% is the best approach to take – rather than determining to invest whatever is necessary to reach Category One, from the start? Why opt for Category Two, then spend time and effort recruiting a team capable of delivering Cat One, two years later?

These are business decisions and it’s not for me to say which is the right one and which is the wrong one. But as a supporter, it is for me to say something about asking fans to subsidise the shortfall left by some of those business decisions. And that is this: if you are going to ask fans for money to provide a Category One Academy, over and above the investment that fans already make via season tickets etc., and in the full understanding that Category One brings financial benefits to the club and its owner as well sporting benefits to the team and its supporters, then you had better make damn sure you get it right. We are told that financial investment is only one of the criteria used to determine Academy status. In that case, if fans have contributed to the financial side of things, then it is down to the club to make sure that everything else is in order, to the extent where a margin of 0.3% in an audit score shouldn’t ever have become an issue.

Having put supporters in an arguably invidious position by asking for contributions in the first place, only to let them down by failing to deliver the aim that they were being asked to contribute to achieving, the Club and its owner once again have questions to answer. What will happen to those contributions? Why, with supporters’ contributions behind them, does it appear to be the case that ITFC aimed for being ‘just good enough’ to achieve Category One – and turned out to be not quite up to it – rather than reducing the risk by aiming higher than that? What happens next? Will there be a new approach or will supporters be asked for yet more money? As ever, we eagerly anticipate answers.


In Name Only?

10/02/2013

meg

Grant Bage wonders whether Marcus Evans will ever be more than just a name to Town fans.

An enigma underpins Ipswich Town Football Club: its mysterious owner, Marcus Evans. Questions about Evans’ identity have always intrigued fans, but given the recent departure of Chief Executive Simon Clegg these have become immediately and practically significant. Clegg cited “the owner’s intention to play a more hands-on role” as a factor in his decision to move. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/21336792  As Turnstile Blues we are therefore asking once more: what does the Club’s owner stand for?

The players’ shirts shout his name. During five years he has backed four managers, sacked three of them and seen off two Chief Executives. Quite literally the Club owes all of what it has become, with the 2011 accounts citing that debt at £66 million, to one Marcus Paul Bruce Evans. Yet the people of Ipswich and the Club’s 20,000 or so regular followers know nothing of the person behind the name. The face of Marcus Evans has never beamed out from a match day programme. His voice is not heard on radio. Marcus does not appear on television and makes no personal statements to the press. A fan paying thirty pounds for a Saturday seat could, in theory, sit next to the man who has poured sixty or seventy MILLION pounds into the Club…and not even know. ‘Marcus the man’ remains an utter mystery, despite personally owning a Club which spawned two of English Football’s most famous and recognisable characters: Sir Alf and Sir Bobby, the Ramsey and Robson.

This article examines that phenomenon. What does it mean for Marcus Evans ‘the brand’ to dominate a football club when none of its fans know the man, what he thinks, or where he comes from?

The Marcus Evans Group (hereafter MEG) was founded in 1983; read more at www.marcusevans.com. It makes big money employing 3000 professionals in 34 offices worldwide providing corporate hospitality, conferences, summits, business training and entertainment. It currently loses big money, though not quite as much, employing approximately 120 full time staff at Ipswich Town Football Club. When the MEG bought Ipswich Town five years ago, assuming liability for substantial debts, one of my best mates teased that Ipswich had been “taken over by a ticket tout”. Lancastrian jealousy I thought to myself, brought on by too many years of supporting Burnley. Two years later that charge was made publicly, in exaggerated terms, by the Daily Mail. In June 2010 and in cowardly words, it claimed that Marcus Evans “had been described as the world’s biggest ticket tout”:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/article-1288161/CHARLES-SALE-Ipswich-owner-Marcus-Evans-FIFA-ticket-probe.html

‘Described by whom?’ we should ask; but more significantly for the purposes of this article ‘refuted by whom?’ I am uncertain this is a fair description of the MEG’s business and yet popular confusion persists. Fans continue to question the MEG’s motives for ownership. Some criticized the recently departed Simon Clegg’s performance as Chief Executive, claiming he was hired by the MEG more for ‘Olympic links’ than football skills. People are suspicious about why the MEG group’s assets are globally distributed and feel uneasy that they do not know where ‘their local club’s’ ownership, geographically rests. A 2010 Christian Aid report into the finances of English football put Ipswich 14th in a ‘secrecy league’. The authors reported of the Club’s controlling company that “despite our best efforts, we could not prove by documentation where that company is located…Evans … is reported to have been a tax exile for years.” (Blowing The Whistle, Christian Aid 2010, p.38)

When blended with the transfer blundering of various managers, a persistent reliance on loan players and widely voiced discontent about Ipswich’s once famous Academy, such uncertainties form a toxic mix. Unfortunately Marcus Evans’ anonymity not only offers an easy target for such speculation: when combined with his ex-Chief Executive’s (Simon Clegg) clumsy public relations, it positively encourages it. Conspiracy theories flourish when nobody with authority, not just ‘in’ authority, can refute them with convincing evidence, sincere feelings and a face which they trust.

Some things ARE clearer. As an individual company, Ipswich Town continues to pile up massive debts to the MEG. These debts dwarf the club’s few assets. They could in theory and in part, if not in total and in practice, be ‘called in at any moment’. Indisputably, Ipswich Town’s future is in the hands of a global corporation. That corporation is owned and led not just by a person whom fans do not know: but by somebody they have been actively discouraged from knowing.

As if that was not enough Marcus Evans’ anonymity as a brand, and as a person, is even in tension with notion that Clegg talked of so often: namely that ‘football is a product’. Yes, the majority of fans start to support a club by buying a ticket and paying to watch: a financial transaction. Yet over time these exchanges evolve into something more valuable than money. Hardcore fans adopt a common cause. We personally identity with a club’s history, celebrate its achievements; and during the down times it is through disappointments that we bond. That process is nurtured in family, friendship or work groups and cemented on the terraces. On a personal basis becoming a ‘fan’ is about warmth and companionship with people we know. It is the antithesis of anonymity.

Despite intense competition for leisure-time spend, football also persists as premium entertainment perhaps because ‘what you see is, more or less, what you get’. Real time, on-pitch action is mostly visible however cheap your seat. Televised football is even more transparent, prompting relentless and idiotic intolerance of error. Yet one of the commonest criticisms fans have always voiced, long before wall-to-wall Sky coverage, is of players who ‘go missing’ during a game. Managers love individuals who will ‘stand up and be counted’. They appoint captains who ‘take a clear lead’. Football relies on visibility. So what does it signify about Ipswich Town when the club’s entire brand, and its individual owner, are consistently anonymous: present ‘in name only’?

Most fans calm such disquiet with a single, undeniable truth. Marcus Evans has ‘put his money where his mouth is’; or at least where his mouth would be, if he ever spoke in public. Ipswich fans may be unhappy with the Club’s playing performances and league positions, averaged over the last five seasons; but it is pretty much a killer defence of the MEG’s investment, to contemplate where the Club might have been without that cash. Ipswich Town survived a ‘company voluntary arrangement’ following relegation from the Premier League in 2002, but had scant transfer funds until Marcus Evans ‘bought the debt’ in late 2007. Although rumours of potential investors had persisted before the MEG takeover, no cash-rich alternative had stepped publicly forward.

Since that date much money has been spent and sadly, much squandered. Some of that cash has been mine and yours, hard and honestly earned; yet it is pointless to ignore that most of it has been Marcus’s.  We may or may not differ with Marcus Evans about where the Club should go from here and until he reveals more, we cannot really know. Equally it seems to this writer churlish and unfair to suggest that the MEG has not genuinely attempted success.

One reason why people are confused is because, for an organisation that prides itself on marketing, the MEG’s communications to Ipswich Town’s fans have appeared relentlessly ill-judged. The first (of only two) football-focused media interviews Marcus Evans has ever given can be found here:  http://www.edp24.co.uk/sport/how_i_met_town_s_mystery_magnate_marcus_1_163661

It details a conversation with Nigel Pickover, now editor of the Norwich-based Eastern Daily Press and a long time key journalist for the Norfolk-based Archant group of newspapers. It was published on 21 May 2008. Echoing to strains of Norfolk’s greatest living journalist, Alan Partridge, Pickover painted a peculiar, front page picture of Marcus Evans. The interview happened at MEG’s head office in London. In that location, we were informed:

“Marcus time waits for no one…His world of business wizardy and international daring-do, and my Evening Star world of power-packed daily newspaper journalism had come together – and the new man appeared to like how The Star had handled itself with a potent mixture of newsbreaks on one hand and fun, a la ‘mystery magnate Marcus’ on the other…For the next fifty minutes or so I sat back and heard the incredible ‘pennies-to-riches’ story that has made Marcus one of the great business successes of the last decade.”

Such excerpts are good, clean newspaper fun; but five years later serious questions arise.The first is Nigel’s claim, towards the end of his 2008 report that:

“Marcus Evans, it is clear to me, has been bitten by the Ipswich Town bug. Fans will hear more of that in the future, I’m sure.”

Sadly, we have not. The public knows little more of Marcus Evans the man, or the practical detail of his vision for Ipswich Town, than we did five years ago. Apart from a single  Ipswich Evening Star interview with Dave Gooderham on 30 January 2012, Evans’ silence has been unbroken. One of the main reasons that Turnstile Blues was written by our collective, and sold out its first edition in November 2012, was the widely held feeling that Marcus Evans has kept Ipswich fans in the dark.

The second is continuing confusion over Marcus Evans’ background, and whether he bought Ipswich Town just because it was for sale or through some sympathies with Suffolk. Pickover (2008) perhaps inaccurately reported some scraps of biographical detail:

“In everything he does genial, secretive, tycoon Marcus Evans means business. He has devoted a lifetime of toil to entrepreneurial success – and seconds count to a man who left school before the pressures of A-levels.”

Meanwhile, a former class mate I have spoken to recalls attending a well-known Suffolk state school with Marcus Evans during the early 1980s:

“I remember Marcus Evans turning up in the first year of Sixth Form …An incredibly anonymous, retiring bloke even then, who joined in the common room but never came to the parties. He was quiet, pleasant, no indication of a ruthless streak in him – quite the opposite. He was a really nice guy.”

The biographical details may not matter that much, however satisfying it would be to connect the millionaire owner that Marcus Evans has become with the ‘really nice guy’ who apparently went to school in Suffolk. What does matter is how the supporters of Ipswich Town see and perceive the Club’s mysterious owner. That is because in law Marcus owns the Club lock, stock and barrel; whilst its supporters own the Club, in their hearts.

Increased and statutory fans’ involvement in the governance of football is one long-term answer to this problem, though a shorter-term measure could also assist. Nigel Pickover boasted in 2008 that:

“On the front page of the Star, I had written an open letter to (Marcus Evans) … and he had replied by return. But the London meeting came because of a simple question. Please could I meet Marcus Evans? Simple as that. Funny, no one else had asked…”

In 2013 this open letter is asking again. It has been sent to the Club and to the MEG, simultaneous with being published online. Marcus, will you please be interviewed by a Turnstile Blue? Most fans are ready to believe that you have genuine affection for Ipswich Town. I have seen and heard much to suggest you have strong links with Suffolk. If you wish to maintain privacy, for your sake and your family’s, we will respect that: but talking through at least some of the issues in this article could only enhance your image, and clarify your leadership. This is particularly crucial given Simon Clegg’s recent departure. There has probably never been a better moment, metaphorically if not physically, to show your face and tell people more about why you own our club, the MEG’s immediate plans and your long term strategy.

So will Marcus Evans, step forward?  We will not expose your identity, twist your words or doubt your honesty. If an interview is difficult, just write back. You can fill as many of these pages as you like describing your vision for success: because from our perspective it makes football sense, business sense and community sense for fans and the owner to explore this together.

We look forward to hearing from you… wherever you are.


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