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 as 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.