Kieran Maguire is one of the co-hosts of The Price of Football – a weekly deep-dive into the financial machinations, irregularities and oddities of this country’s football clubs. Maguire is the investigative numbers man to his civilian sidekick Kevin Day and since the show’s debut late last year, the pair have provided an eye-popping exposé of how – beneath the hype and glamour – many of our favourite teams are run with the kind of financial good sense and long-term planning that you normally encounter in front of a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal at 11am on a weekday.
A teacher on the Football Industries MBA at Liverpool University, Maguire is an invaluable guide to what’s really going on at the clubs we follow week in and week out. We spoke to him to get the lowdown on the show, the state of football and why the full collapse of a big club may not be that far away.
Where did the impetus for the podcast come from?
I’ve been blogging and tweeting about football finance for years, and it’s always been on my list of ‘things that I must get round to doing’. I do quite a lot of work for BBC Radio Five Live and one of the journalists Guy Kilty set up a production company and originally approached me with a view to managing my podcast. I didn’t think I had enough to offer by myself and we decided it would make sense to have two people presenting the show – one of whom can effectively be the bloke in the pub asking questions and me trying to be the other bloke in the pub answering them. We didn’t want it to be academic or too financially imposing as a show, so I got in contact with Kevin via Twitter and pitched it to him. I think he was cautious, as was I.
Why cautious? Were you worried about burning bridges with the clubs you were investigating?
No – that has never bothered me. I’ve always tried to keep an arm’s length from the business, simply because I don’t feel I can give objective criticism and be analytical the way I want to be if I have close relations to individual clubs. I’ve got no friends in the industry because that’s not my motivation.
What’s your method? Is it all information that’s in public domain, or are you digging deeper?
I have an account with Companies House, so they send me alerts for all 92 EFL and Premier League clubs and also the Scottish clubs. I set up a lot of Google alerts, so on a daily basis I probably sift through 120 emails trying to work out if there’s anything worth discussing on the show. Because I’m an academic, I’ve got no idea what’s of interest to real people – we do live in a fairly bubble environment. So Kevin asks the right questions and prevents me from being too much of a dork.
Given that we’re a nation that’s obsessed with football and we cover it exhaustively, why is this stuff not better known?
I think it’s just quite hard work to get to grips with it. It’s a lot easier to talk about VAR, or whether a manager is good or bad than it is to go into the back office of the game, which is effectively what we’re doing. I always say it’s not a football show, it’s a business show that uses football as a Trojan horse to explain what’s happening in other businesses. But what we have in football is just… a layer of crazy.
Do you have some accountancy sixth sense for when something’s amiss at a club?
I used to do forensic work for real companies, non-sports related. So I’m used to seeing what I refer to as red flags. If something’s too good to be true, it’s not true. As soon as companies publish press releases praising themselves to the heavens, I normally think I’m sure there’s something in there that they’re not telling us, and take it upon myself to become the Columbo of football finance. Do the ‘Just one more thing…’ routine to try and get to the bottom of it. And it’s not that I’m trying to catch clubs out – but I don’t want another Bury on our hands. So if you can contribute anything that is in the public domain to ensure that, then I think as an academic you have an obligation to do so.
The sense you get from the show is that a lot of clubs are sailing very close to the wind financially. Is some huge reckoning coming?
I think we are fairly close in respect of some clubs, Macclesfield and Oldham are both wobbling. Bolton Wanderers, even though they were rescued six months ago, in my view they’re in little better health than they were under the previous owner. There are a number of clubs that are living from hand to mouth – it would not take a lot for those to go bust. But at the same time you do have an awful lot of people in this country who want to be football clubs’ saviours, in a way that they don’t want to be the saviour of a bookstore, because football has a special place in British society and therefore to be seen as the saviour, and one of only 92 football club owners in this country, brings you a lot of kudos.
That’s something people don’t often factor in with owners, isn’t it?
They know that they are pouring money down the drain, but with the enjoyment that they get out of it, football clubs become trophy assets as opposed to a business decision asset. And some of them are rogues, there’s no doubt about it – but the vast majority do want to reinvest in their local community or they just want that kudos and reputation.
Are we better or worse off than other countries?
I think Germany is probably the model that I would aspire to in terms of governance. But a lot of continental Europe is just as nuts as it is here in terms of stadiums, losses, money disappearing. It’s certainly not just happening in the UK.
If you were in charge, what three changes would you make to the game overnight?
I would make football stadia protected community assets to stop them being bought and sold for commercial purposes. I would ensure that anyone who came into the game as an owner would have to effectively put money into an escrow account so that if they left there was sufficient money to pay the bills for a period of, say, two years. And finally, I’d say that all clubs have to publish full, agreed information to a de minimis standard in the football industry for public consumption. Because in my view, clubs are community assets and the biggest investors are not the owners – it’s the guy who started supporting Tranmere Rovers at the age of seven and will die a Tranmere Rovers fan. His or her investment is a lifelong one, and those people potentially are the biggest losers when we see issues such as Bury being expelled.
The Price of Football by Kieran Maguire (Agenda) is out now