The Evening Standard

Lord Brian Mawhinney does not like comparing his life in politics with his life in football. He served Parliament for 26 years with distinction working under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major while holding three ministerial positions – in Northern Ireland, as Secretary of State for Transport and as the Tory party chairman.

As his successful career in the House of Commons was drawing to a close, the 69-year-old moved in 2003 to the Football League, where his reputation for being a political bruiser stood him in good stead.

“My political skills meant I knew how to corral people to move in the same direction,” he tells me.

“One of the problems football has is that the directors may be successful businessmen but in many cases they ran their own business.

“So whatever they decided happened. Then they come to football and the fans put pressure on them, usually to spend money. They don’t like that. Fan pressure is a shock to the system and they don’t have any experience of dealing with public opposition.”

Opposition is something Mawhinney has had to deal with all his life. He prospered in politics despite never achieving more than half the vote while representing first his Peterborough constituency for 18 years from 1979 – when Thatcher was first swept to power – and then in North West Cambridgeshire from 1997 until he moved to the House of Lords eight years later.

“In all my elections, the very best I ever did was to get 49.6 per cent of the vote,” he reveals as we chat in his office in central London. “So I came into this job quite used to being subject to public pressure. That was very helpful as it gave me a bit of dispassion. Passion in football is very important but a bit of dispassion is also helpful.”

But, as he prepares to stand down as chairman of the Football League in March, it is the opposition to the changes he has proposed to the unsustainable levels of spending by his member clubs that most vexes Mawhinney.

These are hard times for the sport with Portsmouth and even Manchester United weighed down by huge debts in the top flight and Southampton, Bournemouth, Rotherham, Stockport and Luton all affected by administration in the Coca-Cola Leagues during Mawhinney’s reign.

And for all his ability to conjure victories from a minority position when he was an MP, he will leave office aware that he has not been able to introduce a salary cap. Last season, Championship clubs spent 87 per cent of their income on wages and Mawhinney fears failure to tackle the issue could have serious consequences.

The idea of a cap, he admits, did not come easily to him. He says: “One club chairman said, ‘If Margaret Thatcher were in her grave, she would be turning at the thought that one of her Cabinet ministers was seeking to impose wage control’.” But clubs are spending money they do not have and he adds: “Many chairmen told me: ‘Brian, we are not strong enough to deal with the problem’.”

But introducing salary caps would have meant a regulation change and the Peer drew back worried by the large numbers of Championship clubs opposed to the idea.

“You can do something highly controversial if there are three or four clubs who don’t like it,” he says. “You can’t if nearly half the Championship is against it.”

However, he is sure a salary cap will come if only to rescue the game from its present era of greed and excess.

“Eventually something of that ilk has got to happen because the business model for professional football in this country is not sustainable.”

And while football continues to spend money, it continues to attract new owners who, in reality, haven’t got any to spend. The question of just who is a fit and proper person has been asked so often this season.

Mawhinney has successfully penetrated the secrecy that surrounded the beneficial ownership of both Notts County and Leeds in recent months but he is convinced that there is no appetite for more disclosure.

“We do not want a comprehensive fit and proper person test,” he argues. “To have one I would have to go to all the clubs and ask them to stump up a million and a half quid a year between them. I don’t know if the Premier League has that sort of money. We don’t. We took a step and created an environment which is helpful. People now look over their shoulders. They have a concern to make sure they meet the fit and proper test. Could more be done? Yes. But then it would become a broader policy issue.”

There is a fit and proper test for club directors and majority shareholders that was introduced in June 2004.

To get it passed meant taking on the Football Association, who told Mawhinney he could not introduce such a regulation as it was their responsibility.

“I took it to the highest level at the FA and when they said no I said, ‘When I’ve drawn the regulation up I’ll send you a copy and you can kindly say it looks good and I will say the FA have approved it’. That’s what happened.”

But this still left the question of knowing who the beneficial owners of clubs like Leeds and Notts County were. That came three months ago when Mawhinney confesses he “just lost patience”.

“The law of the land says you can take your money and put it offshore and that gives you a tax advantage,” he explains. “It says, if you do that, you can have anonymity. That is fine. But what about clubs who want to play in the Football League? Do they have to disclose the identity of the beneficial owner?”

Mawhinney took the advice of a leading counsel and was told he could demand the information and it would not need any new regulation.

At December’s meeting of the clubs, Mawhinney told them: “The board has agreed this measure and I am warning you that, the next time you come to sell your club, make sure the beneficial owner is willing to be identified. Without that they will not be allowed to play in the Football League.”

While Mawhinney sees no need for fans to know who the beneficial owners of their club are, he takes great pride that in his first year he got clubs to disclose how much they paid agents.

The League publishes these figures every six months; information, he is certain, fans really value. “The primary motivation was fans. To inform them how much of their clubs’ money is leaving the game in agents’ fees.”

As he heads to retirement, Mahwhinney can also reflect on some other significant victories. His reign, which started in 2003 in the wake of the ITV Digital debacle, has lasted a lot longer than many chairmen expected and, at the time, was a great rescue act.

Subsequently he has introduced a number of changes in advance of the Premier League. He says: “My first challenge was to take up a broken League and put it back again in a more sustainable form, to get the clubs to develop a sense of self-confidence.”

The key to this, he argues, was his decision in 2004 to rebrand the Football League, changing the names of the divisions into the Championship, League One and League Two. In each of the six seasons since that change more than 16 million fans have gone through League turnstiles and this term gates are up again by three per cent.

Mawhinney can rightly claim to be an innovator, and was even branded a communist by one chairman when he tackled salary caps, but when it comes to debt and UEFA president Michel Platini’s plans to exclude clubs who run up large losses from European competitions, Mawhinney is the man of the status quo. We are talking just days after the Glazers announced details of Manchester United’s plans for a £500million bond issue to refinance the club’s £700m debt. Since he never comments on Premier League clubs the question of whether United’s debt is sustainable is left hanging in the air.

On Platini, however, he is very clear. “If he wants a general umbrella which says no debt, then all of the components have to be in the same place so that it is a fair and just umbrella.”

The politician in him sees Platini’s move as power politics. “There are those who would like UEFA to become the regulatory body for European football,” he adds.

“Among those who do not want it are FIFA and the Premier League. From our point of view, FIFA and the FA provide more than enough regulation.”

The answer is very much in the style of the man who is proud of being a ‘Belfast boy’, tackling issues in a practical fashion. This style has enabled him to change many of the ways of the oldest football league in the world without quite changing its essential character.


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