A letter to my MP on Torquay United and UK investment into Chinese football

If you’ve been following my blogs recently you will have seen a couple of pieces on the fortunes of Torquay United:

The decline of Torquay United – a cautionary tale

Torquay United part deux – support your local team

I also wrote about it in my regular diary for independent Grimsby Town site Codalmighty:

It’s but a dalliance, nothing long-term – 24 September 2015

Yep, I’m a Grimsby fan (it’s a birth thing) but I feel the plight of Torquay and other small, lower league clubs is something we should be concerned about as if they are lost then a key part of a community is lost.

When I saw that our chancellor, George Osborne was investing £3m into grassroots football in China, the world’s 2nd largest economy I had to take a deep breath. Yes, I understand that palms need greasing in order to attract investment but to label it as for ‘grassroots football’ and to say that it might bring more money into the UK football sector shows a lack of understanding of that ‘football sector.’ In all but the Premier League, perhaps the Championship and some of the Scottish Premiership times are quite tight.

So, like with all things I get a little tetchy about I wrote to my MP and I encourage you to do the same. About anything. Drop them a line, be polite and ask them what they’re doing about it.

Letter as follows:

Dear Mel Stride,

Recently I have been concerned to see my local football team Torquay United struggling financially.

Now finding themselves in the Vanarama National League (the Conference) with gates down substantially on the seasons before they were relegated from League 2 there is a possibility that the club might not be able to fulfil its fixtures this season. I, like many fans (and not just of Torquay) fear they might be forced into administration and if that happens then there is a good chance that a club with over one hundred years of history might cease to be. Obviously this would be a bad
thing, for the local community and the people of wider Torbay but also their neighbouring teams in Exeter and Plymouth who benefit from local rivalries. The loss of a team mid-season would also affect teams around the country who would lose gate receipts if fixtures are not played.

Now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with you as an MP and indeed Torquay United is not even in your constituency, instead it sits in your colleague Kevin’s Foster’s Torbay patch. Why would the government be interested in bailing out a football club which to all intents and purposes operates as a business? Businesses might go bust every week.

The reason I am writing is that I saw just recently that the chancellor is offering £3m to China in order to grow grassroots football, and “increase awareness of the thriving football sector in the UK,” (according to gov.uk) but I question whether this is really needed given that:

  1. China is the world’s second largest economy and still growing rapidly;
  2. Raising awareness of Premier League club’s through the promotion of the British Council’s Premier Skills product does little for the football sector in the UK other than potentially bringing a little more money to a league which is awash with it;
  3. Any keen football fan in China will already be more than aware of the Premier League and while not the largest market for the PL it will undoubtedly grow to match that in other Asian countries when it is renegotiated at the end of the current deal.

I understand fully that there are sweeteners and deals required in order to pave the way for Chinese investment in UK infrastructure as well as encouraging Chinese firms to bid for contracts in our new power station and HS2 projects although I would prefer to see UK or European firms given preference rather than money and profit leave the UK and maybe taxes not be paid due to some offshore status but that is another matter!

One might argue that it is market forces which define whether a club survives, that if the fans and the community want it then they will turn up on a Saturday in sufficient numbers but I believe that the spread of money within the league structure is disproportionate and this plus aggressive positioning of the PL product by Sky and now BT Sport has left us with the smaller clubs and lower leagues unable to compete. Is it a monopoly? Maybe so.

Torquay’s plight is good example of the absurd nature of Premier League vs lower league fortunes. By my reckoning their current shortfall at the turnstile equates to something in the order of £75k over the season but a top PL player, let’s say Wayne Rooney, can earn £300k in a week. In simple terms less than two days of Mr Rooney’s pay would keep Torquay United afloat.

In real terms, in modern footballing terms, £75k does not seem like a huge amount of money but if a board does not have money to invest, new investment cannot be found and cost cutting measures cannot be implemented quickly enough it might as well be a million pounds. And that is why I am writing to you, my MP about the plight of a local football team. The government is investing money into grassroots football in China when that money invested in grassroots football at home would possibly secure the short term futures of a number of clubs, maybe even every club with troubles in the Vanarama Conference and League 2. These clubs might not be tempting to overseas investors but they are crucial to their communities, to their employees and also clubs around them and that is why I believe the investment is misplaced.

I don’t know if you are a football fan or even a fan of any sport but I hope you can see that this might be more than just a sporting issue and rather a community issue and therefore something which might be considered. If there is another cabinet or committee member more appropriate, please forward this to them.

Yours sincerely,

Rich Mills