Interview with ‘How To Run A Football Club’ author Jim Keoghan
Jim Keoghan is an established football author, who has been writing for 20 years. In 2014, Jim published his first book based around football activism and ownership in English football, followed by books on Everton in the 90s, their ‘Greatest Games’ and a smaller publication of the Greatest Number Nines to play for the Toffees.
His latest release is titled “How To Run A Football Club’- a book that dives deep into the heart of grassroots football and how important the football ecosystem really is to the sport as a whole.
Adibir Singh sat down with Jim to discuss what he found while writing the book, and what insights his latest release has for its readers.
Q1- What inspired you to write this book?
It came from my experience from coaching junior football. I’d played a lot of Sunday League football, but most of my experiences came from Premier League football being an Evertonian. Football has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years, with the sport having never been so financially well off as it is now. Going back to coach my son at junior level, it struck me as to how appalling the facilities in place are for the lower levels. The idea was to understand why this disparity is the case and try to find out of the money is being shared by the top end clubs, and to find out what it takes to be a part of a club at a lower level.
Q2- How important is it for the people’s love of the game, and not the economic profit of it- to keep the grassroots levels flourishing?
Essential. I’d say almost everything upto the National League is dependent on the people involved around them. I often wonder why people do it, since it’s nothing but problems and headaches- clubs go out of business so easily, but you see men and women giving their time to coach, parents making the tea, volunteers to fix pitches and stadiums, even when their not getting their money back but trying to keep this valuable community asset going. If one day people decided to just give up and walk away, majority of the football pyramid bar the professional level would disappear.
Q3- The Premier league is seen as the pinnacle of football and most fans around the country flock to support the best in the league- but many describe being able to support a non league or lower league club as true love and undying passion – in writing this book, what made this feeling of support so different from that of supporting a big team?
Every team you support you have an emotional connection, but I feel there is a sense of disillusionment amongst those fans. A non league team supported connection to their club is so much more powerful, they see the same faces around place, you socialise beyond the pitch, It feels like like how football was 30 years ago- that connection you can’t get if you’re watching it on TV. Football almost feels more like a product, which is losing its visceral sense of connection, whereas lower down people are much more invested in their clubs. I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, but its certainly different and more rooted.
Q4- Wages are growing higher and higher in the National Leagues, and agents seem to be a part of this process, as mentioned in the book. Do clubs find it more difficult to stay competitive at the lower levels now, than say 10 years ago?
Yeah, definitely. Maybe 10 years ago when the National League was the old conference, it was a very part time set up- people had full time jobs and football was in a way, a second career. There wasn’t the same sense of professionalism, and you wouldn’t have Hollywood stars like Ryan Reynolds looking at and buying these clubs. I’d say these non league clubs are almost all professional, and mirror professional football clubs in a way. You can see the financial weight is trickling down. You can get by as a member club and not pay your players much, but you’d probably have to play at a lower level since there’s clubs out there who are doing it much better and could pay their players a lot.
Q5- Fans are a sizeable source of income for most non league clubs- with the pandemic and lockdown being at the forefront in 2020, how have these clubs managed to stay alive and kicking?
A lot of clubs have been fortunate to furlough their staff, but the problems isn’t just to pay players- it’s things like grounds improvements, investments into how they make money- a good example is the club I coach, where we have no budget but it costs 8,000 Pounds to maintain which we pay for through fundraisers and sportsman dinners but that money is gone, so we are still 8000 pounds behind. There are clubs that have bigger costs, and that money has to come from somewhere. Because of the furlough scheme a ton of clubs will navigate their way through, but you’ll find a lot of clubs that can’t make improvements make money, but it’s going to still be a tricky few years fort a lot of football clubs.
To see clubs like Spurs come onto the scheme and then go and spend millions in the summer was galling for a lot of lower league clubs, who are the ones really in trouble. Football didn’t go into the pandemic in great shape at all, with a lot of teams in dire straits before COVID-19. It struck a jarring note to then see Spurs go on and spend ridiculous amounts.
Q6- You’ve mentioned football as being a pyramid- as though clubs must co exist in an environment that is mutually beneficial to all. Do you think the Premier league and its associated clubs need to do more for the lower leagues, whether it be through funding or otherwise?
I understand their perspective. Football is wealthy because of the Premier League. People from different countries want to watch this product- not the National League. The Premier League might think “we make the money, so why do we have to share it?”. But a lot of people don’t just interact with football at a Premier League level- even fans of the EPL might play Sunday League and coach or referee non league clubs. Kids don’t always start life watching 90 minute Premier League games, their first steps are playing with their mates at a local grassroots club, and maybe in their early teens they’ll be attracted to the big leagues. In a broader sense, we interact with a lot more than just the top flight, and if we don’t support this pyramid English football would be in much poorer shape. Even the spare change from Premier League clubs could go a long way to support this ecosystem.
Q7- What did you learn when writing the book? What surprised you the most?
I was surprised at just how bad things are. You wonder how so many of these clubs are still running. I was talking to someone at Dulwich Hamlet, and how in the course of a month if they have two postponed matches they could be in real trouble. The club could fold if it doesn’t get regular income from games.
What I learned the most was the affection people have for their clubs. You just wonder why they do it. In the face of so many problems it still keeps people going, it’s quite touching to see how it brings people together and helps the community stay as one. There are so many parts pf the country where dilapidated footballs clubs are the centre of the towns social get togethers, and give a community a sense of hope.
Q8- Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga were almost run out of business the moment the pandemic hit- do you think there has to be a better and more stable system in place to prevent this from happening to any club in this sort of unforeseen event?
The game has been calling out for reform for decades. If we just leave it as it is, we’re going to have more Bury’s and more Boltons. This is the way football is going- so many clubs are in the debt and success is so expensive- you need better regulator, to ensure owners are genuine and a way to control the costs, perhaps with salary caps, and more equitable money across the pyramid. You could do with the system like in the Bundesliga, with the people who matter the most- the fans- having a stake in the club or seats on the board. At the moment it’s just a free for all and completely unregulated. That makes for a small number of clubs, but a vast majority of teams are ultimately losing out. Football is hence becoming predictable and uncompetitive. I don’t see where the change comes from though, the FA have no influence of football at all, government don’t want to intervene-where we will end up with the Premier League growing in power and the lower clubs going bust.
Q9- Women’s footballs seems to have made a huge amount of progress especially in the last 2 years, with the WSL and it’s lower league affiliate. Do you think this stems from the growth at the lower levels, or vice versa, the growth at the top which trickles down to the bottom?
That’s a really good question. The FA don’t do a lot of good, but with women’s football they’ve certainly got behind it from the grassroots level, with more girls at a younger age being interested in the sport as well as more female coaches, more mixed gender and girls’ teams. We even have two girls in our side who equal compete with the boys, so it’s fantastic to watch. You can’t deny the change the FA have made on the women’s game has had a massive impact- as you said they’ve got superstars coming in, professional teams set up with a proper tier structure and TV deals. You can encourage girls to play football at grassroots level but it matters to have role models- like boys do when they see stars on the TV they want to emulate. Yo’ve got that coming with the likes of Ellen White and Lucy Bronze, where can look at them and say “I can do that!”. Years ago that wasn’t the case, where they could imagine football as a genuine career option. You need the
Q10- You’ve talked a fair bit about disability football and including others to play the sport- why do you think this has come into the spotlight and is being taken more seriously in recent years?
Again, I feel the FA have done really well in this regard. Whats really interesting is that in the last 20 years you had the death of the traditional forms of the game like Saturday league and Sunday football collapsing, and you could see football reach out to parts of the communities that were excluded from the game. A lot of Premier League clubs get involved with this through their foundations which is a huge help. You now have walking football which is the fastest growing sport in the country. While you might have less men playing football the way it was, you’ve now sort of got ‘Total Football’ in the sense that more girls, women, disabled persons and the elderly are included in the game. It’s almost like football has broadened its family, in a way, and that would not have happened without the FA getting behind that.
Q11- Spencer Owen, the famous YouTuber was surprisingly mentioned in your book- and the work he’s done from being a small FIFA channel to now being the owner of Hashtag United. How important is online presence in the modern day, and what can the proper football clubs learn from this?
I don’t think the old model of football is quite as appealing to the new generation of football fans. They engage with football differently. Like Spencer, a lot of his appeal is engaging fans on their turf- making the content they want to see whether its crossbar challenges or the like. There’s a story in my book where he was interviewing Gareth Bale, and the kids ran over and he expected them to surround Bale- but instead they wanted to talk to Spencer himself. Bale was someone that was almost out of touch, while Spencer was ‘one of them’. Clubs should keep an eye out of something like Hashtag United who are doing something totally innovative and out of the box.
I think they’re the 7th most watched club on YouTube, getting more hits than Everton or Spurs which means they’re obviously doing something right. Clubs need to realise they have to engage with the younger audiences, through E-Sports, FIFA and online media- and if the clubs lose that there is a fear that they may have sacrificed these children 20 years later because they’re not involved in the game at all. Football is changing and you don’t want to get left behind.
Q12- “Football 2.0” as coined by you is seemingly on the rise- with ridiculous amounts of money being offered to Esports contestants, through sponsors and prize money. Do you feel this is the way forward, or are sponsors losing sight of real football clubs where they should be investing instead?
Sponsors will go where the money is. If you’ve got an E-Sports tournament of the best Ultimate Team players in the world and getting millions of views, and on the other hand you’re a League 2 team who get 6,000 people to a game and not getting on TV- as a sponsor its easy which one you’d go to. If you’re a club like Bolton whose online content isn’t the best to watch- what are you offering to the sponsor that will keep them coming back? Nothing.
Some clubs might have a Twitter account, but someone like Spencer Owen is the template to success in the online world, as someone who really understands what kids and sponsors want. It’s really interesting to see where the money goes in future events from now on.
Q13- If you had a million pounds, where would you spend it and why?
I would like to give the money to my football club, but I’d be torn because I’d love to run and own a football club. Maybe buying the club around where I live, but I’d probably run it to the ground.
The right thing to do would be to give it to the kids who are starting out, because they should have a much better football experience than they do right now- its shocking. There are parts of the country where kids are getting priced out of football- costs of pitch fees are going up and equipment costs so much, families can’t afford to play football. It’s meant to be the people’s game, but if people can’t afford it what is the point?
Q14- What is the solution to building pitches that are accessible and affordable to everyone?
I think it’s simply to build more pitches. The Germans do it efficiently- they’ve invested massively in artificial pitches. The problem is that we’re a wet, rainy country and require proper drainage on the pitches. The solution is obviously plastic pitches- but that hasn’t been the case. The FA have built a few- but the demand is so high that the prove rises, so you need more investment locally to drain the park pitches. 80% of out football takes place on pitches by local councils- who have had their budgets crammed the last few years so they don’t spend them on football anymore. Something got to give- either the FA needs a lot more money or the government has got to accept that sport is vital to a community and local authorities must ensure that sport takes place. But, I don’t see any political will to change that or the FA having its hand forced to create change- leaving no solution and a bitter taste in the mouths of football lovers.
Q15- Do you think grassroots football should be privatised, or be Government run even if that means slightly less funding?
It should be Government run, 100%. In a lot of European countries, it’s mandatory that authorities take community exercise seriously, and given the funds to ensure that. Sadly, we don’t behave like the European countries. Everything is done by the market- and if its seen as profitable. Exercise is hard to value and put a price on it. You’d love to see well funded organisations come in, but I don’t see the picture getting much better in the next 10 years.
Jim’s book covers the heart and soul of the game in England, and everything that makes one love the game to where and why football is struggling in todays age. His in-depth research scours the country to give the reader a well-rounded perspective on the beautiful game at the lowest levels, as well a peek into what the online future holds for football.
You can purchase the book from the link provided below: