Cheap jibes at Premier League clubs are a bit rich from pompous MP Julian Knight


Primark, The Ritz, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, the Brexit Party, JD Wetherspoon, Harrods, Qatar Airways, Whitbread, Tui, the British National Party, these were just some of the businesses that benefited from Government furlough schemes during Covid.

Some of the richest men in the world caught a break, too: Jim Ratcliffe, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Len Blavatnik, Teddy Sagi, Julian Dunkerton, Mohamed Al Fayed, Evgeny Lebedev, Lord Ashcroft, Philip Green, Guy Hands, millionaires, and some billionaires, whose companies made use of furlough.

Yet when Julian Knight, head of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, ascended to his usual booster seat on the moral high ground, who did he have in his sights? Football clubs, naturally. Specifically, Leeds, Newcastle, Burnley and Sheffield United who have all, like many in commerce, taken advantage of the scheme.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight had football clubs in his sights, rather than billionaires

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight had football clubs in his sights, rather than billionaires

Newcastle are among the clubs to have been criticised for using the furlough scheme

Newcastle are among the clubs to have been criticised for using the furlough scheme

What does furlough do? It saves jobs. Positions of employment that would otherwise be lost. Arsenal did not use furlough, but laid off staff instead.

No doubt other football clubs would, too, without the safety net. What is to happen to catering staff at a ground that hasn’t opened in a year? Without furlough, they would have been made redundant months ago.

The Government does not want that. It would be crippling for the economy to have millions more unemployed during a pandemic. And if businesses throughout Britain have then taken advantage of this desire to protect the economy, why should football be different? The truth is, football isn’t different. It’s just an easy headline for another grandstanding politician.

‘The Premier League clearly has questions to answer and should be held accountable,’ Knight parped. ‘We on the committee called out clubs for using Government money to pay their non-playing staff, while at the same time paying top wages to star players. We called for the Premier League to put a stop to it, and for the Chancellor to impose a windfall tax if clubs refused.’

Yes, that’s exactly what business needs during a financial crisis: a windfall tax. And one that is imposed randomly, solely against one industry because there’s more easy publicity from it for that friend of the tax avoiders.

The honourable member, you may recall, wrote a book on how to escape inheritance tax, yet still feels empowered to lecture on financial propriety.

And no, taking furlough money is not a good look for football, particularly the wealthiest clubs. One imagines if Richard Scudamore had remained in charge of the Premier League a very firm directive would have been privately issued on the day the scheme was announced that none of the 20 elite teams should take advantage.

And that would have been the right move, certainly in terms of corporate image. Even so, there is no difference between a claim from a football club and a claim from the brother-in-law of the Emir of Qatar — who owns The Ritz — if it achieves the intention of protecting jobs.

Burnley could fund their staff by selling a player but then might end up in the Championship

Burnley could fund their staff by selling a player but then might end up in the Championship

It is therefore utterly disingenuous — and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the business of football, which would explain a lot — for Knight to make comparisons between expenditure on players and the positions of office staff.

Yes, Burnley could sell Ben Mee to ensure ticket-office personnel were paid. Yet with no trade in tickets for more than a year, what would be the point of that? It would weaken the squad and — as the only part of the football club still functioning is the team — threaten Burnley’s Premier League survival. And then, when the ticket office staff returned in readiness for next season, they could be selling tickets for the Championship. So there would be fewer of them. Meaning some staff would have to go.

For a former financial journalist, how does Knight not join these dots? How does he fail to appreciate that the employees of the club, and the playing staff, operate to entirely different imperatives under one roof? That one is active during lockdown, and the other is not?

That one has to be maintained, even at the expensive going rate, for the good of the other?

What would Knight’s cunning plan be for the survival of The Ritz? Hey, Sheik — if we sell all the beds, we can keep the maids.

Be warned – Blades gig is not cosy 

Having lost a fine manager in Chris Wilder, Sheffield United owner Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud now seeks to undermine his reputation.

Wilder threatened to resign twice in his final season, he demanded a £4million pay-off, the club wanted to keep him and it was his decision to go.

Why do this? Because Prince Abdullah has made a mistake and is getting his mitigations in early. If Wilder’s replacement is not as successful — and it is hard to imagine he will be, given Wilder won two promotions then finished ninth in his first Premier League season — this makes it look as if the club had no choice in the face of his selfish disloyalty.

Wilder deserved better. Still, at least his successor arrives forewarned about the largesse and gratitude of his employer.

Chris Wilder deserved better and whoever replaces him has a huge job on their hands

Chris Wilder deserved better and whoever replaces him has a huge job on their hands

Aki missed by an inch but his ban time is a mile off 

Many will have felt sympathy for Ireland’s Bundee Aki on Saturday.

He was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola during the 32-18 win over England. There were 17 minutes remaining and, had the scores been close, it could have made a huge difference. Nobody thought Aki’s challenge was intended to hit where it did. It was, at worst, reckless; at best, misjudged. A few years ago, it wouldn’t even have registered as more than a big collision.

Yet while accepting Aki was ‘just inches too high’ and that the tackle was not ‘deliberate or intentional’, an independent disciplinary committee still banned him for four matches, including Connacht’s Challenge Cup round-of-16 tie with Leicester Tigers. And those are the rules, Aki knows and accepts it. Yet it is hard to see what he could have done against Vunipola other than standing aside.

Is the length of the additional suspension really necessary? Everyone wants rugby to be safe, but there must be some acknowledgement of the fine margins. Aki was out by inches. His punishment misses by a mile.

Bundee Aki was sent off for Ireland after a high tackle on Billy Vunipola at the weekend

Bundee Aki was sent off for Ireland after a high tackle on Billy Vunipola at the weekend

The latest and least lamented victim of Covid-19 would appear to be Financial Fair Play, which UEFA is poised to abandon now the elite groups shaping it can no longer comply. 

Clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona have taken an enormous financial hit, but still want to be active in the transfer market this summer. 

So, farewell FFP. This, however, does not mean the end of financial regulation. It will merely be restructured with more focus on ‘high levels of wages and the transfer market’, according to Andrea Traverso, UEFA’s director of research and financial stability. 

Who knows what this means? All we can guarantee is that it will be reshot, to further protect the likes of Manchester United, by targeting clubs such as Manchester City. Because it always is.

Barcelona have taken a massive hit from the impact of the coronavirus crisis

Barcelona have taken a massive hit from the impact of the coronavirus crisis 

Here’s Jonny… with an inflated view of his own talent 

Jonny Bairstow says he wants to bat at No 3 for England in the Ashes. He argues that being shunted around the middle order has affected his performance in Test cricket.

And it’s true, Bairstow has been required to bat in every position from three to eight with England.

But he’s not alone. Moeen Ali has batted everywhere from opener to No 9, as well as being asked to operate as a front-line spinner.

Establishing a settled place in the team can be difficult for England’s versatile players.

Yet first bat down has never had a more important role to play for England, with Joe Root in at four. The priority is to protect the captain so that he arrives at an optimum time to score.

Jonny Bairstow has shown little evidence to support the idea he should bat No 3

Jonny Bairstow has shown little evidence to support the idea he should bat No 3 

Bringing him to the crease hurried and early because an opener has fallen, and then the No 3, destroys this game plan. In three of Bairstow’s last four Test innings, his departure brought Root in after 37, three and 29 balls. In those innings, Bairstow survived a combined total of 12 deliveries.

So what on earth makes him believe he is a No3? Bairstow has a Test average of 34.12, which is nowhere near enough, yet at No 3 records only 30.76.

He has not gone short of opportunity, either. Across 14 innings at three, he has recorded one century — his first Test innings there, 110 against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2018 — and one half century, 52 against West Indies in 2019. There is little in his form or history that suggests this, then, is his position in Test cricket. If he has been moved around the middle order, there is a reason for that.

Don’t forget your local rugby club  

It is a great pity, of course, that fans from these Isles will not be able to follow the British and Irish Lions to South Africa this summer.

But it is no reason to cancel the tour. As Sir Ian McGeechan pointed out this week, the concept of the Lions as huge travelling circus dates from 1997, and has grown from there.

Sir Ian has been head coach on four Lions tours, midweek coach on another, and represented them eight times across two campaigns as a player. He is immersed in Lions culture. He dates the sight of a red wall of Lions shirts in stadiums to the visit to South Africa 24 years ago, which coincided with live television coverage back home, a victorious tour and the famous Living With Lions film — the precursor to the Amazon sporting documentaries we see now.

British Lions fans should flock to their local clubs to watch the games for a much-needed boost

British Lions fans should flock to their local clubs to watch the games for a much-needed boost

When McGeechan played in 1974, he says there were few travelling fans, no live broadcast — even in the host country — and highlights were shown four days later, on Sportsnight.

So this, sadly, will be a throwback tour, with only home supporters in the arena, and will be poorer for that.

But your local rugby club needs money, too. It will have struggled through Covid, its revenue streams will have been crushed. If all the people whose trips south have been cancelled flocked to their club instead, if they spent the money at the bar, or on the barbecue, if they brought mates, had a jolly-up built around the match — well, no, it wouldn’t be the same.

But it might give our grassroots game a jolt. And some good will have come of it.

Isaac Hayden has started more games than any other player for Newcastle this season, so of course he is out for the remainder of it, with a knee injury.

All clubs have endured absences during this uniquely truncated campaign but Newcastle’s have impacted on just about every good player at the club. And when there are so few to go around, that’s a problem.

Parry’s greedy ‘big picture’ 

There was precious little discussion of Project Big Picture at the Premier League meeting on Thursday. Why? It was a sham.

The idea that Manchester United and Liverpool wanted to help those in the EFL survive lasted one UEFA conversation in which the prospect of an expanded Champions League was floated. 

The Big Picture clubs seized that opportunity, selling out the EFL’s one jewel, the League Cup, in the process and their true motives were revealed. It was always about money, and power.

Rick Parry alienated people who needed his help and his self-interest was all too transparent

Rick Parry alienated people who needed his help and his self-interest was all too transparent

They are still pushing for limited voting clout for newly promoted clubs and other protectionist strategies, but at least everyone knows where they stand. There is no pretence of acting in the greater good, the lie Rick Parry tried to sell. Parry overplayed his hand enormously. 

At the start of this month Mehmet Dalman, chairman of Cardiff, was comically encouraging him to ‘wage war’ on the Premier League on behalf of the Championship. With what? The war had already been fought and Parry’s resources turned out to be as exaggerated as the Elite Republican Guard that were going to help Iraq win the first Gulf War. 

He alienated the very people whose help he needed, and even his allies conspired against him. There never was a big picture. Just a very small one, born of self-interest and greed and utterly transparent.

At the current rate of progress, Manchester United will be 15 points off the title winners come May. That would be an improvement on last season when they were 33 adrift of Liverpool. 

Still no trophies, either, unless Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can win the Europa League. Yet Solskjaer will sign a new contract in the summer, perhaps suggesting Manchester United’s expectations have altered. 

Their patience will be applauded, but it wouldn’t wash at Chelsea, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will sign a contract extension and Manchester United have been patient

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will sign a contract extension and Manchester United have been patient

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