How to improve the Football League?
On Monday evening, Football League chairman Greg Clarke sat down for a low-key, off-the-record dinner with 12 chairmen from clubs in the North West of England.
He was hoping to find out what they really thought about the state of the Football League and if they thought it could be improved. He wanted to hear their ideas and opinions, no matter how bizarre or radical they might seem.
It was the latest leg of Clarke's very own grand tour, as the 53-year-old attempts to visit all 72 clubs under his jurisdiction during the course of the current season.
Clarke dropped in at Preston, Accrington, Stockport and Crewe over the course of Monday and Tuesday. On Friday evening, he will be at Burton and on Saturday will see Charlton play Yeovil at The Valley.
Accrington supporters collected money to help save their club last year. Photo: PA
It is a busy schedule - and one that has so far taken Clarke, a former chairman of Leicester City, to roughly 35 clubs. But he firmly believes that by sounding out opinions in small groups, chairmen will be more candid and forthcoming than they would be at the quarterly general meetings that are attended by all 72 clubs each year.
The intention is that Clarke, who succeeded Lord Mawhinney in March, will build up a detailed picture of issues facing his clubs and the concerns of people running them.
"I am collecting opinions," Clarke told me. "Ultimately, I am trying to move us away from dealing with issues as they emerge to having a view of where we want to take the Football League over the next five, 10 or 15 years."
Lofty ambitions - and not surprisingly a lot of Clarke's discussions have focused on finances. With the country facing an uncertain economic future, financial health is surely the single biggest issue facing his clubs.
"We are all holding our breath wondering what is going to happen," added Clarke, who has a lengthy business background, including spells as chief executive of Cable & Wireless and head of Australian company Land Lease, which is building the the Olympic Village in London. "What we do not want to do [at the Football League] is spend all our time rescuing nearly bankrupt clubs."
His comments are timely given the situation at Sheffield Wednesday. The League One club are £27m in debt and this week were given 28 days to find new owners and clear an unpaid tax bill after surviving a winding-up petition in the High Court.
Then there are the clubs Clarke visited this week. Accrington needed a 'Save our Stanley' campaign to prevent them from going bust last year, while Stockport recently spent more than a year in administration and Preston are cutting costs as they attempt to reduce their sizeable debts.
Not surprisingly, Clarke is actively encouraging his clubs to try to maximise their ways of generating income while finding out whether they are willing to put in place regulations that will help them control spending.
"Imagine there is a small chance of really bad economic things happening in six, 12 or 18 months - what tools do we have in place to manage it?" said Clarke. "Currently we don't have them." So what ideas have been thrown at Clarke? And what are these tools?
Well, clubs in the fourth tier are currently limited to spending 55% (it used to be 60%) of their income on player wages or risk a transfer embargo. This is technically known as Salary Control Management Protocol (SCMP).
League One clubs agreed to trial the system at their last meeting in October. They are currently filling in the necessary paperwork and will continue to do so for the remainder of the season, although at this stage there will not be any punishment for clubs that fail to stay within the limits.
Clarke has not encountered much support for this sort of scheme from Championship clubs. Most have been in the Premier League and are focused on returning. However, Clarke hinted they might be prepared to trial an adapted version of the Uefa financial fair play regulations brought into force in May. The gist of these is that, over time, top-flight clubs must break even financially if they want to play in European competitions.
"All the clubs in all the divisions are looking at very different ways of examining how to keep their costs under control," added Clarke. "We are not looking for revolution but to evolve good ideas. Trying something out is a painless way of understanding what works and what does not."
Listening to Clarke in conversation can be a dizzying and confusing experience for someone without a business background. His answers are sprinkled with phrases such as trajectory of governance, negative economic consequences and managing cost space.
Yet Clarke's willingness to leave his office to engage with 72 Football League chairmen suggests a man who understands that football does not operate like any other business.
The Football League believe they govern an exciting three divisions. Photo: Getty Images
"The skills you need to draw ideas out of people at a football club are fundamentally different to being the chief executive of a multinational [company]," he said.
Chairmen of clubs are under pressure to spend to succeed (to up the risk profile, as Clarke put it), signing the players that might bring promotion or stave off relegation. Clarke was briefly in charge of Leicester during their spell in administration in 2002 and reckons he has been up to his neck in the mud, blood and bullets of running a club. His experience has taught him that a club must be run on a sound financial footing if it is to survive. "Finances are fragile and we have to address some of the fundamental problems," he said.
Clarke also told me he has been surprised by the volume of innovative ideas he has encountered in his informal meetings and believes that the assertion that football is run by inherently conservative people is wrong. "A lot of clubs are willing to think the unthinkable if it takes them where they want to go," he said.
He is in no doubt that the Football League would be happy to trial goal-line technology, for example, or other such initiatives. "The Football League will put itself forward because we are an innovator," said Clarke. "There are always a few who are not sure about something but they are generally willing to try it."
Clarke's big idea is that the Football League puts in place a vision of where its clubs are going in the long term. What opportunities will emerge? What are the big risks? Trying to find the answers to this is part of the reason he is going out to visit his clubs.
"The whole idea is that we will have some initial analysis to share with the clubs at the end-of-season meeting in June," he said.
Clarke's predecessor, Lord Mawhinney, showed during his seven years as chairman an ability to drive through the legislation that brings about change. He rebranded the league, introduced transparency over payments to agents and tightened the rules regarding administration.
Clarke believes that the Football League is a strong product - exciting, competitive and unpredictable. He wants that to continue while ensuring clubs are robust enough to survive if the economy really does sour. It is a laudable and, in these uncertain times, sensible aim.
Personally, I have yet to be convinced that clubs would willingly sacrifice ambition for stability even though it is clearly time to prioritise a balancing of the books. What do you think? And If you were at an off-the-record dinner with the chairman of the Football League, what would you suggest to him?