Premier League bids to avoid another Pompey
When Premier League chief Richard Scudamore admitted last week to feeling like "a bit of a mug" for believing the lies Portsmouth officials kept telling him last season, I knew what he meant. The various regimes at Fratton Park made mugs us of all and it will be some time before I unreservedly believe anything any club director tells me about his/her team's finances.
Where I have less sympathy with Scudamore, however, is with the idea the Pompey debacle could have been avoided if only people were more honest with each other. Fewer fibs would have helped but too much debt and not enough regulation made Portsmouth a mishap waiting to happen.
Thankfully, Scudamore does not intend to be made a mug of again as the Premier League season starts this weekend with a considerably thicker financial rulebook.
No longer will a club director be able to get away with a verbal assurance to the boss that all is cushty. Proper regulatory checks, financial transparency and paying your taxes on time are the order of the day.
I am fighting the temptation to mention bolting horses and stable doors (and not just because it is a well-worn cliché): the Premier League deserves praise for responding as promptly as it has and nobody can say it is not willing to learn from its mistakes.
The new rules came about in two waves of legislative activity that can be described as pre- and post-Pompey.
The first tranche of "financial requirements" were announced last September (when Pompey fans were still relatively optimistic about their prospects under the UAE-based "millionaire" Sulaiman Al Fahim) and they markedly increased the amount of financial information the league would know about each of its members.
Independently audited accounts from each club must now arrive at the league's Gloucester Place HQ by 1 March, and concerns flagged up by the auditors have to be highlighted. Liverpool's accounts, for example, have included warnings of "material uncertainty" about the club's debt levels for the last two years.
A plan to tackle this debt is also now required reading at PL Towers, as all clubs must submit "future financial information" by 31 March, the idea being no more unpleasant surprises.
And finally all clubs must demonstrate they have no debts to other members of the football family or HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC).
A good start, then (and certainly a move away from the laissez-faire philosophy of the pre-Credit Crunch years), but Pompey had already plunged into administration by the time those first accounts were due. More warning lights were required if the "EPL" was going to continue to market itself as the world's favourite football league.
So at June's general meeting, three extra provisions were brought in to bolster the rulebook.
First, any prospective new owner of a club will have to show proof of funds and explain their plan for the business. The much criticised "fit and proper person test" has become the "means and abilities test" the league previously shied away from.
Second, the would-be owner will have to do this in person, at the league's offices, within 10 days of a deal to buy the club being agreed in principle.
A face-to-face meeting, a few bank statements and a brief chat about how things might pan out? Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it would have prevented the Al Fahim and Ali Al Faraj interludes at Fratton Park.
The league is currently watching events at Anfield and Ewood Park closely, and whoever it is that ends up buying those institutions will be invited to London for tea and biscuits soon after.
The clubs' final new commitment is to go further in their efforts to avoid confrontations with the taxman. September's promise to clear all tax debts annually has been improved to a clean slate every three months. In fact, the next new deadline for Premier League clubs is 30 September, the first quarterly tax check.
Recent months have seen a depressing number of football chairmen asking judges for more time to pay taxes that the vast majority of us accept as the cost of living in a civilised society. To use that old football favourite, these episodes have done nothing but bring the game into disrepute.
So the attempt to prevent this kind of thing from happening again can only be welcomed. It is also good politics.
HMRC is currently preparing a challenge to English football's controversial insolvency rule that states other clubs and players must be paid first and in full when a team goes bust. Everybody else owed money - the public purse, local traders and even charities - have to make do with what is left over, and that is often a huge write-off.
The Premier League will defend its "football creditors rule" in court if need be but privately hopes the beefed-up "HMRC reporting" requirements might be enough to placate the taxman. Only time will tell if this works but the gesture cannot hurt.
So will all this new regulation prevent another Pompey from tarnishing the Premier League brand? Yes. Probably. I hope so.
I won't make the mistake of saying lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice as there is a tree in my local park that says otherwise, but I think Portsmouth's fall has concentrated minds around the league, as well as at headquarters. I certainly don't think a Premier League club will ever be allowed to get itself into such a hole with HMRC again.
But there is still "material uncertainty" about English football's attitude to cost control.
Quite simply, most clubs still pay wages they cannot afford. Revenues continue to rise, largely thanks to Scudamore's undoubted ability to sell TV rights around the world, but profits are almost non-existent as the money hardly touches the sides, flowing through the clubs and straight into the players' bank accounts.
Soaring wages, worrying amounts of debt and increased exposure to the threat of rising interest rates in the coming years were highlighted in surprisingly lurid tones by Deloitte's Annual Review of Football Finance in June.
"For every £100 that comes into Premier League clubs, £67 goes out on the wage bill - that's too high," said Dan Jones, the report's editor.
"The wage-to-turnover ratio needs to be brought back under control."
Good luck. Clubs, terrified of failing to quality for European competition or being relegated, continue to sanction salaries they cannot sensibly afford.
A more recent survey of club finance directors by the accountancy firm PKF has found that the number of teams spending more than 65% of their turnover on wages has doubled in the last two years.
"The inflexibility of players' salaries is once again the biggest concern," the report states.
The only way this will ever change is when somebody imposes a limit on the clubs but there is no inkling of that in the Premier League's new proposals and even Uefa's much vaunted "Financial Fair Play" regulations fall short of a salary cap.
Until football grasps this nettle it is very difficult to say with real conviction that there won't be "another Pompey" in the Premier League. The new rules are a move in the right direction, though.