The following interview with Steve Parish was published today by The Times newspaper and here on the official website we give you an opportunity to read his views on all things Premier League.
For all its foibles, the top flight is the only place that the vocal Crystal Palace chief will lay his hat, Matthew Syed writes
I have to admit that I like Steve Parish. The Crystal Palace co-owner, a lifelong fan of the club, is a fast-talking, say-it-as-you-see-it, pukka kind of a guy. Over the course of 100 inflammatory minutes, he cuts to the core of many of the most acute problems in football and the daily madness of being an owner. But he also expresses, in the way that only a fan can, why, despite its many imperfections, the game is still beautiful.
“Football: it gets you in your soul,” he says at his offices in the heart of Soho, his south London inflection accentuated by the echo from the brickwork. “The love a real fan has for his club is like the love you have for your mother. Bill Wyman [a former member of the Rolling Stones who supports Palace] came to a match last year and I asked him if he still followed the results. ‘What do you mean, still f***ing follow the results?’ he said. ‘When you lose, I can’t sleep for a f***ing week.’ ”
“Football is massive because it engages every emotion. Richard Scudamore [the executive chairman of the Premier League] has a brilliant phrase: he calls it ‘unscripted drama’. It accounts for most of the traffic on Twitter, most of the conversations in the pubs. It’s no wonder that wealthy people want to own clubs. It’s the biggest hit you can get.”
“When I came into football, I had a successful advertising business employing 3,000 people in 13 countries. But you know what? My school never asked me to come back and talk to the pupils. Nobody knew who the hell I was. Then I bought a loss-making football club in south London and suddenly everyone wants to talk to me and hear my views on the world. It’s probably the worst business decision I ever made. But because you are an owner, you suddenly matter.”
This is the easiest interview ever. Questions are redundant; I just sit back and listen, not just to his views on the upsides of football, but also his breathtaking honesty on the cancers that beset the game. “One of the biggest scandals are all the film schemes that players are on,” he says. “Lots of the agents get paid on that. I know a situation where the player was in a film scheme, got a bill, worked out that the agent had been paid a commission, and hired a lawyer. He got a load of money back from the agent.”
You are talking about kickbacks, here, I ask? “Yeah, it’s a disgrace. There were some agents who were getting £2,500 payoffs to organise a Coutts mortgage with a s*** interest rate. They are making millions out of the players. The players trust them, then they get ripped off. Not all agents are like that; some are damn good. But this kind of thing goes on all the time.”
Some agents distort the transfer market by siphoning money from clubs into their own accounts, which has been going on for years. But Parish has a solution: “Every deal should be transparent. You should have to publish where the money goes on every deal. That will embarrass clubs out of paying so much to agents. I know one deal recently where an agent got £3 million. Their power is based on knowledge. We [the clubs] have no knowledge.
“What knowledge do I have about the right amount of money to pay for a player? There are a couple of big agencies near here with hundreds of players on their books; they know exactly what all of those players sold for and what they are being paid.
We’ve asked the league, ‘You know everything. You have every transfer document. Why can’t we have some benchmarks?’
“If I have an agent saying, ‘I can get this player £50,000 a week around the corner’, I don’t know if he is telling the truth or if it is an almighty bluff. I have about five seconds to decide because that is how fast football moves.”
Parish foresees a particular problem with a new rule that allows parents to become agents. “In African families, in particular, there is an obligation for the successful child to look after the extended family. I know that parents are being paid for young players to make bad decisions. In America, it’s illegal to pay the parent of the player. But in football, a parent can register as an intermediary for £600 and take control. There are dads getting paid £50,000 to give their kids to a club. No boy of 16 is going to go against what his old man is telling him.”
I move Parish back to his views on the subject of ownership. Does he think that the various owners in the Barclays Premier League share the same motives? “They have lots of different reasons for owning clubs,” he says. “For [Roman] Abramovich [owner of Chelsea], it’s, ‘The more visibility I’ve got, the safer I will be when [Putin] comes after me’. For the sovereign wealth fund [in Abu Dhabi, where Manchester City’s owners are based], it’s about promoting the country. The fund has trillions in it. They have no concept of money.
“For the Glazers [owners of Manchester United], it’s about making money. Americans feel that Premier League clubs are undervalued assets. The Glazers totally got the value of the United brand. You have got to hand it to them, they have made tens of millions by being strategic; they have milked the brand for all it’s worth.”
Parish almost goes misty-eyed when he considers the astonishing retail success of the English top flight. “The Premier League receives £753 million from the 212 TV stations overseas per year for the right to show the games. That’s more than Serie A, La Liga, the French League, the Bundesliga, the NBA, the NFL and the baseball [MLB] for their overseas rights put together. That is just staggering. We have one of the greatest products in the world.
“And the reason goes right back to decisions taken at the birth of the Premier League. The equitable distribution of the TV money [where all overseas rights and half of the domestic rights are shared equally between the clubs] was a masterstroke. It was like [Thomas] Jefferson [former American president] separating church and state. They talk about the Bundesliga as equitable, but that’s bulls***. The top team gets three and a half times the TV money of the bottom team. The ratio is only one and a half in the Premier League — that is why we have such fierce competition. Nobody wants to see Palace getting rolled over 10-0 every weekend.”
As the interview draws to a close, we move on to subjects as diverse as education, politics and love. Parish, divorced, hugely likeable, and living at least one kind of dream, is philosophical. “I love running this club, it is one of the most fulfilling things I have done,” he says. “Football can be a crazy and, at times, maddening place. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”