Rick Parry: Clubs have saved people during the coronavirus crisis – my job is to save them
Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer
Monday June 29 2020, 5.00pm, The Times
When Rick Parry went for his interview to be English Football League chairman, he was asked why he was interested in the EFL. He had run the Premier League, after all, and run Liverpool. “I said because the EFL matters,” Parry recalls. “Seventy one, seventy two really important clubs, 18 million fans a year, some great football, some great characters. It’s vibrant. And the clubs are at the heart of their communities.” Parry pauses. “Covid definitely wasn’t in the job description.”
This week, Parry’s clubs will highlight the life-saving community work they’ve done during the pandemic while a board meeting will discuss the future of the leagues. It has been a challenging period for Parry, trying to ensure that the pyramid stays in shape despite the financial tempest blowing through clubs with their draining costs, closed turnstiles and revenue streams becoming trickles.
“Most nights have been sleepless,” Parry admits, talking this morning via the video conferencing app Teams. Yet the 65-year-old has managed to cajole clubs to agree to a formula to see out the season, either through a points-per-game (PPG) formula but retaining the play-offs, such as the Sky Bet League Two final today, or completion of the Championship programme. Parry’s experience, patience and persuasive skills have been tested.
Clubs like Peterborough United and Tranmere Rovers felt the unforgiving edge of PPG. “When you’re taking tough decisions you’re never going to please everybody,” Parry replies. “Whatever formula you come up with for ending a season some people are going to be aggrieved but then they’re aggrieved at the end of every season anyway.
“There are always winners. There are always losers. It’s a game of passion, emotion. When I was at Liverpool I used to say it was a game of black and white, never any shades of grey, either things were great or awful. Clubs that have done well out of PPG are ecstatic. Those that haven’t are dismal. But what we did was fair. It was logical.
“My preference was to play out the season always at every level but the clubs in the lower divisions took what was probably the right decision in the end. Trying to get all the games played simultaneously would have been challenging. Our aim is to get through this crisis, not just in terms of the next few months, but the next year, the next two years, with 72 clubs intact. I’m not subscribing to that ‘maybe 50 clubs will go to the wall’ song by any stretch of the imagination.
“Bury haven’t been forgotten [after their expulsion because of financial chaos]. There is a very large vacuum in that community and people trying to resurrect football in Bury, as we’ve seen many times over the years, a club goes and a fledging one emerges. It’s about keeping the entire pyramid alive. I don’t subscribe to the talk of ‘well maybe it’s time for a trimming, maybe we’ve got too many clubs’. I come from completely the opposite perspective. It’s more important than ever to keep them alive. Clearly there are a few who are finding it tough but I’m genuinely optimistic we will find solutions and we will get through it.”
Even with their own existence under threat, clubs rallied to people in need. “We’ve seen the best of the clubs in many ways, shining examples in helping the community,” Parry continues. During the pandemic, EFL clubs have delivered more than 210,000 food packages, 13,000 items of personal protection equipment and 3,500 prescriptions. They’ve made more than 120,000 phone-calls to vulnerable and elderly. “Just think of the impact that has if your manager picks up the phone and asks how you are?” Parry adds. “It’s a simple thing to do but incredibly impactful.
“Clubs do save lives by being there, by providing support, also by providing hope. In a time of crisis having hope is incredibly important. It’s really important not to give up. It’s important to have something to dream about, and football 100 per cent brings that.
“Your bond with your football club is a massively deep emotional bond that is lifelong and spans generations so people will turn to their clubs in times of need. It is a big responsibility that we carry but it’s also a huge opportunity. It’s fantastic that so many clubs have recognised that responsibility and responded so positively.”
He thinks of the 36.6 million people in England and Wales who live within a ten-mile radius of an EFL club. “Our reach is extraordinary,” Parry says. “Many of our clubs are in the most deprived areas of the country. During the previous season, 2018-19, we touched around 900,000 people through the community schemes.”
During the pandemic, more than 30 clubs have opened their doors to the NHS, offering space and facilities in stadia for testing and accommodation. Plymouth Argyle were among the first to throw open their doors for the NHS. “It’s difficult to single clubs out — I feel I’m being unkind to others who also do brilliant work — but Plymouth are a really good example,” Parry says. “Burton Albion are another very good example. They responded instantly as soon as the crisis started setting up a food distribution hub, making the stadium available to NHS for staff and key workers. Middlesbrough were delivering food parcels straight away, school meals and hundreds of phone calls to elderly and disabled supporters. There are beacons everywhere you look.”
The beacons will burn with even more hope for the clubs themselves if they can welcome back fans as early as possible next season. At Wednesday’s EFL meeting they may discuss when that start will be. Parry sounds upbeat. “The green shoots of recovery are definitely there. I don’t want to pre-empt what the government’s going to say in the next couple of weeks but the talk about spectators returning, albeit gradually, is definitely ramping up in volume at the moment.
“We absolutely mustn’t get complacent. I don’t think for one minute the virus is permanently vanished but compared with where we were even six weeks ago there are definitely grounds for cautious optimism. We are not out of the woods yet. I’ve never known a situation where there are so many moving parts and where there is so much uncertainty. Planning ahead is really difficult because we just don’t know.”
What everyone does know, and accepts, is the need for more financial sanity and stability amongst EFL clubs. “It is a huge wake-up call not just in the costs but in terms of the way that we share revenues,” Parry adds. “The lottery that is the Championship with total wages at 107 per cent of turnover, losses in hundreds of millions, wasn’t sustainable at any time. It’s definitely not sustainable now. Something has to be done not just because of the crisis but to make sure clubs are properly sustainable going forward.”
Like? “Salary caps are being discussed at every level. We already have salary caps in Leagues One and Leagues Two but it’s a different form of salary cap that’s now being debated. The problem with the previous cap it was a percentage of revenue. In the case of some clubs like Bury it was a percentage of revenue that never actually arrived. A hard salary cap is a different form of cap. In theory, it is simpler to monitor.”
Reports suggest a cap of £2.5 million for League One clubs and £1.5 million for League Two with players aged under 21 exempt. One figure mentioned for the Championship was £18 million.
“The difference will be the debate at Championship level,” Parry says, “but again you can’t go beyond the basic number that says 107 per cent of turnover spent on wages. Over the last five seasons, it has been 99 per cent or above every single season. It’s a trend that has, frankly, been getting worse despite the fact that we have the profit and sustainability rules, we still have clubs in the Championship racking up £300m in losses. They are not actually making the clubs either profitable or sustainable.”
Parry wants money from the Premier League to be more equitable, spread around, rather than primarily lavished on relegated clubs like Huddersfield Town, Cardiff City and Fulham from last season with West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Swansea City also eligible. “Parachute payments are divisive. We have six clubs in the Championship who between them are receiving around £226 million in parachute payments (this season) and then the other 18 clubs receiving £81 million between them.
“It is not an equitable split. It encourages irrational behaviour from the clubs who are not in receipt of parachute payments. I definitely think they should go. The parachute payment addresses the symptom but not the problem. Why are they helping clubs who are dropping out of the Premier League? They are helping them because there is a chasm. Why don’t we address the chasm? Then we wouldn’t need the parachute payments.
“If you look a couple of seasons ago, you had Leeds United receiving around £4 million in TV money and Huddersfield who were in the Premier League, albeit briefly, receiving £100 million. How can that be right? For the benefit of clubs in the Premier League and in the Championship we need to get rid of the cliff edge. We need to narrow the gap between the two.”
One of the suggestions to address cost down the pyramid has been to regionalise North and South. “I don’t see that. Obviously in football you never say never but definitely not on my horizon at the moment.” Parry’s immediate horizon was Wembley for tonight’s League Two play-off final, and a moment to reflect on his work during the pandemic. “Working with great people, working with great clubs is a privilege,” Parry says. “The EFL matters.”