Alive and kicking: Meet five CAs who are helping to shape the future of football
It’s been a difficult year for football, with stadiums empty and many major competitions either postponed or scrapped. With the new season already up and running, five CAs tell Ryan Herman why the business of the beautiful game may be forever changed.
Legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”. It often felt that way during the summer. Many of us looked to the game to offer some respite from the grim reality of the world outside.
The professional sport is at a crossroads. A new season in England has just started without fans. Women’s football in Scotland is about to return for the first time since March, when the 2020 season was declared null and void after one round of games. Meanwhile, clubs everywhere are frantically trading players before the transfer window closes this month to shore up losses incurred during lockdown.
We speak to five CAs working at all levels of the game. It is their job to ensure the sport emerges intact from the pandemic, but also finds new growth opportunities and has a positive impact on society.
Rimla Akhtar CA, FA Councillor
The English Premier League and Championship finally completed their domestic seasons in July. But Rimla Akhtar CA believes that football missed an open goal in failing to also promote the women’s game, which cancelled all its matches for six months.
Akhtar, who sits on the FA Council that decides the key policies of football’s governing body in England, says: “Here was a chance to put women’s sport in the shop window. Look at America, where women’s football had its best viewing figures on its return. When England’s Lionesses do well, the numbers playing the sport rise, and that has a positive impact on personal health. One of the opportunities [that has arisen from Covid] is to look at the value that sport adds to society, and women’s sport adds immense value beyond the bottom line.”
I'm the first Asian woman on the FA Council, but the important thing is that I’m not the last.
It is the FA’s job to promote and develop the game, and diversity is one of Akhtar’s top priorities for this season. “Everyone is eager to see that change happen a lot quicker,” she adds. “I think Black Lives Matter has helped us have those discussions but we need to walk the talk.”
As a young adult, Akhtar played cricket and lacrosse at county level before representing the British Muslim Women’s Futsal team (indoor football with a smaller ball), even delaying her start date with PwC to captain the team at the 2005 Women’s Islamic Games.
She soon became more involved in the administrative side of sport as Chair of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation. Then, in 2014, Akhtar broke new ground with her role at the FA: “A lot was made of being the first Asian woman on the FA Council, but the important thing is that I’m not the last, and that I open doors for others.”
Akhtar says that being a CA gives her credibility to speak with authority about football and business: “Look at the number of chartered accountants in football, like David Gill who was CEO at Manchester United. It speaks volumes for the qualification and level of education. It means I’m not just this Muslim woman who wears a hijab, plays football and has come into this sports space. I’m Rimla Akhtar who is a CA, who has all that experience, knowledge and know-how as well as a network outside of sport. Being on the ICAS Council is also an opportunity to learn from fellow CAs, to see what they’re doing in different industries and how that can be applied in sport.”
Duncan Fraser CA, UEFA Mentor
When Duncan Fraser CA was asked to join Aberdeen FC as Company Secretary in 2002, the club was haemorrhaging money. “The reason I chose to do it was twofold,” he says. “The love of the game and the support of the two major corporate shareholders – Stewart Milne Group and Aberdeen Asset Management – who said that they would back the business for as long as necessary to turn it around. They were true to their word.”
Fraser, who was appointed Chief Executive in 2010, a position he held for nine years, says short-sightedness can plague many clubs: “The majority of fans will get behind you until you lose a few games and then they want answers,” he says. “So there is a tendency to make short-term decisions and no business will ever be successful that way.
Scottish football without crowds is a minefield.
“I felt there was a lack of planning throughout the game. In our first year, turnover didn’t increase much but the wages-to-turnover ratio went from 87% to 63%, so everyone could see that we were taking action. Those two shareholders also had a lot of CAs. So, I was able to call on that network, as much for support as anything else, when hard decisions had to be made.”
Expanding the scouting network, while allowing senior players on big contracts to leave, formed part of that initial period. This led to the clearing of the bank debt, which not only transformed the balance sheet, but also helped Aberdeen win the League Cup in 2014 – their first trophy since 1996.
While much about football has changed since Fraser arrived at Aberdeen nearly two decades ago, he despairs at many teams spending all their turnover – and often more – on wages. Assessing the financial challenges clubs now face, he says: “When I was young, Scottish football always had high gates as a percentage of income. But we also sold players every season. Every top English club bought Scottish players. We don’t sell as successfully as we did then. TV money has made up for most of that but what we need is crowds. Scottish football without crowds is a minefield.”
Fraser recently took up a new role at European football’s governing body Uefa, which he hopes will help national associations across the continent make sustainable business decisions. “They have a programme called Uefa Grow, which is designed to help them maximise their business potential,” he explains.
“You have big, well-run federations like Germany. You also have smaller nations, and it’s making sure that football throughout Europe is sustainable for every country from professionals to grassroots. That’s where my CA training comes in. I will be working on all aspects of developing strategy including governance and making sure they are maximising income streams. We have a responsibility to make sure football is there for future generations.”
The dream job
Catherine Chadwick CA, Head of Business Improvement, Everton Football Club
Evertonians have looked to a future beyond Goodison Park for many years now. The proposed move to Bramley-Moore Dock would be the biggest new stadium project in the UK – but what would happen to the ground that’s been Everton’s home since 1892?
“A new stadium is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the football club and the Liverpool city region,” says Catherine Chadwick CA. “I have been working on the wider project that will see us create a legacy at Goodison Park. We are not selling the land to a supermarket or retail park, and we are not selling the land to create an unsympathetic housing estate.
I realised there were other jobs in football which didn’t involve playing.
“We have listened to local people and will provide facilities that will help the community, including high-quality and affordable housing, a multi-purpose health centre, community-led retail spaces, a youth enterprise zone, office and business facilities and green space that could include a lasting tribute to the club’s achievements at Goodison Park. It is a very exciting time to be at Everton.”
For Chadwick, working for the club is a lifetime ambition fulfilled. “I have been going to watch Everton since I was a child,” Chadwick says. “When younger, I read an interview in a matchday programme with the CEO at the time. That’s when I realised there were other jobs in football which didn’t involve playing – and perhaps I could aim for a role behind the scenes to contribute in a different way.”
That role became available in 2018 while Chadwick was at the RSA Insurance Group: “The club was specifically looking for a CA to fill the Deputy CEO Project Executive role, which showed me that they understood the skillset that CAs can bring to a range of environments. This also really excited me in terms of my future career development.”
A more immediate project, though, is working out how to bring fans safely back to Goodison Park in their tens of thousands. “We have very robust risk and governance protocols, and we also did a lot of scenario planning earlier in the year, which gave us a strong foundation,” Chadwick explains. “It is very much a team effort and with many of our staff still working from home our ‘return to site’ committees meet regularly as we begin to phase people’s return.
“Constant and open communication between everyone on that committee, as well as between our club and the Premier League, is vital in helping us plan so that we are ready as soon as we are given the go-ahead to welcome back supporters.”
Emma Brownlie CA, Rangers Defender and Tax Consultant, DB Living
After discovering that many employers were not keen to hire somebody who was trying to juggle a football career with a chartered accountant’s qualification, Emma Brownlie CA was determined to prove them wrong. “My Test of Professional Skills (TPS) year was the toughest. You would get up, go to work, go straight to training after work, come back home and study. That was full-on,” she says.
The day before Brownlie sat her last TPS exam, she was playing in the 2016 League Cup final for Hibernian against Glasgow City: “We won 2-1, but while the rest of the girls were off celebrating I had to go back home to bed.” In September 2019, Brownlie moved from Everton, where she had been playing for six months, to Rangers, becoming the club’s first player to sign a professional contract. But she is still putting her CA qualification to good use.
Now you’ve got girls who can aspire to become a professional at Rangers.
“When I was at Everton, I felt like I needed another focus, because football is great when it’s going well but when it’s not, then, mentally, it can be really tough. I wanted another outlet, and I think that’s good for your mental wellbeing,” she explains.
“I work remotely for DB Living. I’ve been extremely lucky because one of the directors is an ex-pro (Dale Bennett). I’ve got the flexibility to fit it around my training because Rangers is my main focus. For men at a higher level, you can retire after you finish playing. The women’s game isn’t at that stage, so it’s great to have something to go to after football.”
After seven months without a match, the Scottish Women’s Premier League begins on 18 October. Brownlie hopes the women’s game can regain its momentum, continue to attract more money and bigger crowds.
“We had the World Cup last year, Rangers went professional, there was investment into Celtic, Glasgow City were breaking records. Everyone was excited about this season… before Covid. But a big thing for me is that growing up there wasn’t a professional pathway in Scotland. If I wanted to become a professional, I didn’t think I could do it in my own country. Now you’ve got girls who can aspire to become a professional at Rangers.”
Malcolm Kpedekpo CA, Independent NED, Scottish FA
Halfway through his two-year contract at Aberdeen, Malcolm Kpedekpo CA did the unthinkable and walked away from football.
He recalls: “When I joined the club as a player at 16, I felt that if I could be successful there or go higher then I would stay in football, but I didn’t want to go down or sideways. The manager asked if I wanted to go on loan – I said I would rather leave and do something else. At 22, I was working for KPMG.”
Kpedekpo’s experience in football has been an asset, and last year he was approached to become an independent NED at the Scottish FA.
Getting football started again is about more than money.
“I felt I could offer something different,” he says. “I’m an ex-player, I’ve got two kids so I see what happens at grassroots level, and I had previous experience with a sport governing body in Scottish Golf.”
When he joined the SFA, the organisation had taken over the national stadium at Hampden Park, the women’s game was growing and Scotland was looking forward to hosting four matches at Euro 2020. “Covid changed the landscape,” says Kpedekpo. “We went from selling 52,000 tickets for Scotland’s Euro 2020 playoff against Israel in March to rescheduling it to play behind closed doors on 8 October. There are going to be limited crowds for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve had to make a lot of quick decisions, but there are also opportunities to do things differently. As an example, coaching development – in other words, coaching the coaches – has now moved online, which opens it up to people outside of Scotland. Streaming live football matches means engaging with more fans in a new way.
“There are so many scenarios you’re having to look at and trying to do it with imperfect information. But these are the things you learn as a CA beyond finance. The ethical piece is so important because you’re trying to identify where the risks are and making decisions for the right reasons.”
Kpedekpo is desperate to see Scotland qualify for next summer’s rescheduled Euros. “I don’t think anything moves the needle from a sporting perspective quite like the Scottish team doing well. It brings a country together and it helps to get people out of their current situation. Getting football started again is about more than money.”