Football Transfers and Creative Accounting: Protect me from what I want

It’s the disease of the age, It’s the disease that we crave.

When Derby County published their response to the EFL charges for financial misconduct on Friday 17th January 2020, it included reference to ‘the newly notified charge of intangible fixed asset amortisation’.

The nonsense below is all about the said subject, but extended to how clubs can increase or decrease costs in the accounts in relation to how they account for players.

The Basics

When a club signs a player, they will often pay compensation to the previous club for his registration certificate lodged at the football authorities, this is what is commonly called a transfer fee and is either negotiated between the two clubs or embedded in the player’s contract.

The buying club then spreads the cost of the transfer fee over the period of the contract signed by the player, so when Harry Maguire signed for Manchester United in summer 2019 for £80 million on a six year deal this works out as an annual amortisation cost of £13.3 million (£80m/6).

The total amortisation fees for the whole squad are treated as an expense in the accounts, and importantly, ARE included in Financial Fair Play/Profitability & Sustainability (P&S) calculations.

Amortisation costs for many clubs in higher divisions are usually the second biggest expense after that of player wages, as shown by the figures below for Everton.

The creatives

Under P&S rules clubs are assessed over a three year period, so sometimes it may be beneficial for them to accelerate or decelerate costs in a particular year, so ensure they stay within the limits during a particular three year assessment period.

Here are possible methods that could be used, all of which have been approved by the clubs’ respective auditors.

  1. Player impairment

All fans have seen players who they quickly write off as rubbish and a waste of money. This applies in the accounts too.

In 2015/16 Aston Villa were relegated from the Premier League, which allows a P&S loss of £105 million over three years, which then tapers down to £39 million over three years in the EFL Championship.

It is therefore in Villa’s interests to put as many costs into their 2015/16 accounts to be absorbed by their Premier League P&S limit.

Villa achieved this by charging an extra £79.6 million as a cost in the expense for impairment of the stadium and players (called ‘intangible assets’ in the accounts).

This works as follows. If you sign a player for £30 million on a five year contract the amortisation cost is £6m a year, a tough cost to have to deal with in the Championship. However, if the club was relegated at the end of the first season there is nothing to stop it from assessing the player’s value and conclude that he is worth, say, £10 million.

This would mean that his book value at the end of year one would fall from £24 million (£30m less one year’s amortisation of £6m) to £10m, which would result in a £14 million impairment charge.

However in subsequent years the amortisation charge would be just £2.5 million a year (£10m book value spread over the remaining four years of the contract), which is useful for P&S purposes in the Championship.

When Villa did this the £35 million impairment charge in 2016 would (if remaining contract lengths were on average 3 years) have reduced costs by nearly £12 million a year in the Championship.

Sometimes the reason for an impairment is clear and the decrease in value is understandable (due to long term injury, the fee initially paid was too high or the player is Mario Balotelli). Impairment does however give clubs licence to accelerate player costs into an earlier year.

  1. Contract extensions

Amortisation is the registration fee spread over the contract period, so if you extend the contract you reduce the annual cost.

Example: Sign a player for £20m on 1 January 2019 on a four year contract. At the end of 2019 give him a two year contract extension.

Amortisation charge in 2019 = £5m (£20m/4)

Amortisation charge 2020 onwards £3m ((20-5m)/(3+2))

This reduces FFP losses by £2m a year.

Therefore by extending a contract a club can reduce costs in a single year.

  1. Player sale profits

These are calculated by comparing the transfer fee receivable to the book value of the player. Even when a player is sold at what fans may think is a loss for accounting purposes it can work out at a profit.

Example: A player is signed for £40 million on a five year contract on 1 January 2018. He’s not been a success so is sold for £26 million on 1 January 2020. At that date his accounting book value is £24 million (£40m – 2 years amortisation at £8m a year) so book a profit of £2m on the deal.

It’s always important to check the sale date though, as these can be confusing. In the Derby County accounts for the year ended 30 June 2017 the club included the profit on the sale of Tom Ince to Huddersfield Town, which contributed towards FFP for that year. That’s all well and good but the sale of Ince did not take place until July 2017, which is in the 2017/18 accounts in theory.

By having a player sale just before or after the year end a club can increase or decrease profits in the year that suits it best.

  1. Residual Values

The issue that appears to be irking the EFL most of all is Derby’s use of residual values for players. All other Premier League and Championship clubs amortise player contracts on a straight line basis to a zero value at the end of the contract. This is because players can leave on a Bosman deal at the contract end so the ‘selling’ club received no fee.

Derby changed their accounting policy in 2017 for player registration fees to include the ‘ consideration of active market residual values’. Prior to that Derby ignored residual values similar to other clubs.

This might seem an insignificant comment, but this allows a club to reduce amortisation fees (and therefore costs for FFP). A player signed on a £30m four year deal costs £7.5 million annually in amortisation.

If the club gives him (say) a £12 million residual value at the end of the contract (which ignores he can leave on a Bosman) then the amortisation cost falls to ((£30-12m)/4) = £4.5 million a year.

A look at Derby’s accounts shows that for 2017/18 the club had transfer fees and registration intangible assets that were £52.5m at the start of the year and £62.2m at the end. This gives an average of £57.3m. The amortisation fee for the year was £6.6 million. This means that Derby were effectively spreading transfer fees over 8.7 years, which seems very long for contract length, and is far longer than the average for the division of about 3.7 years.

Derby’s defence is that the EFL had already signed off on the issue and that they should have been aware of it. I can confirm the latter having written to the EFL in June 2018 on the very subject which generated this response from…supporter services.

Given that the EFL have been aware of the issue since June 2018, it does seem odd that the charges have been made at Derby in January 2020.