IBWM meets The Swiss Ramble

David Hartrick meets Kieron O'Connor, the man behind the Swiss Ramble.

At the moment we stand on the brink of a revolution. Football fans seeking something more than just the constant outpourings of The Sun about Fabio Capello now have a place to turn. The Internet has provided a platform for the enthusiast, the casual, the intelligent and the angry. Knowledge now has a platform once denied to all but a privileged handful and few are using it better than Kieron O’Connor, better known by many as simply ‘The Swiss Ramble’.

Based in Zurich, Kieron has become an essential twitter follow, a Football Weekly contributor, and a blogger mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Zonal Marking and European Football Weekends. His site has become a watchword for quality football coverage, mainly in the business of talking about club’s finances - a subject shrouded in jargon and at times secrecy by the club’s themselves.

His dissection of the balance sheets of everyone from Ajax to Manchester City has demystified a topic that once only occupied a footnote in the football press. As increasingly the back pages talk more about off the field matters than on, the Swiss Ramble becomes even more of an essential tool in understanding the game today.

Taking some time out to chat about the game, the business, and his beloved Arsenal, IBWM welcomes Kieron.

Huge thanks for your time - got to ask this first as it’s a question that I’ve always wondered about. Correct me if I’m wrong but Lukey Moore claimed on a Football Ramble that the name of your blog was a reference to their Podcast, is that the case or did it come from somewhere else?

That’s right – Lukey taught me everything I know about the murky world of football finances, what he doesn’t know about a balance sheet simply isn’t worth knowing. Talking seriously for a moment, the big man is half right as the idea for the blog came to me during a long walk (a sort of ramble!) while listening to their podcast which is one of my favorites. Given that I present my thoughts in a rambling fashion, part of the blog name was screaming out to me, it only remained to jam in the Swiss aspect.

What prompted you to begin it?

It started out as a platform where I could place my thoughts on any subject that took my fancy. In the early days this was often a review of something that I liked (film, album, book, podcast) or a rant against someone that annoyed me (“Big” Sam Allardyce, Jack Warner, Chris Moyles). In short, it was just a bit of fun – and it still is.

I know you have blogged about everything from Prefab Sprout to (…shudder…) rugby but football very much dominates your output now. Was this always the intention or has the game slowly forced everything else out the way?

Initially, the blog was only read by the proverbial “friends and family”, but the first couple of articles that I wrote about football finances got a huge reception. In particular, I remember someone posted a link to a piece on whether Everton were a good investment on a fan’s forum and suddenly I had 8,000 people viewing the article, which was about 8,000 more than I expected.

Since then I’ve continued writing on football finances, which I’d always considered a bit of a niche market, but there’s actually a tremendous amount of interest arising from the financial problems facing clubs at both ends of the spectrum. For example, both Manchester United and Liverpool have been saddled with debt by unpopular owners, while clubs like Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday have hit serious difficulties.

It’s not a subject particularly well covered in the press, with a few notable exceptions like the wonderful David Conn in the Guardian, which is understandable because you need a lot of space to really explain finances in a way that the layman can easily understand. This means that some newspaper articles are a little misleading, if not downright inaccurate, so there’s a healthy appetite for someone that can help fans by explaining what’s really going on at their club.

Your financial analysis of some of the biggest clubs in Europe has earned you some serious acclaim on twitter and beyond, do you have a background in the world of accounting?

Yes, I have a degree in economics from the London School of Economics (eat your heart out, Oxbridge) and I’m a qualified accountant. I’ve also held many senior finance positions in various multinationals, so I should theoretically know what I’m talking about. Having said that, there are many well qualified professionals in the banking industry and that didn’t stop them from dropping the ball. This probably makes me sound like the sort of bloke you would desperately want to avoid at a party, but how many accountants do you know that can belt out a word perfect version of London Calling on the karaoke?

How do you select the team you want to look at?

There’s no grand plan behind the choices, though I do try to mix up the countries I cover so there’s some variety on the site. For example, you’re unlikely to see articles on, say, three German clubs in a row. As you might have guessed, each article takes a lot of research so I tend to tackle subjects that interest me, otherwise the writing would become a burden. At the risk of sounding like “Smashie and Nicey”, I also get a lot of requests from fans to analyse their clubs, which gives me a shortlist of possible articles, ranging from Villarreal to Crawley Town.

How do you access the financial information?

Some clubs are kind enough to put their accounts on their website, but they’re still in the minority. In the UK it’s fairly straightforward as you can access the accounts from Companies House, though you do have to pay. You also need to be a little careful of which company’s accounts you review as the company name is not always the obvious one, so for Bolton Wanderers the appropriate company is actually Burnden Leisure PLC. I’m also fortunate enough to have a few business contacts that provide me with some information not available to the general public. Obviously, many of the clubs outside the UK only produce accounts in their own language but I speak Italian, French and German, so I can usually understand enough about what’s happening.

Does the level of wages as a percentage of a club’s total outgoings ever shock you or have you just become numb to it?

In a way, it’s completely understandable that clubs spend so much on wages as there’s a clear correlation between a club’s wage bill and its league position. Money doesn’t always buy success, but it sure does help. That said, the level of wages relative to turnover is clearly unsustainable at many clubs and can only be supported by debt or benefactors, neither of which is a guaranteed long-term solution. It’s a real dilemma for clubs in the Premier League: either they cut wages and increase the chances of relegation (with all the horrible revenue implications); or they keep wages high and run the risk of financial ruin.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping clubs focusing on old-fashioned positive attributes like good coaching, youth development, tactics and team spirit, but most owners (and indeed fans) don’t have the patience to support such an approach.

I spent a great deal of time talking to an accountant who’d worked with several struggling English League One clubs. He told me that each time he went into a club, he had to ignore his common sense as looking at a football club’s finances was unlike looking at any other business’s in the world. Do you think we’re going to have to see a move towards a more sensible approach to a club’s finances or are they forever going to be a fairly unique concern in the financial world?

Strangely enough, the football industry has a lot in common with investment banking, where the vast majority of the costs are for salaries (and bonuses) with banks trying to beat the competition by paying top dollar for the best talent, so it’s not unique from that perspective. However, there’s no doubt that football focuses more on the goal line than the bottom line. Clubs’ attempts to ‘live the dream’ lead to many decisions that make no financial sense whatsoever, but I have seen many entirely rational men ignore their logical side when it comes to football – I only have to look in the mirror to see one.

This explains the recent developments in football governance that seek to help clubs address their financial issues. In particular, the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations aim to force clubs to live within their means, which should in theory reduce inflationary wage pressures. There is some evidence that this is already occurring with clubs cutting their payroll, e.g. Chelsea have offloaded high earners, while Inter are no longer making any big money purchases. On the whole, I believe that this legislation is a good thing, though I do worry that it might just ensure that the leading clubs remain unchallenged – the “survival of the fattest”.

In the last week alone I’ve heard your site mentioned in the same breath as the several blog awards, you’ve been consistently praised by the likes of Roy Meredith on the Championship Manager Podcast, and your analysis of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic transfer to AC Milan was heralded by many noted commentators on the game (and several non-noted ones such as *ahem* me). Did you ever believe the blog would lead you to this sort of recognition?

In a word, no, particularly as I do everything wrong in the multimedia age. You’re meant to update your blog on a daily basis and write short, snappy articles, but I only publish one article a week and it’s always extremely long. At least nobody can accuse me of not providing value for money – especially as it’s free.

I would also like to think that any minor success I have enjoyed simply provides further evidence that the Internet is a genuine meritocracy, where you don’t have to be backed by a powerful media empire in order to attract readers. Without wishing to sound too evangelical, it provides a perfect platform for people with great knowledge, insight and (dare I say it) passion to demonstrate their writing skills. There are many fine blogs out there that have built up a sizeable audience, purely based on their talent and virtual word of mouth. There are far too many to mention, but blogs that I always read include European Football Weekends, Zonal Marking, The Equaliser, Two Footed Tackle, Arseblog and, of course, In Bed With Maradona.

By the way, that does not mean that I want to denigrate professional writers in any way, as there are some superb journalists that I hugely respect, such as Gabriele Marcotti, Raphael Honigstein, Sid Lowe and Paddy Barclay.

Moving away from the site, as an Arsenal fan what’s your take on their season so far without using the words ‘buy’, ‘need’, ‘desperately’, ‘to’, or ‘goalkeeper’?

I’m glad you asked that question as I was an Arsenal fan long before I knew anything about finance, though I would have been even happier a couple of week ago before the North London derby took place. It’s been an incredibly frustrating season so far with a mixture of the sublime (5-1 thumping of Shakhtar Donetsk, 3-0 away win against Manchester City) and the ridiculous (home defeats to West Brom and Newcastle). What’s really annoying is that the team’s deficiencies are depressingly familiar (goalkeeper, central defenders and holding midfielder), so I don’t really understand why they weren’t resolved in the summer.

Are you serious title contenders this year or can we expect the post January tail off now synonymous with an Arsenal Premier League season? 

The league is there for the taking this season with Chelsea and United just as inconsistent as Arsenal. I don’t think that City or Spurs are quite ready to make a serious challenge, so everything is still very much to play for. To sum up, I wouldn’t put my pension on Arsenal winning the league, but I wouldn’t write our chances off either.

Having an insight into such matters, are you pleased with the much admired state of Arsenal’s finances against a lack of trophies, or do you sometimes wish you could join the ranks of the disgruntled element who are quick to point out that ‘you can’t take a balance sheet on an open top bus parade’?

My belief is that Arsène Wenger is arguably the best manager that Arsenal has ever had, having won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups, but there have been no trophies in the last five years (as I’m frequently reminded by “friends”). This is partly linked to the club’s finances, which were severely impacted by the construction of the Emirates stadium. This has resulted in a focus on youth development and the emergence of the likes of Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs, which, as a fan, I find quite refreshing.

Furthermore even though Arsenal have spent so little in this period, they have still remained competitive, epitomised by qualifying for the Champions League a record 13 years in a row all the time playing a dazzling brand of football unrecognisable from the days of “boring, boring” Arsenal. That’s a tremendous feat that should be recognised by all fans.

However, the finances are now in a very good state so my hope would be that the club fine tunes the transfer policy and loosens the purse strings a little to buy the one or two world class players that could make all the difference between challenging for honours, and actually winning them.

Finally, the now boringly predictable final question everyone has to answer – favourite Maradona moment?

I’ve got a couple, both from when I lived in Italy in the 80s. First, watching Argentina beat England 2-1 in the 1986 World Cup surrounded by a dozen Italian friends, all of whom were supporting Argentina (or at least wanted England to lose). I hated Maradona then for the “hand of God”, especially as I became the butt of everyone’s painfully unfunny “banter”. So, a couple of years later, when I witnessed Sacchi’s Milan stuff Maradona’s Napoli 4-1 from my seat in the San Siro, it was a very sweet moment, especially as Diego was serenaded with an incredibly crude song that involved his parenthood and a banana. That’s probably not what you were hoping for, is it?

You can visit the excellent Swiss Ramble blog here & kick yourself for not having found it sooner if it’s your first time. You can also follow Kieron on twitter here.

If you’d like to read more from David, please visit his fantastic blog, I know who Cyrille Makanaky was or follow him on twitter @Hartch