STEVE GIBSON knows all about the pain of trying to save a football club from liquidation. In 1986, with Middlesbrough collapsing under the weight of debts totalling around £2m, the Teessider put together a consortium that prevented Boro from being wound up. It was touch and go for a long time, with a Football League meeting confirming Middlesbrough’s continued viability just ten minutes before a final deadline was due to pass, but the club survived. Three decades on, and for all that results in the current campaign might have been mixed, it is safe to say they have flourished.

So, as he watched last week’s events at Bury and Bolton Wanderers play out in all their gory detail, Middlesbrough’s much-admired chairman admits to experiencing mixed emotions. There was sympathy for Bury’s staff and supporters as their club was expelled from the Football League. There was relief that Bolton did not go the same way. There was frustration at the mistakes and mismanagement that had brought two of England’s most historic clubs to their knees. Yet with his personal experiences at the forefront of his mind, there was also an acknowledgment that it could easily have been a different Football League club swapping places with Bury.

Few people involved in English football over the last 35 years can match the range of highs and lows experienced by Gibson, so when he speaks about the state of the game at the moment, it pays to listen. Football, according to the 61-year-old, is not broken. But there are elements of the sport and its management that are in need of repair.

“The most important thing to remember in all of this is that everyone has free will,” said Gibson, who was subsidising Middlesbrough out of his own pocket to the tune of £1m-a-month before the Football League’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations began to limit the extent to which an owner could prop up their club. “I think that’s been forgotten a bit with everything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks. We can talk about tightening up rules here or changing things there, but ultimately, as a football club owner, you’re responsible for making sure your sums add up. If you don’t do that, you’ve failed.

“Ultimately, what happened at Bury and Bolton was a result of bad owners making a series of really bad decisions. You can have all the rules you want, but if owners try to spend money that isn’t there, it’s only going to end one way. It’s the same in any other form of business, if your outgoings exceed your incomings, you’re going to be in trouble if you can’t plug the gap.

The Northern Echo:

“There are lots of complexities, but if you boil it down, running a football club is actually pretty simple. Your income comes from gate money, sponsorship money and central distribution, that’s what you’ve got to spend. There’ll be fluctuations here and there – a good cup run perhaps – but I can tell you what our income is going to be this year now, and it’ll be right to within about half-a-million either way. That’s what you have to spend.

“Now, there’ll always be pressure to spend more than that. From supporters, from social media, from the press, from within the club. So, as an owner, it’s up to you how you react to that pressure. Unfortunately, those clubs (Bury and Bolton) had owners that couldn’t count – the EFL can’t legislate for that. But what they can do is enforce FFP properly and make sure they’re as tight as possible when it comes to who is running their clubs.

“So, the EFL have to enforce their rules and owners have to act responsibly. That’s the only way to prevent more things like we saw last week.”

Gibson has been a passionate advocate of the EFL’s FFP regulations, arguing that controlling a Championship club’s ability to spend beyond its means is the only way of preventing complete financial collapse and achieving something akin to a level playing field. He has railed against Derby County’s controversial sale and lease-back of their Pride Park ground, something he regards as an unfair way of massaging the club’s balance sheet, and has also criticised Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday’s finances during EFL meetings.

His comments have led to accusations of hypocrisy given Middlesbrough’s lavish spending in the past, but he makes no apology for trying to fight for a more strictly-controlled future.

“The FFP rules are important for lots of reasons,” he said. “They prevent clubs getting into trouble, if they’re implemented properly, they should lead to a greater degree of transparency, and they should give every team in the league a chance of competing at their level.

“I’ve made my position on it all pretty clear, and to be fair to Debbie Jevans (the EFL’s new executive chair), she’s been like a breath of fresh air. I think she gets it, and she’s trying to turn things around. Those before her were absolutely hopeless, but she’s come in and it looks like she wants to enforce the rules that are there.

“If that happens, I think we’ll all benefit. The rules are the rules, and they’re there to try to protect clubs. But the whole thing becomes a farce if clubs are able to get around them.”

And what about the EFL’s owners’ and directors’ test (also known as the ‘fit and proper persons’ test) that dictates whether a prospective owner is able to take charge at a Football League club? Are they fit for purpose, or does Bury’s experiences under first Stewart Day and then Steve Dale prove they lack teeth?

“It’s a difficult one for the EFL, but I think we have to have a serious think about who is owning football clubs in this country at the moment,” said Gibson. “Football club ownership has changed massively in the last decade or 15 years.

“When I first came into Middlesbrough, I would probably have fitted the norm. Clubs were generally run by local businesspeople who had done reasonably well for themselves and who wanted to put something back into their local community. They saw the importance of their local football club and wanted to protect it, and they lived among their fellow supporters so in that sense they were accountable. They were part of that community.

The Northern Echo:

“In the last decade or so, there’s been a major shift to owners with much more complex agendas. On the one hand, you’ve got what I might call chancers, wanting to take over struggling clubs to make a quick buck, and then on the other, you’ve got a raft of foreign owners who operate under completely different rules to the ones we have to observe.

“Their agendas are different to ours, they’re not subject to the same regulations that we are, they don’t pay UK taxes like we do. Sometimes, they’ve made their money in ways that would simply not be allowable under UK law. Generally, their aim is to get their club into the Premier League, because that’s where the money and prestige is, and so the financial side of running the club is secondary to them.

“That’s concerning, and is something I think we have to have a serious think about. Is that the way we want our football to go? Or would we rather have owners who want to put the long-term interests of their club first? I know which I would always choose.”