What English football can learn from the disasters of Bolton and Bury – so they can't happen again
“The current situation cannot continue.” Within the statement released by the EFL on Saturday, in response to Bury owner Steve Dale accepting a takeover in principle, are five words that mean so much to so many in such different situations.
The current situation cannot continue for the EFL, who have been embarrassed by the travails of Bury – now heartbreakingly expelled from the Football League after a proposed takeover from C&N Sporting Risk collapsed – and their near-neighbours Bolton. With it, they become the first team to drop out since Maidstone liquidated in 1992. Now, only 23 teams will continue in League One this season.
This cannot continue for the many, many other clubs who are effectively insolvent and simply limping from one month to the next, often in arrears, frequently in debts of seven or eight figures.
It cannot continue for the players; either the dedicated Bury seniors who had to turn up for training every day without pay, or the wildly overpromoted and regularly hammered Bolton academy kids, including the ones who had the day off last week to collect their GCSE results. And it cannot continue for the fans, alternating between being worried to tears that their clubs may disappear and being moved to threatening anger at those who would hold up their sale.
But anyone can say Something Should Be Done. The grown-up question is: what?
Trial and errors
Like most things, including but not restricted to the EFL, the current system is less tried and tested than trial and error, with emphasis on the latter. The EFL are frequently the battered and bruised hostages to fortune of the Law of Unintended Consequences. They come up with an idea that seems logical, even forward-thinking, until the brutal ramifications of reality smack them repeatedly in the face.
Take for a moment the lower-league knockout competition originally known as the Associate Members’ Cup, which has bounced through a series of sponsors from Freight Rover to Checkatrade and is now on its dozenth official title as the Leasing.com Trophy. Five years ago it was dying on its arse amid overwhelming public indifference to anything but the later rounds. There’s nothing new there: your correspondent was among a club record-breakingly low 1,507 attendees for Bolton’s Autoglass Trophy game against Rochdale in December 1991.
But in an attempt to drive up interest, and to introduce the stars of tomorrow to a man’s game, the League decided it would be nice to invite the country’s top academy teams into the tournament. It would, they thought, test their mettle away from the unreal atmosphere of training ground matches against peers by facing seasoned pros in front of real audiences, some of whom might be Big Club fans tempted down to the local ground for the first time in ages.
Except the Big Clubs didn’t buy into it, any more than the uproarious lower-league fans offended that they should be positioned as patsies for well-heeled kindergartens. Manchester City and Tottenham politely declined to join in until 2017, Arsenal 2018, Liverpool and Manchester United just this season. Forced to lower the entry bar, the EFL had to rely on somewhat less crowd-pulling names like Blackburn, Reading, Stoke and Norwich.
Meanwhile, the idea had formed that one reason for poor attendances was managers “disrespecting the competition” by rotating their own squads for this minor competition. So to make sure fans got value for money, a well-meaning rule was passed restricting managers from making too many changes. The combined, unintended consequence thereof was that lower-league managers were banned from promoting their own youth players for a competition that had become ridiculed as The One With The Second-Class Reserves.
Awaiting Peter Kay’s taxi
Right now, the freewheeling dumpster fire of the EFL Trophy is a relatively minor concern even to the League itself. When the statement on Bury fretted once more about “the integrity of the competition”, it wasn’t talking permanently experimental midweek knockouts but the world’s oldest professional football league.
Integrity is an intriguing word. Coming from the Latin integer (“untouched, unhurt, unchanged, intact, whole, entire, pure, honest”), it has come to have a double meaning in the wonderfully expressive language we call English. There’s the one which relates to wholeness and reliability: you don’t want a building without structural integrity. But there’s also the one which relates to honesty and ethics: moral integrity is vital in a partner. Or a boss. Or an owner.
Purposefully or not, the EFL statement could be referring to either or both of these. The Bury situation has been a logistical omnishambles. Most League One clubs are already 10% of their way through the season, having played five games while Bury were yet to begin. If the season is a marathon not a sprint, most clubs have been nearing the three-mile marker while Bury were still trying to find their trainers.
Meanwhile, down the A58, fellow admin-dwellers Bolton were given permission on the eve of the season to sign three emergency senior players and start their campaign, with the understanding that the impending takeover was - to quote Peter Kay’s taxi office – “just turning the corner of your street now”. Since then, Bolton have been forced to field a desperate selection of under-ripened Academy teenagers, all of whom have been heroic and some of whom may well defy the prevailing statistical odds to make a living from football.
But reality has started to bite, or perhaps more accurately, to maul. After a stirring opening loss at Wycombe followed by an astonishing 0-0 at home to Coventry, the wee Wanderers even went 2-1 up at Rochdale in the League Cup, but then collapsed to a 5-2 loss. Then lost 5-0 at Tranmere. Then 5-0 at home to Ipswich. And the taxi still hasn’t arrived.
How to irk an entire division
During that time, an exhausted Bolton have incurred the wrath of Doncaster and the EFL, not to mention the risk of further points deduction by unilaterally postponing a midweek game. This has only intensified the questioning chorus which asks why the EFL has treated these two clubs – eight miles apart on the southern slopes of the West Pennine Moors, where wild Lancashire countryside gives way to the Mancunian conurbation – so differently.
Fans of League One clubs have asked a number of inter-related questions. Bolton fans wonder why their club has been forced to flog its kids to possible injury and certain defeat while the other squad rests up. Bury fans asked why their club faced ejection while Bolton were waved serenely past the bouncers. Fans of clubs hammering Bolton have wondered what happens to their points and goal difference – won without prejudice or malice, because you can only play what’s put in front of you – if the Trotters should go under. Fans of clubs that should have faced Bury asked if it’s fair that they don’t get to play the Shakers ahead of a post-takeover recruitment spree. Fans of non-participating clubs have wondered whether it’s fair that their potential promotion or relegation rivals essentially get a free hit at cowering kids. As one Tranmere fan asked, what if their 5-0 win helps them stay up on goal difference?
At this point, the dual meaning of integrity elides from wholeness to unwholesomeness. Whichever way you look at it, it’s not fair. But again, it may be the EFL suffering unintended consequences.
On the eve of the season, it seemed fairly obvious that Steve Dale no longer possessed the desire and ability to run Bury as a football club. Speculation as to his motives could go on endlessly, entertainingly and libellously, so let’s just say it seemed to be in everyone’s best interests to thrash out a divorce. Perhaps the Football League thought immediate suspension of the club’s right to play would focus minds.
It didn’t, the brinksmanship continued, and the League were forced to up the threat past suspension to expulsion: on August 8, Bury were given a fortnight to prove themselves solvent or leave the League. That did eventually work, or so it seemed at the time: on Friday night, an (almost literal) 11th-hour bid from data firm C&N Sporting Risk – including Rory Campbell, son of New Labour’s Burnley-loving public-enlightenment guru Alastair Campbell, but also a former analytics advisor to West Ham – was given until 5pm on Tuesday, August 27 to prove its own structural integrity. They didn't like what they saw.
One way or another, the current situation cannot continue.
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) August 27, 2019
A black-tie deadline day
The EFL applied the same deadline to Bolton, although not with such immediate consequences. Bury were given until 5pm Tuesday to conclude a takeover and avoid losing membership of the League; Bolton missed the same deadline, but the EFL have given them 14 days to find a buyer or prove they have the funds to complete the season. If not, they too will be expelled from the English Football League. The two-week countdown clock begins.
As any journalist or student will know, the threat of a deadline can work. Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt, a vocal (but constructive) commentator on the unfolding madness 15 miles south of his club, says “it’s a fact that resolution and agreement only comes when pressure is applied”. But by that same rationale, he says, Bolton’s administrators “are taking the piss… [they have] forever said a deal is close… managers [and] owners of other clubs are sick of what’s happening.”
While Bury spent August being given the tough-love treatment, Bolton were allowed a grace period which is now emphatically ending. In the run-up to that opening fixture at Wycombe, the Trotters’ preferred-bidder potential owners Football Ventures had played the imminent-taxi card. Turning up at Adams Park, consortium leader Sharron Brittan was met by a local TV crew but the simple question was asked most pointedly (and repeatedly) by a fan, in a Boltonian accent broad enough to make Peter Kay sound like Jacob Rees-Mogg: “’Az it bin dun? ’Az it bin dun? Come on, ’az it bin dun?”
EXCLUSIVE: ‘I look forward to talking to everybody next Saturday at the game’ potential new co-owner of Bolton Wanderers Sharon Brittan gives optimistic message about takeover at the club #Bolton #takeover @GranadaReports pic.twitter.com/wpwj24cJu5
— David Chisnall (@dchisnallITV) August 3, 2019
It still ’azn’t, and the League has threatened to cancel the taxi. As the statement says: “Having been previously advised in writing on the morning of the start of the season that the deal was all but agreed and only awaiting completion signatures, there has been constant contradictory information and no finalisation of the deal.”
The delay reasons are multiple. Chris Flanagan’s FourFourTwo piece last week mentioned one: the unflushable Laurence Bassini. The former Watford owner’s injunction against the club sale has since been effectively (if not unarguably) sidelined by legal delay, but he’s still holding his impromptu roadside rallies. By now, most of those who attend do so to mock rather than praise, with many openly laughing at his claims like hecklers at Speakers’ Corner; as he held the latest, a voice from a passing car hollered “Leave us alone, you mad bastard”.
It’s a plea which had already emanated, with language more moderate but no less passionate, by Phil Parkinson: “Mr Bassini, leave us alone, please leave us alone. Leave this great club alone to get on with building its future.” But the future doesn’t include Parkinson, who (along with his assistant Steve Parkin) has now walked away with head held high and fingers crossed from the smoking ruins of the club.
Bolton’s three-ring circus
In truth, Bassini is far from the only reason why the Bolton takeover has failed to complete. It has become clear that Football Ventures, while solvent enough to buy the club, are far from rich enough to make problems go away. One of these problems is the Bolton Whites Hotel, at the south end of what for most will forever be the Reebok Stadium (now the University of Bolton Stadium). Literally and financially interlinked with the club, the hotel was nevertheless placed under a separate administration, with separate administrators, and by a separate agent: controversial former BWFC owner Ken Anderson.
Anderson had tried to sell Wanderers to Bassini before the end of last season, but the club was put into administration by the Eddie Davies Trust (looking after the interests of - and debts to – the former benefactor’s family) when fine words failed to materialise into hard cash. As a secured creditor, Anderson put the hotel into administration too. Now there is not only a double administration to get out of, but an impasse between Anderson, the Trust and Michael James – the Bolton fan behind Football Ventures, and the man who has apparently been stumping up sums to make sure staff get paid.
It seems there is longstanding enmity between James and the Eddie Davies camp, which doesn’t help. But neither does Ken. Football Ventures are preferred bidders for the club, but the viability of their package depends on the hotel. The hotel administrators Quantuma are duty-bound to accept the best bid for the hotel on behalf of secured creditors like Anderson. According to a press release from club administrators David Rubin & Partners, both deals were ready to be signed on Friday by all except Anderson, who then seems to have changed his demands. Anderson, as you might expect, quickly denied this and blamed the Eddie Davies camp.
To use the descriptive image painted by diligent local reporter Marc Iles, who admits he would be tearing his hair out if he had any left to grab, the three sides “have been locked in a Mexican stand-off for too long… It is high time egos are put to one side for a moment to consider what is at stake.”
The current situation cannot continue.
Avoidance vs evasion
Faced with such an apparently intractable problem, the EFL apparently tired of waiting for its taxi and did the only thing that it could think of with Bury: to tap its watch and wave its fist. However, there is nothing the EFL can do about interlinked companies being under separate administrations: even if they tried to ban such arrangements for the sake of simplicity, the megamoney at stake in football means that clubs would find a way around it.
For example, see another unintended consequence of the EFL’s well-meaning rules. Few would dispute that clubs need to have their spending monitored and controlled – it’s at least part of the reason Bury and Bolton are in trouble, and clubs don’t go into administration for the perks. Or rather, they don’t since the League introduced a mandatory points penalty for “insolvency events”, to deter clubs who had sought the pence-in-the-pound pay-offs as a way to clear debts quickly before bouncing back with a clean bill of health.
But back to the League’s financial management rules, commonly called Financial Fair Play but actually termed Profitability & Sustainability for Championship clubs, Salary Cost Management Protocol for Leagues One and Two. With the EFL trying to cut down on unsustainable wage bills, particularly in England’s second tier, they have tightened the limits.
Have the clubs responded by tightening their purse strings? No, some have taken to circumventing the ceilings – legally, but questionably – by the owners buying the ground from the club for a large dowry and a peppercorn rent. Among the proud landowners are Sheffield Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri, who shelled out £38m for Hillsborough, and Derby owner Mel Morris, who ponied up £80m for Pride Park.
This may seem a wonderful wheeze, but it’s dangerous short-termism: a card which can only be played once and takes the club’s main asset out of its hands. We have seen several examples – Coventry, Oxford and more – of clubs being hamstrung by what they see as excessive charges from landlords. Morris and Chansiri have been unimpeachably passionate supporters, but what happens if someone in a similar situation goes rogue and no longer has the club’s best interests at heart?
Furthermore, what happens if a truly malevolent owner, with eyes only on real estate, buys the club merely to own the land, and to hell with football? Legal discretion suggests names are best left unsaid but students of football history will know how that one has played out, all too often.
Holt: end it
Derby and Sheffield Wednesday are chasing the Premier League gravy train, but down at humble Accrington, Andy Holt has much more realistic aims. “All supporters tell me that all they want is a sustainable club, that can, win, lose, draw, get promoted, get relegated, without going bust,” he says. “They can take the ups and downs, all part of a Saturday. Surely this isn’t too much to ask?”
For Holt, the blame lies with hubristic owners overstretching the clubs they’re in charge of – threatening their existence by gambling with financial futures. “It’s owners that take the risk, not supporters. If [previous Bury owner] Stewart Day had asked his supporters whether they wanted him to overspend and risk their club, the answer would have been ‘Never risk our club for short-term gain’.”
As unpopular as financial restraints can be, Holt insists the EFL has a duty to impose them - and indeed tighten them up. “Our regulation has to match what the vast majority of supporters want and not what a few over-excited, over ambitious owners want. This can be regulated for. But if we only listen to owners, we have no hope of resolving the real issues of clubs, supporters and communities being battered into oblivion by gambling owners. And that’s either their owners gambling and failing, or other owners gambling and disadvantaging any non-gambling club. That’s what the EFL review has to resolve. Will it achieve this? I doubt it, but I will definitely be trying.”
The current situation cannot continue.
Laurel and Harvey
As the summer has worn on, there has been a notable toughening of the EFL’s language and stance. It’s always a risk to ascribe this to one person, but it’s worth noting that in June, Debbie Jevans CBE finally wrenched the reins of control from Shaun Harvey.
The controversial former chief exec was inextricably linked with various EFL PR disasters, from the Sky deal which almost caused a breakaway of Championship clubs, via the ongoing circus of the Carabao Cup draws, to the EFL Trophy changes for which he morphed from cheerleader to Comical Ali spin doctor. (He also assured Bolton fans earlier this year that the future was bright under Ken Anderson, who’d done a great job. You’d think Harvey would be able to smell administration coming, considering he’d presided over two during his time at Bradford and two more when he was at Leeds.)
Harvey’s exit was announced in February by Jevans, whose quotes were a masterclass in passive aggression. The EFL, she said, “would like to thank Shaun for all he has delivered since joining as CEO in 2013,” almost inviting listeners to add “whatever that may be”. Then came the dagger, before the bunch of wilted flowers: “Shaun and the board have agreed that the time is now right for a change of leadership and a new direction. We are pleased that Shaun has agreed to stay on until the end of the season.” Pleased, you note, not delighted. You can hear the teeth gritting together.
With Harvey leaving town to join a different circus somewhere and a replacement CEO as yet unappointed, Jevans has become the default leader – not something unusual for the former Grand Slam circuit tennis player who has previously had top organising roles for the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Under Jevans, the EFL have started to take a tougher line, and not just in the imposition of deadlines. As last week wore on toward Bury’s deadline, the EFL announced what-next plans for if Bury left the league: three clubs rather than four relegated from League One, still four clubs promoted, and the Shakers would have to ask the FA to rejoin lower down the pyramid. The timing and tone was reminiscent of the mysterious business associate casually opening his jacket to reveal the previously hidden fire-arm.
Jevans has also displayed a determination to stop such things happening again which goes beyond sympathy and hand-wringing. She acknowledged to Marc Iles that the much-derided (but actually misnamed) fit and proper persons test was insufficient: “The Owners’ And Directors’ Test shows that a person can run a business in company law but we need to look at what we can do outside of that.” The current situation cannot continue.
Which brings us back to the issue of “what we can do”. It may not be Jevans that’s doing the doing – as the search for a permanent chief exec goes on – but she will not enjoy seeing founder members expire on her watch.
"I understand this will be a deeply upsetting and devastating time for Bury's players, staff, supporters and the wider community," she said of the Shakers. "There is no doubt today's news will be felt across the entire football family."
For now, all the EFL has is the deadline and the threat. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Jevans admits the differing approaches at Bury – where the aim was to squeeze out Dale and force a sale – and Bolton didn’t work, but still backs the thinking: “The two situations were very different because Bury are owned by an individual whereas Bolton are being run by administrators.”
Even so, the attitude has changed, and Bolton too are now under a ticking clock. Most Trotters fans are happy for the EFL to introduce a timeline (“AZITBINDUN?”) but the trouble with going public and setting deadlines – perhaps rushing what should be a considered process – is that it doesn’t always attract the right people. It can attract pipe-dreamers and evil schemers. It can encourage those who would gamble the farm on near-future success, and those slash-and-burn capitalists who would quite happily see businesses go to the wall as long as there’s a short-term bob or two in it for them.
Bury recognised the rogues’ parade. They enjoyed double promotions in 1996 and 1997 via the chequebook of Hugh Eaves, a millionaire chartered accountant who later confessed to misspending the funds he was managing. By 2002, Bury were in admin and slipping into the bottom tier, a pain eclipsing even that of seeing their local rivals Bolton establish themselves in the Premier League. And as ever in football finance, the repercussions were wider than the Gigg Lane pitch.
A humble proposal
One thing the EFL might want to consider, although it would be a huge ask, is abolishing the football creditor rule which protects players of dying clubs and makes sure they get their full payout. As with low-interest mortgages (loans made specifically on property, thereby inevitably causing goods-specific inflation), it’s common-sense economics: if a contract is inviolable, it may live to outlast the conditions in which it was signed.
This is not to say that contract law is an inherently bad thing: down the decades it has protected many vulnerable workers who would otherwise be at the caprice of the staff-owning class. But it is surely ridiculous and unfair when the rules are applied unevenly. At an insolvent club, administrators cannot make players – easily the most expensive wage-earners – redundant, so they have to chip away around the edges.
This usually means stiffing those who do not come under the ‘football creditors’ rule. Inevitably, this means short-changing local businesses, including charities – St John’s Ambulance always end up on the losing side – and loyal club staff working for buttons. Non-football creditors may get as little as 10p in the pound; club staff may get shown the door.
When Bury went into admin in 2002, the administrators had to lay off dozens of people – from laundry assistants to receptionists – but they couldn’t even consider asking the players to accept a settlement, let alone redundancy. They still can’t. Meanwhile, protesting club stalwarts are bicycle-locking themselves to drainpipes. The current situation cannot continue.
More ideas (don’t get excited)
Other onlookers have made their own suggestions. One well-meaning thought was that clubs should never be owned by one person, in case they turn out to be a bad ’un. That’s an understandable fear, but an impractical suggestion. Yes, the German model of 50+1 works well for the Bundesliga, but it’s entrenched in German culture as well as structure.
Besides which, how would you go about implementing that at clubs that are healthily, successfully run by one-man bands? As Bolton and Bury have discovered, it’s hard enough to find one prospect with the right combination of wallet, ego and determination to run a club; collecting more than one of these characters and convincing them to work in concert might be an impossible ask. Even if it could be achieved, it’s tempting to think that it would make clubs less stable rather than more so, with backbiting, divisions, empire-building and more reshuffles than the average Italian government.
Others have loudly protested that no club should be able to start a season in administration. Accrington’s Andy Holt has said that should be the norm from now on, if it were up to him: “No club unfit to start a season would ever be allowed to. They’d be expelled before a ball is kicked. Same rules for EVERY club.”
This solution certainly has the advantage of cleanliness. It might even smack of common sense. What it doesn’t have is consistency. From 1999 to 2013, clubs started the season in admin on 13 occasions: Palace (1999), QPR (2001), Barnsley (2003), Leicester (2003), Bradford (2004), Wrexham (2005), Boston (2007), Stockport (2009), Portsmouth (2010), Plymouth (2011), Portsmouth again (2012), Port Vale (2012) and Coventry (2013). The reasons for those administrations are as varied as the clubs’ paths since – you’ll notice that some have gone into non-league, others to the Champions League. Had that rule been in place, they might all have been phoenix clubs at best, memories at worst. And we would have a very different Football League.
An age-old problem
It is, indeed, a marvel that no clubs have been thrown out of the 92 since, well, 1992, when Aldershot and Maidstone United both kicked the bucket. Several have come close, and some have recovered to thrive. Excepting the above season-starters, administration entrants have include Bournemouth, Hull, Derby, Leeds, Luton and Southampton, illustrating that a spell on the naughty step needn’t lead to everlasting trouble.
But the question has to be asked how long clubs can survive when living beyond their means: in the past decade, a quarter of EFL clubs have faced liquidation. Rory Smith, former FourFourTwo contributor turned chief soccer correspondent for the New York Times, this week dared to wonder whether perhaps 92 professional clubs, plus a dozen or so in non-league, was too many for the country to support.
Some reacted with shock, but with all due respect to Rory, this was far from a new suggestion. Back in the 1960s, Brentford chairman Jack Dunnett discussed a merger with QPR’s Jim Gregory. Nothing came of that and Dunnett was chased out of town but took over at Notts County and spent much of the 1980s as Football League president, and his opinion hadn’t changed: that failing clubs should be allowed to die, that via the calculatedly inoffensive euphemism of “natural wastage” the League would slim down to 90, 80 or maybe even 70 clubs – and that this would in no way be a bad thing.
Perhaps, as Rory suggests, some clubs might have to go semi-pro. It seems a counterintuitive proposal when more and more non-league clubs are seeking advantage by going full-time, but perhaps that’s part of the problem: chasing the unattainable via the unsustainable.
In May, writer Daniel Storey compiled a list of clubs who had been late paying players. Besides Bolton and Bury (but of course), these included Oldham, Oxford, Macclesfield, Reading and Southend – and that’s just the clubs at which the embarrassing news emerged. Increasingly, clubs are living hand-to-mouth, without enough liquidity to safely see through the week or month. At least in that way, they’re showing a commonality with some of their fans.
The 2008 financial crisis is more than half of Jadon Sancho’s life ago, but not everybody has recovered. Low wage rises – we’re in it together, you know – combined with ludicrous inflation of accommodation cost (either the average mortgage outgoing or the rent which inevitably follows it as an economic rule) has left more people with less money in their pocket. The cash they – we – have must be divvied up ever more carefully, in some cases desperately so: it’s not just Bolton’s unpaid staff who have been forced to rely on foodbanks. In times like these, suddenly £23 to watch Rotherham doesn’t feel like a sensible option. Sorry, Millers, nothing personal.
Such financial uncertainty affects lots of different people, including those you might assume are on the other side of the fence. The very reason Steve Dale was invited to buy Bury was the financial trouble of former owner Stewart Day, a property developer affected by Brexit, Grenfell and what he claimed was the unwillingness of banks to lend to small companies like his.
Instead, Day borrowed from peer-to-peer lending services, so when one collapsed and his companies followed suit, the suffering investors were not faceless suits but ordinary people – buy-to-let couples, retirement lump-sum investors, parents who’d hoped to get their offspring through the spiralling expense of a university education by buying a student flat and then selling it on again.
Meanwhile, Bury were throwing money about like a man with no arms, assembling a squad they now literally can’t afford to pay in order to target promotion from the fourth tier. It worked until it didn’t. They were promoted at Tranmere on April 30 but have only played one game since: their closing home game with Port Vale. It was supposed to be a celebratory finale to the season, not the valedictory victory lap of a club soon to die.
With what can now be seen as dramatic foreshadowing, the BBC match report’s second mention of Bury is “the cash-strapped Shakers”. Only the most pessimistic of the 6,700 fans at Gigg Lane that day could have suspected it might be the club’s final fixture. But then, not many fans are aware of the economists’ analogy of a brick on elastic. It may be that the twanging we hear is not heartstrings, but the unavoidable result of years of irresponsible overspending.
Bury and Bolton will not be the last on deathwatch. The current situation cannot continue.
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