Charter to help rich get richer

COMMENT; Glenn Moore sees a dark future for youth development
Click to follow
The Independent Online
More than 60 years ago Dixie Dean, the great Everton centre forward, was introduced to Babe Ruth, the baseball legend, at half-time in a First Division match.

The American said to Dean: "What do you make out of this game? It looks like it pays pretty well."

"You're joking," Dean replied. "I make pounds 8 a week, plus a few quid when we win."

"But all that crowd out there. It is as many as we get for a World Series. You must get a share of the gate. Surely, most of them have all come to see you?"

We have come a long way since then. The lifting of the maximum wage in the early Sixties, the George Eastham case soon after, and the introduction of freedom of contract the following decade ended the feudal nature of football employment.

Clubs big and small, and players good and bad, each have had a slice of the cake, one roughly commensurate with their standing and ability.

Until now. The Bosman ruling, it appears, could shatter this delicate balancing act. The first impression is that this is a charter for the rich; the fortunes of wealthy clubs and high-earning players are set to grow ever greater.

Good news for those Premiership strikers who are paid more for endorsing a pair of boots than Third Division defenders earn in a season. Even better news for agents, whose public mouthpiece has already announced himself "monster pleased" with the news.

But not, on balance, good for the British game. If the current system is so bad why is the Professional Footballers' Association, as strong and well-led a union as any in the TUC, against the new developments? Britain, it seems, is about to pay for the inequities of the Belgian game.

The most obvious consequence is that clubs will seek to sign players to longer contracts - while agents will encourage them to negotiate shorter ones. Why commit yourself to a club for years if it risks missing out on a free transfer with a lucrative signing-on fee?

There is a risk to both policies. Short contracts leave players vulnerable to serious injury, the threat of which stalks the professional game.

Long deals expose clubs to the danger of paying first-team money to second- team players. The weekly wage bill of Liverpool reserves must be a frightening sight.

One possible consequence is the development of nursery clubs, as in Spain. Already discussed in secret by the Premier League, the prospect was given voice yesterday by Sam Hamman, the owner of Wimbledon. Hamman also forecast a future in which smaller clubs would disintegrate or merge. Part-time football is more likely.

The most worrying prospect concerns youth development, which has only recently been given the attention and funding it deserves. For clubs of every size there will be less incentive to plough money into such schemes. Why bother if someone else reaps the benefit?

The European Court talked of compensation to cover development costs, but small clubs need transfer fees to subsidise their entire operation, not just the youth branch. Clubs could seek to sign their youngsters on long contracts but, given the drop-out rate of apprentices, how many can afford to risk giving a 16-year-old an eight-year deal?

Yesterday's decision will not lead to a revolution in the way the game is run It has been evolving this way for 34 years. Now, however, the evolution will step up another gear. As in other sports, power and wealth is moving inexorably into the hands and wallets of the world's top players.

Some would say, "why not?" Compared to the top tennis and golf players, footballers are still poorly remunerated, even the likes of Maradona and Cantona, whose launch of a world players' union in Paris on Monday now appears as well timed as one of their passes.

It seems Jean-Marc Bosman, who was an average player in a poor league, could prove a greater influence on football than either of that illustrious pair. However, the changes he may have set in motion are likely to benefit not the journeymen like himself, but the stars like Maradona.