Football: Deadline looms for football's fall guys

Cash-strapped clubs like Crystal Palace could be jettisoned by the League if they are insolvent on 31 July.
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WHEN THE Football Association announced in 1991 its backing for the Premier League, the breakaway by First Division clubs from sharing money and power with the other 70 Football League clubs, one of the voices raised most eloquently in protest was that of Steve Coppell.

"All I can see this doing is making the rich clubs richer," he said. "Eventually that will destroy the grass-roots of the game."

In the seven years since Coppell ensured that Palace became founder members of the FA Premiership, English football has become polarised almost to breaking point. While 20 Premiership clubs share the current TV deal worth pounds 168m per season, the 72 members of the Nationwide League have a deal worth a total of pounds 25m per season. As the Premiership corporations contemplate TV-led globalisation, Granada this week paying pounds 22m for 10 per cent of Liverpool, Palace themselves sit at the top of an unprecedentedly large pile of Nationwide League clubs facing the reality of terminal collapse.

While Palace's debt-laden administration may be to some extent unique following Mark Goldberg's disastrous takeover, a life-threatening cocktail has developed in the Football League; inflated players' wages have filtered down from the Premier League, while redistribution of television money has all but dried up. The resulting income gap, coupled with a variable quality of management, has produced a financial crisis at an alarming number of clubs in which the wage bill can often equal or even exceed all the money earned in a single year.

According to Deloitte & Touche's annual review of football's finances, in 1997, the last year for which figures were available, 34 Nationwide League clubs spent more than two-thirds of turnover on wages, including 96 per cent at Luton, Shrewsbury and York. At a time of greater overall wealth in football than ever before, this imbalance is leaving many clubs in crisis.

Five clubs are currently officially insolvent. Three: Oxford United, Portsmouth and Chester City, are in the course of being rescued - Oxford by Firoz Kassam, a Tanzanian London-based hotelier, Portsmouth by Milan Mandaric, a Serbian-American electronics magnate, and Chester by a supporter- backed consortium headed by American sports consultant Terry Smith. Palace remain in administration with various offers now being considered and Goldberg himself now personally insolvent. Luton Town is in receivership; receiver John Kelly is looking to attract a businessman-saviour with the prospect of building a new stadium near the M1.

The Football League has set a deadline of 31 July, after which any club not solvent will be expelled and not replaced. In recent years this threat has been averted. Darlington were rescued in May this year by George Reynolds, a local chipboard entrepreneur, who paid bailiffs on site, in cash, to save them walking away with the club's furniture. Doncaster have only recently recovered from the reign of their former owner Ken Richardson, currently serving four years for conspiracy to burn down the club's main stand. Since the formation of the Premiership, Millwall, Gillingham, Northampton, Bournemouth and Exeter have been variously insolvent, while there have been severe problems at Brighton, Hull City and a number of other clubs. "Sooner or later a rescue won't happen," warns Tom Burton, administrator at Portsmouth. "A club is going to go to the wall."

John Reames, chairman and current manager of Lincoln City, an original opponent of the Premier League breakaway, is a longstanding critic of what he describes as "avaricious greed" now polarising football. In the lower divisions, he says, however determined clubs are to impose strict wage limits, it is becoming impossible to compete and make ends meet. "Wage inflation at the top has affected football all the way down," he says. "Yet the Premier League, in terms of revenue, is further away than ever. If a Football League club were to go bust, nobody in the Premier League would lose a moment's sleep."

At last week's Birkbeck College conference on football governance and regulation, Mike Lee, spokesman for the Premier League, said: "All the prophets of doom at the formation of the Premiership have been proved wrong. No club has since been insolvent." It was a statement startlingly at odds with reality.

The Football League itself is criticised by some clubs and supporters for its imposition of the deadline, without providing more active help to clubs in trouble. Some within the game suspect a private agenda at the League to allow "natural wastage" to prune its 72-club membership. A League spokesman denied this, but stressed the League's approach is to leave clubs to sort themselves out: "The clubs are businesses. We are there to guide but cannot run clubs ourselves."

This hands-off approach could hardly contrast more vividly with increasing supporter involvement at almost every club. At both Chester and Luton, the mooted rescue packages are aiming to follow the examples of Bournemouth and Northampton Town, in which supporters bought stakes in the clubs and have elected representatives onto the board. Tomorrow, supporters of Barnet, protesting the refusal of planning permission for a new stadium, will lay symbolic wreaths at a rally at Downing Street, joined by supporters of some 22 other clubs, including those of Premiership giants Manchester United and Arsenal.

"There's massive solidarity between fans," says Michael Edwards, chair of the Keep Barnet Alive campaign. "Premier League clubs see themselves as corporations, but fans don't. To us, the game is still about community and local pride. Greed is destroying it. The Government is doing nothing to help, and fans are uniting to say that something must be done."

The Government would point to the Football Task Force, whose last report proposed support for clubs in financial crisis and encouraging supporter trusts, as evidence that positive moves are being taken to help out. The forthcoming final report is expected to address wider concerns about commercialism, and Government sources say they are committed to wider redistribution. But a growing lobby is wearying of recommendations being made to the game itself, which has promoted, not looked to solve, the corrosive inequality at the heart of the problem.

"Unless redistribution of money becomes fairer, clubs are going to go bust," says John Reames. "The game itself will not put it right, Government has to step in. But Tony Banks is not addressing problems at the grass- roots; he is increasingly seduced by the glamour end of the game and the 2006 World Cup campaign."

As football's divide widens by the season, Coppell's prescient warning about the Premier League breakaway is becoming ever more starkly accurate. With Palace struggling hard to meet a deadline simply to remain a Football League club, Coppell will be hoping that it does not take the final demise of his own club to prove him right.