Football: First with a thirst for riches

Stephen Brenkley talks to the radical leading the League's battle for recognition
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SOME footballers can juggle the ball continuously from foot to foot, never letting it hit the ground. David Sheepshanks probably knows how they feel. He has spent 15 tortuous, delicate months attempting to convince anybody who will listen that the Football League not only has an illustrious past but also a glorious future, and that it is indispensable if the game is to flourish. It is an endless game of keepy-up, except if the ball drops the consequences may be catastrophic.

Considering what he himself refers to frequently as the "fantastic success of the Premiership" and the need to drag many elements of his organisation into the 20th Century this has been an order of the tallest type. "I think we are getting there," he said. "I think I have reason to be optimistic but there still have to be discussions with the lower clubs to convince them that they we have to be visionary and that we can be prosperous. We have to be more commercially aware but I believe, and I will never stop believing, that the good health of our sport depends on the strength of the Football League."

Sheepshanks, then, as its chairman, has had a good week. In beating Coventry City on Tuesday Sheffield United joined Wolverhampton Wanderers in representing the First Division of what is officially the Nationwide League, in the FA Cup semi-finals. Two out of four ain't bad and Sheepshanks, more than anybody, is aware of what it does for the League's profile.

"We talk a lot about bridging the gap," he said. "This shows that we can compete with the Premiership. Of course, the differences have grown and I know people will make the point that our promoted clubs last year are all in the relegation zone now. But equally Derby and Leicester from the year before are now established in the Premiership.

"What I do know is that we can't exist purely alone. We need to have a financial linkage and we need to have competitions where we compete against the Premiership. It was an appallingly bad decision to refuse the joint TV contract three years ago and to negotiate our own deal. It might have been for what were thought to be the best reasons, such as keeping our independence, but that didn't make it any better. As a result I should say we have half the money we would have done."

Sheepshanks, 45, is articulate, persuasive, concerned and not at all like the average club boss of yore. Perhaps his finest hour - or rather few months - were in wearing down Uefa till they restored England's Uefa Cup place for the Coca-Cola Cup winners. He is the chairman of Ipswich Town, and was elected to the League's top post without seeking it. The brief was to lead change in organisation, structure and outlook before handing over to an independent chairman and chief executive. He believes that the necessary changes are in place and might be passed at an extraordinary meeting in April or May. It may be worthwhile not holding your breath on this one. Internecine jealousy is rampant and if the First Division clubs look enviously to the Premiership that is nothing to how the Second and Third Division clubs look at the First. He wants to curb nobody's aspirations.

"Sheffield United and Wolverhampton Wanderers are in the Cup semi-finals. But in the not too distant past they have both been down in the bottom division of the League. There are other examples. Look at Northamp- ton, almost extinct, now thriving, and Torquay, who a few years ago were down and out and appear to have turned things round. The League is for all."

The Sheepshanks hail from Yorkshire where, it is not be a total suprise to hear, they were wool merchants. The Ipswich and League chairman's branch moved to East Anglia some generations ago and he now runs a firm which makes mayonnaise, dressing and marinade. Or, rather, his brother Rick runs it, David gratefully pointed out, while he devotes his time almost exclusively to football and, presumably, banging heads together.

Relations with the Premiership are affable. He thinks the elite clubs know that they cannot exist in isloation but persuading them to renew financial links ("we don't want to be utterly reliant on their hand-outs though we'll gratefully accept what's given") may be more difficult.

Of course, with Ipswich going so well and a play-off place looking the least of their propsects, it may be tempting to assume that he will forget all about the Nationwide should they get promotion. Not a bit of it. He insists they all need each other. "We have made changes at Ipswich. The contribution of the Cobbold family over years and years can never be underestimated but it was said that a crisis at Ipswich was running out white wine. We've tried to alter that, though the white wine's still good."

There is still talking to be done and blood may be shed in committee rooms yet awhile. Wolves or Sheffield United might help by going a stage further but the purposeful Sheepshanks wants redemption for all.