Football: Hypocrisy of the First among unequals

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The Independent Online
UNCIVIL war appears to have broken out in the ranks of the Nationwide Football League, with First Division set against Second and Third. One guess as to the cause, and one clue: it begins with "m", ends with "y" and the answer is not marry. In fact, divorce is more in mind.

Yes, money is the root of the problem. Changes are afoot in television technology which mean, the thinking goes, that more cash will be flooding in. And the First Division believes that it should get a bigger percentage than it is. The Second and Third Divisions think otherwise and a meeting of all parties last Wednesday broke up without agreement.

At the moment, the Nationwide League receives, after costs, an annual income from TV of pounds 33m, of which just under 60 per cent goes to the First Division clubs, 23 per cent to the Second and 17 per cent to the Third. The First Division clubs say that if the income goes over pounds 75m, which it could do with new TV deals, they should receive 97.5 per cent of the new money to reflect their contribution and status.

The Second and Third Division clubs counter that in terms of all income, the First already gets 80 per cent. Back come the First to say that the Second and Third receive pounds 20m but generate only pounds 8.2 m of the income.

Apart from showing that the same figures can be viewed several different ways to support whatever case one wishes to advance, the whole argument contains at its heart a staggering hypocrisy on the part of the First Division clubs.

Once, and not so long ago, they accused the Premier League of being greedy, of casting them adrift, of putting profit before the traditional organisation that had been so good to and for them. The Football League was the breeding ground, they said, for the players the Premiership required. Well, now it seems the First Division has a sponsorship deal with Pot and Kettle Plc.

The former Lincoln City chairman John Reames, speaking on behalf of the lower division clubs, warned that up to 45 of them could go to the wall but this is probably an exaggeration. Then again, so is the First Division clubs' assessment of their own worth.

They seem to think that they are big clubs in waiting and only have to say the word to set up a Premiership Division Two. But the Premier League was formed to get away from them; they are unlikely to be welcomed on board again. And, like their share prices, clubs can go down as well as up. Would, say, Birmingham City be arguing for change so vociferously were they down on their luck as they have been in the recent past?

There is much bluffing and blustering going on and probably will be when the issue is discussed again on Thursday at an extraordinary meeting of the League in London. It bears repeating that the smaller clubs are crucial to their communities - as has been shown by Brighton and Doncaster - and deserve and need subsidy.

It used to be that the health of a society could be judged on how it treated its most vulnerable and football ought to be judged by the same yardstick - particularly when it was the one being wielded only six years ago by the same clubs now poking the other end of it at their even smaller brethren.

Let us hope that the spirit of compromise shown elsewhere in Britain on far more important issues over this Easter Weekend can spill into this week and into a sometimes maddeningly selfish and intransigent sport.

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Arsenal have decided that the money it generates is not worth the trouble, which indicates that they agree that they get enough anyway these days. Mind you, just to keep the one or two of the lesser-paid players happy, I'm told that if any publication does want to fork out for an exclusive on "My Groin Strain Nightmare", they are still welcome...

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