Football: Leagues must present a united front for new TV deal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HALF A century ago professional football enjoyed a massive surge in interest after the end of the war. With only the cinema as a rival attraction, supporters starved of meaningful competition for seven years returned to the game in droves.

The 1948-49 season ended with 41,271,424 spectators having passed through the creaking turnstiles. The record for one Saturday was 1,171,732. Grainy old photographs of the time depict goalkeepers peering into the smog - the Clean Air Act was not passed until 1956 - and behatted men tightly packed along the actual touchlines. If they couldn't find space on the terraces they climbed on to the roof of the stand - it is heart-stopping to see how they endangered their safety.

Clubs made profits and, rather than pay tax, pushed transfer fees up into five figures. The players themselves, though their pounds 12-a-week maximum wage bore reasonable comparison with the wages of the time, were not set apart from the fans as they are today; you could still travel to the match sitting alongside one of your heroes on the bus. This was unsurprising, as the player's contract forbade him from travelling in a car, although this was soon relaxed as I know Blackpool's England international captain, Harry Johnston, used to pick up his authoritarian manager, Joe Smith, at the bus stop in the Fifties.

The First Division champions were allowed under Football League regulations to pay "talent money" of pounds 550 to their players. That was not each, but in total.

What incentive was there for players to change clubs in the days of the maximum wage? Presumably a combination of the desire to play in a more successful team and the possibility of a part-time job outside the game. Such jobs were invariably high in profile and low on labour.

The player was, of course, tied to his club for life. He could only move with his employer's permission. One of the top players of the day, Middlesbrough's Wilf Mannion, went on strike one season and only made his peace in time to start playing after Christmas. England centre-half Neil Franklin, of Stoke City, was suspended from world football for decamping to play unaffiliated football in Bogota.

Inevitably, perhaps, the post-war bubble burst and gates fell steadily through the decades to the trough of 16 million in 1985-86 after the Heysel Stadium disaster. The decline was only arrested temporarily between 1966 and 1972 after England's sole World Cup success. In the inflationary 1970s gate receipts climbed dramatically despite attendances remaining around the 25 million mark.

Now League attendances have climbed back to 25 million. Grounds are safer, more comfortable. Foreign stars please the crowds and television shifts vast amounts of money into the game.

But will this current bubble burst? Football's crazy economy makes any analysis extremely difficult, although Deloitte and Touche try valiantly to point up salient trends in their Annual Review of Football Finance.

The annual income of League clubs must now exceed pounds 1bn. But even at the top of the money tree,where the five biggest Premier League clubs have a combined income greater than that of all the 72 Football League clubs, wage growth continues to accelerate. Small clubs struggle to keep apace of bigger clubs who struggle to keep up with mega- clubs who have to compete with the financial giants of Italy and Spain.

And attitudes tend to harden as a consequence. When the stakes were minimal, professional football was happy to operate as a co-operative society. Income from gates and television was shared.

Smaller clubs acted as feeders and drew sustenance from selling a player to a richer club every so often. The Bosman ruling has all but cut off this lifeline.

Now the sport is virtually 100 per cent commercially led. And it is difficult to envisage the Premier League adding significantly to the grants it already makes to Football League clubs for ground improvements and youth development.

The next major television contracts in 2001 will be of massive significance. Last week was illuminating. English clubs in European competition were subject to a bewildering mix of satellite, terrestrial and digital coverage. Spanish League football continues on Sky and Serie A returns, this season to ITV2. And the Worthington Cup struggled to maintain visibility.

Next time, Sky will have to muster another massive bid if they are to see off the threat from new competitors eager for a slice of the action. The Football League needs to persuade the Premier League to act in unison prior to deals being settled. Otherwise, whereas 50 years ago the Football League added four new clubs to increase to 92, the millennium will see a contracted industry in which fatalities are inevitable.