Football: Rich elite ignore the crisis at grassroots

The Taylor Report has benefited the game's leading clubs while the rest struggle to stay afloat despite a golden age. By Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
JUST AS people of a certain age can remember where they were when John F Kennedy was assasinated, so football fans across Britain, whoever they support, remember the game they were at on the day of the Hillsborough tragedy.

More than any of the disasters of that benighted decade - the sinkings of The Marchioness and The Herald of Free Enterprise, the King's Cross fire, even the football tragedies of Bradford and Heysel - Hillsborough struck a chord. We had been there; we all knew it could easily have been us.

Like many fans I had stood on the away terrace at Leppings Lane; like most, I had been caught in a terrace crush. Mine was five years earlier at Blundell Park where, as at Hillsborough, fans who attempted to escape by climbing over the fences were initially met with police batons.

The fear that day soon subsided. Indeed, the inherent danger of terracing even added a sense of daring to the exhilarating feeling of weightlessness experienced when you were swept along in a surging crowd.

Hillsborough changed that. Just as Kennedy's death signalled a loss of innocence for the baby boom generation so football supporters who had always thought "it won't happen to me" had to accept it could. We had learned to live with hooliganism, partly because experienced supporters could spot trouble coming and avoid it. This was different.

Fortunately for the game, and its followers, perceptions changed in the wider world as well. The process was slow, due to the lies put out by police and disseminated by The Sun, but football supporters gradually came to be seen as ordinary people who had been victims, not hooligans. The game also found a saviour in Lord Justice Taylor, whose report pushed a government congenitally opposed to the game into supporting it. The Membership Card Scheme, which could have crippled football, was abandoned in favour of diverting millions of pounds of betting tax money into rebuilding its stadiums.

When, on the back of Italia 90 and Gazza's tears, a new audience was attracted to the domestic game, they were not turned off by what they found. Rupert Murdoch was one of the first to realise this and, through his Sky satellite channel, both profited from and accelerated the trend.

The consequences are all around us. Literally. Even if you do not follow the game you are assailed by its images. Football sells everything from shampoo to burgers to satellite dishes to cars to watches. For devotees the game appears to be enjoying a golden age. Players such as Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola light up swish grounds, watched by capacity crowds drawn from across classes and genders. England may have wobbled under Glenn Hoddle but the Premiership, which has semi-finalists in two European competitions, is avidly followed from Australia to Norway. Multinational companies, not content with scrambling to sponsor players, competition and clubs, seek to buy the latter.

Which is where doubts emerge. Last week's ruling that prevented BSkyB taking over Manchester United was as welcome as it was unexpected but the trend is unlikely to be reversed. The top end of the game is moving away from its bedrock support both in terms of people and structure.

Working class supporters, the young men who sustained the game during its years of decline, are being priced out at the turnstile. Lower division clubs, the countrywide fabric which gives the sport a stake in every community, are being cut adrift.

During the seven months in which BSkyB pursued its pounds 623m bid for United, two clubs, Portsmouth and Crystal Palace, went into administration while Luton called in the receivers. They joined Chester, who have been in administration since the start of the season, and follow Gillingham, Bournemouth, Exeter, Northampton, Barnet and Millwall, who have had similar experiences - and survived - within the past four years.

Television and sponsorship income may have marginally increased in recent years but the rise is dwarfed by the knock-on effect of the Premiership's escalating wages. Most lower division clubs are being kept afloat by generous chairmen or transfer sales though these, too, have declined post-Bosman due to the import of cheap foreigners and players' right to a free transfer once their contract is up.

One of the most pathetic illustrations of this poverty came at Blackpool a few weeks ago when an employee had to return a pounds 5 pack of polystyrene cups because there was not enough money in the petty cash. Meanwhile, Robbie Fowler can probably afford to pay the pounds 60,000 fine he received from the Football Association last week from his current account.

Nor have the bulk of these clubs benefited from the Government's post- Hillsborough largess. The priority, following the Taylor Report, was the reconstruction of grounds in the top two English divisions and the Scottish Premier and the bulk of the pounds 130m initial investment went into improving already large and reasonably impressive grounds. Arsenal, Chelsea, Leeds, Liverpool and Tottenham all received around pounds 2m while Manchester United were granted pounds 1.4m, just over a 10th of the money they invested in Dwight Yorke this season.

Now clubs outside the elite are trying to develop, or move from, their often inadequate grounds the money available to the Football Trust has dwindled dramatically. This is due to the impact of the National Lottery on the football pools, from which the Trust receives its income.

The Premier League belatedly agreed to give pounds 20m to the Trust after agreeing the latest TV deal in 1997. Together with pounds 20m offered to assist youth development at League clubs this left the 20 Premiership clubs to struggle on with the remaining pounds 703m.

Meanwhile, down at the real grassroots, the picture is even worse. The FA is supposed to be responsible for all levels of the game but despite having a keen parks player, the recently deposed Graham Kelly, as chief executive for the last decade they appear to have largely ignored this area. From the pounds 50m the FA receives each year from commercial activities, TV rights and international matches it allocates less than pounds 2m to football being played by the 44,000 affiliated clubs from the Vauxhall Conference down to Sunday morning leagues.

There is FA investment outside the professional game but most of it goes on the elite of the future, promising youth players. The upkeep of changing- rooms and pitches for the amateur is left to local councils, who have more urgent funding priorities, or the players themselves. This is utterly inadequate. At least the Football Trust, whose funding crisis has been eased by assistance from the FA, Professional Footballers' Association and government, intends to look at this area once they have helped the lower divisions fulfil Taylor's requirements.

When players have finished paying to play, they have to pay increasing sums to watch the professionals. Despite the Taylor Report's clear request that clubs should not take advantage of the move to seating to increase prices most have, to extortionate levels. The cheapest seat at Chelsea is pounds 22 (uncovered) while it can even cost pounds 16 to watch Second Division football.

Meanwhile, in the directors' box, the game's fat cats count fortunes which make even the players look like paupers. The likes of Sir John and Douglas Hall (Newcastle), David Dein (Arsenal), Doug Ellis (Aston Villa), Ken Bates (Chelsea), Alan Sugar (Spurs), Peter Johnson (Everton) and others have made actual or paper fortunesfrom the game but all are cast in shadow by Martin Edwards. The Manchester United chairman has realised pounds 33m on his original pounds 600,000 investment and still has 14 per cent of shares, estimated worth pounds 62m, to sell.

A golden age? For these men it comes platinum-coated and diamond-studded. And yet, if television lost interest, which it might if hooliganism returned, or fashions moved on (already the sales of replica shirts, abarometer of the game's popularity, are falling) the sport would be in trouble. There are a lot of clubs locked into long-term, high-wage contracts. While money is flooding into the game football should invest it, not dish it out to rapacious players and agents, or allow it to be salted away into directors' offshore bank accounts.

It should also have used its riches to look after its own: the way the game has stood by while the Hillsborough families have fought to be heard is nothing short of a disgrace.

This, however, involves people in positions of influence putting the wider interests of the game before their own. While there are honourable exceptions it is clear that this is unlikely. Coercion may be required.