Football: Wenger warns of high stakes

Norman Fox meets a manager who fears for the future of football
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ARSENE WENGER, who has maintained a strict wage structure at Arsenal, warned yesterday that if Premiership players did not accept that their salaries had to remain close to present levels rather than demand rises of up to 40 per cent, as they did in the 1997-98 season, even the big clubs could face bankruptcy. He accused clubs who offered more than they could afford of a form of "cheating".

The total Premiership wage bill for last season amounted to pounds 190m, with Chelsea leading the salary table on pounds 26,982,000. Since the Premiership was formed in 1992, wages have increased by 250 per cent and, although profits now top pounds 100m, the indications are that wages will continue to rise while income remains much the same.

In spite of being champions and FA Cup holders, Arsenal were only fifth on the 1997-98 wages scale produced by the accountants Deloitte and Touche. The club's bill was pounds 21,882,000, almost modest by Chelsea's standard. However, Wenger indicated that even if a player of Dennis Bergkamp's stature and value (he earns pounds 25,000 a week) made a 40 per cent wage demand he would have to settle for considerably less.

Wenger warned: "I believe that all of the clubs at the moment are at the top of their possible wage limits. You can't go up any more unless you find new income. In recent years you have found more income through TV money, but at the moment that doesn't increase and at the gate you can't get more, which is why the clubs are where they are now and can't offer more."

He said that if the clubs continued to give way to ever-increasing wage demands "they will make trouble for themselves in the future". However he was not in favour of a wage-capping policy. "It's the responsibility of individual clubs. The salaries are dictated by the clubs - it's up to them to offer what they can afford. I would say that if we get the same increase for next season and the one after as we did in the last one the clubs could be in serious financial trouble." His own view was that wages "should stay where they are at the moment". Asked whether the players and their agents would accept that he instantly replied: "They will have to." He said it would be "cheating" if clubs spent more than they had. "You could run a club and after two or three years admit that you had given the players too much money, but you win something, then go down. That's a very dangerous game."

He had seen that Arsenal's only other London rivals for the current championship, Chelsea, had a higher wage bill. The top two wage earners in the Premiership, Marcel Desailly and Franck Leboeuf, both earn pounds 32,000 a week. "I can only think that Chelsea must have other different income... I don't know where from. I just know that in our club we want to keep as we are because you have a responsibility to your fans that the club doesn't get bankrupt."

Wenger's intention is to retain stability at Arsenal. "That means keeping the players we have... that is what I feel is being successful. After that you can bring a player like Kanu to strengthen it, but my main task is to keep the players happy here. You do have to spend the money to do that, but you cannot go over your limit. You can't go any more than 10 per cent. Forty or 50 per cent is just impossible."

Chelsea increased their wage bill in 1997-98 by 81 per cent. Manchester United are understood to have imposed a wage limit of pounds 25,000 a week, although a large number of the first-team squad are believed to be on that figure.

"Yes, we try to keep everyone happy at Arsenal," Wenger said. "But we have very strict wage control. That must apply to everybody." Even Bergkamp? "Everybody." He was not concerned that players had too much power but insisted that "some of the agents should take more interest in the careers of the players" rather than simply talk money.