Football: Why clubs need a level playing field - Football's Big Five has become the Big One. Norman Fox discusses the power game and a radical call to follow America's example

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The Independent Online
IN 1985 an unofficial consortium of Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal - then all in the top seven - felt powerful enough to plot the downfall of the Football League. The eventual outcome was the Premiership: the First Division with louder shirts.

Far from dominating the new league, the 'Big Five' have been reduced to the 'Big One', Manchester United. But according to a book to be published next week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre research organisation, football is still in danger of being destroyed by the domination of a few comparatively rich clubs. The only answer, according to the institute, is for football to curtail their powers by forcing them to loan players to the poorer ones.

The IPPR claim that most of football's ills can be blamed on the free market. In so far as they still speak with one voice, the Big Five can be expected to counter the proposals by pointing to the current success of comparatively small clubs such as Norwich City and Queen's Park Rangers. They would say that the five's traditional prosperity and power has never guaranteed trophies.

Indeed, originally they took the risk of suggesting that what is now called the Premiership should consist of only 12 clubs, which would have meant that last season Everton would have been relegated, and on recent form Tottenham and Liverpool would be far from safe.

The book, A Game Without Vision: The Crisis of English Football, says the danger of domination by a few rich clubs (or rich chairmen, more likely) remains so great that it may have to be stopped by using the American draft system whereby, in theory, no club can develop a monopoly on the transfer market, as has happened in Italy with Milan.

Newcastle United's return to prominence and Jack Walker's empire-building at Blackburn Rovers indicates that football's hierarchy may actually be expanding, which would suggest that the IPPR's worries could prove unfounded. But Dan Corry, who wrote the book with Paul Williamson, says only 10-20 years of consistent success and investment would place them in the same economic bracket as Manchester United. He does not rule out the possibility of other clubs joining the powerful few, but thinks the chances are that money and power will remain with a tiny and diminishing proportion.

The IPPR recommend the reduction of the Premiership by four clubs, the appointment of a supremo and a ban on transfers during the season. None of this is new. Their suggestion that football adapts the American system of drafting stronger players to weaker teams, however, could draw the loudest protests from chairmen of richer clubs.

Corry said: 'Concentration in economic terms in the game is going to increase. A lot of the constraints that were in the game to stop that becoming extreme, like the maximum wage and the retain and transfer system, have gone. Obviously you get seasons when teams break the mould, like Nottingham Forest. But the evidence is that an injection of cash for a few years does not mean you stay up with the big boys permanently.'

Although in future the Premiership may decide to appoint what the Americans call a commissioner, the idea that he might be able to intervene in the transfer market is clearly too radical to be given much consideration by the club chairmen who run the Premiership. However, Corry explains: 'Professional football needs uncertainty of outcome to some extent. That means someone has to take an overall view and sometimes intervene in the market to make sure you get balance. We don't want to go back to things like retain and transfer but we go along with the commissioner model for running the game - one who has a reasonable amount of authority and can take an overall view.'

Corry admits that English football would have to turn somersaults over the principles of a free market, to take on the draft system. 'We found it interesting that America, which is the great land of the free markets, modifies the free market in professional sport. If you leave it to the market you end up with an unbalanced league and a lot of the factors why England can't deliver at the moment. What is best for the game and the national team may involve some restriction on allowing clubs to do exactly what they want.'

For the moment, three of the Big Five are certainly not doing everything they want and would challenge the notion that being a 'big' club gives them any advantages. During the past eight days, Everton have played before a crowd of 13,667, their worst for nearly 10 years and have seen their manager resign, probably for the lack of funds to buy players. Arsenal continue to pick up points in singles and have no realistic chance of catching United. Tottenham confess to being desperately in need of more players but Alan Sugar is keen to get the club on an even keel financially before dabbling too deeply in the transfer market, and Liverpool these days are pleased to be above mid-table.

All four are more concerned about making ends meet than shaping some future super league. Liverpool, while denying that they are financially embarrassed, are committed to rebuilding the Kop. They have had more boardroom problems since David Moores became chairman than occurred (or were admitted) under Sir John Smith. Everton have an overdraft of well over pounds 3m and Tottenham are not going to let Ossie Ardiles spend more money than is being created by the club's diverse activities. And Arsenal, once the Bank of England club, are now more concerned about commitments to the Bank of Scotland.