David Conn: Double excess signals new era of 'superclubs'

Television riches reinforce cycle of success for Premier League's elite as gap between haves and have-nots widens
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The Independent Online

For the generations of football supporters brought up on the idea of the League championship and FA Cup Double as the ultimate glittering achievement for any English club, it is sobering, following Arsenal's admirable triumph at Old Trafford this week, to realise quite how routine it has now become. Wednesday night's victory over Manchester United concluded the Premier League's 10th season since it was formed in 1992 by the Football League's First Division clubs, breaking away from sharing their money with the League's other 72 clubs. The clubs in the other three divisions and, sadly, too few other major football figures bitterly opposed the breakaway on the grounds that it was sure to consolidate money and, therefore, footballing success and power, in the hands of a few big clubs.

Since then, apart from Blackburn's brief, nouveau riche championship in 1995, only Manchester United and Arsenal have won the Premier League. They have now also done the Double five times – on average, every other season. That is as many Doubles in the last 10 years as in the whole of football's history previously. Preston North End's "Invincibles" won the League in 1888-89, the inaugural Football League season, which featured only 12 clubs, Aston Villa, in 1897, were champions of only 16. Since 1905, when the First Division was expanded to 20 clubs, to 1992 – 87 years – only three clubs achieved it: Tottenham in 1961, Arsenal in 1971, and Liverpool in 1986, at the peak of their domestic dominance under their player-manager, Kenny Dalglish.

In the FA Cup, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have won every final since 1992, except for 1995, when Paul Rideout's header saw Everton beat United. Apart from Blackburn's Premiership win, bankrolled by Jack Walker, Manchester United have won the Premiership seven times, Arsenal twice. Arsenal did the Double both times, 1998 and this season, while United did it in 1994, '96 and '99, when they also took the European Cup.

Dan Johnson, a Premier League spokesman, was at pains following Arsenal's triumph to stress the hard work, excellent management and forward planning which has produced their success. "The top clubs are emulating Manchester United's achievement of building strong foundations for success, developing young players in academies, and looking to the future. It's best practice, which we're encouraging. The days of being able to buy the title are over."

But while nobody can question the skills that the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, has applied to his team's management, or the supreme footballing ability of his players, it flies contrary to all the evidence to suggest that money is not now the principal factor which determines who can achieve success. Tony Adams may have graduated from their youth system back in 1984, but Arsenal could also afford last summer to pay Tottenham £10m for Sol Campbell. Alongside other multi-million pound stars, one which lends perspective is the £6.8m signing of Richard Wright, Ipswich's goalkeeper, as, effectively, an understudy to David Seaman.

Year after year, wealth is becoming concentrated in the hands of the few biggest clubs. Before 1992, the Football League had maintained a philosophy and practice of sharing money with rough equality to try to maintain competition. Its £44m deal with ITV was distributed 50 per cent to First Division clubs, 25 per cent to those in the Second, 25 to the Third and Fourth.

Since the breakaway, television income has multiplied beyond imagining: £305m in 1992, followed by £670m in 1997, then the current £1.6bn for three years from 2001, a total, in TV money alone, to only 20 clubs, of £2.57bn. The Football League's relatively thin gruel for the other 72 has now dissolved to nothing following the collapse of ITV Digital, although League officials believe they will be able to sell their rights to other broadcasters for upwards of £35m per year

Of the Premier League's money, nothing significant was shared until 1997, when they agreed to pay £20m over four years, matched by the Lottery, to Football League clubs to fund youth development programmes. That money is now under review. Some £17m, around 2.5 per cent, is to be paid to the Professional Footballers' Association and five per cent to the Football Foundation to rebuild public football facilities which have continued to rot throughout football's years of boom.

In other words, over 90 per cent of the Premier League's money is shared between its 20 member clubs. ITV Digital's collapse only emphasises the chasm already yawning between football's haves and have-nots: four Football League clubs – Queen's Park Rangers, Bury, Lincoln, Swindon – are already in administration and many more could soon join them.

Yet, even within the Premier League, inequality between the clubs is institutionalised. From the beginning, TV money has been paid in three ways: half equally to all clubs, a quarter according to where clubs finish in the League, the other quarter to clubs each time they are featured live on Sky TV. This further concentrates wealth: successful clubs are rewarded by being paid more, and so can become more successful. Up to the huge 1997 deal, the differences this produced were not so great, but since then they have become almost insurmountable.

In 1997-98, Arsenal, who won the League, were paid £9.7m in TV money. Crystal Palace, who finished bottom, received £4.35m. Last season's champions, Manchester United, received £20.4m, Bradford, the bottom club, £8.4m. Geoffrey Richmond, Bradford's chairman, lobbied for a change to a more equal distribution, a view supported by several middle-ranking clubs. Following Arsenal's Double, Alan Curbishley, the manager of Charlton, said that the financial inequality was seriously damaging competition in the Premiership. However, the big clubs are clearly opposed to reform and the hovering threat of breakaway keeps the smaller clubs quiet.

This season, every club received £8.1m for being a member of the Premier League. The merit award pays £440,000 for each position in the League; in other words Arsenal, the champions, receive 20 times that: £8.8m, while Leicester, relegated at the bottom, will be paid only £440,000. "Facility fees", for appearing live on Sky, are now £550,000, while clubs receive £95,000 for being selected for pay-per-view games. Obviously, the champions are featured most: with a game still to come, Arsenal have been featured 13 times live, worth £7.15m, three times on PPV: £285,000. Leicester were featured three times on Sky, a mere £1.65m-worth, and twice on PPV, worth £190,000.

Winning the FA Cup has, since the Football Association's own enhanced TV deal for this season, also become lucrative, worth around £3.5m to Arsenal, and £50,000 to Leicester who went out in the fourth round to West Bromwich Albion.

Of major financial significance now is the Champions' League, which made Arsenal £14.9m last season after they went out in the quarter-final. Going out in the second group stage this season should still make them around £5m. Next season will be Arsenal's fifth successive Champions' League qualification.

"It's all reinforced season after season," said Mark Fenoughty, the finance director of Leicester, who face uncertainty in the Football League next season. "There is a real danger of ending up with a few superclubs, a class apart from the rest."

Last season Arsenal's turnover was £63m, £37m of it coming from broadcasting and commercial activities. Gate receipts washed in £20.5m, but even this, the club believe, is too little and they are pressing ahead with a proposed 60,000-seat stadium development in Islington's Ashburton Grove, which two local residents last week were awarded legal aid to contest.

When the FA announced its controversial backing for the proposed Premier League in 1991, Graham Taylor, then England manager, said: "I'm not convinced this is for the betterment of the England team, I think a lot of this is based on greed." His namesake Gordon, the chief executive of the PFA, said: "This is a way for the leading clubs to seize virtually all the money, leaving the remaining clubs to wither, or die."

Arsenal have provided a splendid spectacle on the field this season, but as they carry home the silverware following their second Double in four years, the fifth in the Premiership's first decade, Taylor's grim warning follows them more loudly than ever down the Islington streets.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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