Nine years on from the formation of the Premiership, any idea that the television money now flooding into English football is benefiting the game at large is surely dead. The divide between the game's rich and poor has become a chasm this season, with Premier League clubs receiving a stunning £23m on average from television, while First Division clubs will earn just £2m.
In 1992, on that opening day of the Premiership, Sheffield United beat Manchester United and Norwich City won at Arsenal. Today those two winning clubs wonder how they can find the resources to win back their place in the élite; the idea that they might even compete with – let alone beat – the best that Old Trafford and Highbury can offer is a distant dream.
Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, has always fought for more equality within the game, but even he admits: "I continue to argue the gap should be narrower, but it is becoming impossible to achieve. Football has become Thatcherite, where the rich get richer and the poor go to the wall. That was how we came to have the Premier League in the first place. What's happening now was inevitable."
Nor is it only the lower division clubs who look on with envy at the Premiership's riches, for the PFA, the players' union, is threatening strike action if it is not paid a share of the new money washing through the English game.
The context of this row is this season's massive new TV money, as football wallows in its status as the chief prize for satellite and digital television companies fighting over the nation's remote control fingers. The Premier League's deal, £1.5bn over the next three seasons, largely from BSkyB, more than doubles the last deal, which itself vastly exceeded anything which was paid before.
The Football League is pleased with its £315m deal with ITV, but it is so modest by comparison that it threatens to bury any continued pretensions English football has to domestic competitiveness.
Ipswich and Charlton may have demonstrated the enduring value of good organisation and sound football management last season, but now Premier League clubs will receive £23m on average from television alone, while First Division clubs will get £2m. Second Division clubs will receive £600,000 for the season, the same amount a Premiership club will make from staging a single live match on Sky. Third Division clubs will receive £450,000. After the 1992 breakaway by the top clubs from the Football League with its more even share-out, the departure of the Premier League to another planet now looks complete.
Talk to the Football League about it, though, and you find it has almost forgotten the idea that more should be distributed from the Premier League. There are no audible voices arguing against the divide.
"We just have to make the most of our own deals and keep the redistribution measures we have," said the League's spokesman, John Nagle. All of these are under some threat: the transfer system, the Premier League's funding of youth development, which is due to end next year, and the Worthington Cup, a much-undermined competition which, because it features the Premier League's clubs, still accounts for most of the League's deal with ITV.
If the Football League seems somewhat resigned to its fate, the players' union is in no mood to give up the idea that it is entitled to its share of TV riches. The Premier League, Football League and Football Association paid more than three-quarters of the PFA's £13m income last season out of television money, under agreements which Taylor secured in 1992 and 1996 only after ballots of the players which produced 95 per cent votes in favour of strike action.
The last agreement, for five per cent of television income, ended in June, but so far Taylor has received no offer for the PFA's share of the new TV deals, worth an unprecedented £1.8bn over three years. He claimed that as the money has become bigger, the authorities have become more reluctant to pay.
"The TV money funds our charitable, education, hardship and accident funds, and as no funding has come in, we have been forced to suspend some of our projects," Taylor said. "If there is no firm offer, we could be heading for serious industrial action. It sums up that the caring side of the game is going to the wall and business is taking over."
The Premier League issued a statement saying that "negotiations continue" with the PFA, but the football authorities have long been resentful of the wealth of the PFA and its multiple roles – as players' agent, union and commercial operator – funded by the leagues' TV money. Players, even the top players, pay only £75 a year in union subscriptions, lower than the TUC's £112 average. There are persistent mutterings about Taylor's own salary package, which, at £450,000, is £300,000 more than any other British union executive.
The authorities do not appear to want a fight, but they have asked Taylor to provide a detailed breakdown of the PFA's expenditure, and are questioning whether the union should continue to administer all the schemes, including the accident insurance scheme for current players.
Taylor is resisting fiercely, arguing that the PFA is football's caring wing, providing education and coaching courses, accident insurance and, out of its Benevolent Fund, help to players or ex-players who have fallen on hard times or become permanently disabled. Last season benevolent payments totalled £1.3m.
But after a summer whose headlines have mostly concerned the whopping salary deals and lucrative tax-free testimonials garnered by his wealthier members, Taylor could find sympathy harder to glean this time.
In its otherwise diplomatic official statement, the Premier League referred with impatience to the size of the players' wages: "Given the level of salaries and benefits in the Premier League, it is impossible to suggest that players are not well provided for. But we understand that the PFA has responsibility for all the players in the professional game. Negotations continue as to how to provide in areas of real need."
There can be no doubt that the balance of power has shifted towards the top players, Taylor's own members, who are widely regarded as greedy and overpaid and, in the post-Bosman era, have the upper hand in negotations with the clubs. Sol Campbell's transfer this summer appeared to embody the absence of loyalty – moving from Spurs to Arsenal – in favour of money, his deal reportedly worth up to £100,000 a week. More widely, it has set a benchmark to other top players of the salaries which can be claimed out of the TV pot. Roy Keane set the previous standard with his reported £2.5m a year. Now, a year later, the TV money has doubled, and so, immediately, has the new top wage.
"Only a few players will be able to claim that," according to an agent Phil Smith, who represents several Premiership players. "But, yes, Sol Campbell has now set a rate for players to aim for if they're big enough."
This inflation at the top trickles down, and is deeply damaging as clubs overreach themselves to win the promotion bonanza. Queen's Park Rangers are still lumbering in administration, while Nottingham Forest, another club which sees itself as rightfully top-flight, failed in a gamble last season to buy their way to promotion. After finishing 11th, Forest are saddled with a £10m debt; losing, according to the latest accounts, £105,000 a week, largely on players' wages. Forest's finance director, John Pelling, explained: "A club's best chance of getting promoted is in the first two years after being relegated, and we incurred debt last season chasing it hard. We're all disappointed."
Pelling said the club was now seeking to shed senior players and promoting youngsters from the academy into the first team.
"The wage inflation trickles down," warned John Bowler, the chairman of Crewe Alexandra. "Some clubs are spending wildly and it's very dangerous. Football is on a high, it's tremendously exciting, but there is a real challenge to us about whether we can manage it sensibly, for the long term."
When lower division clubs do fall into trouble, they turn to the wealthy PFA's Benevolent Fund for loans to help meet the wage bills. The players' union, in its last annual report, revealed that it had provided help to seven clubs: Bury, Hull City, Lincoln City, Macclesfield, Northampton, Scarborough and Swindon. This, as much as anything, sums up football's strange financial times.
Three years' duration
BSkyB: 66 live games: £1.1bn. 40 pay-per-view games: estimated £181m
ITV: Highlights: £183m
Other companies with rights
ITV Digital (formerly ONdigital)
Premium TV (ntl)
Hutchison 3G UK (mobile phone rights)
Video on Demand
Average per club £23m
Average per club: First Division: £2m. Second Division: £600,000. Third Division: £450,000.Reuse content