Graham Kelly: Nursery clubs would lead to destruction of the FA Cup

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The Independent Football

Clubs in the lower reaches of the Nationwide League don't receive too much publicity, so I suppose I should not be surprised when folk shake their heads and ask, "Why Luton?" on hearing that I am a director at Kenilworth Road. Their second reaction is usually a warm reference to the much-loved late funny man, Eric Morecambe, who is inextricably linked in people's memory with the club he worked into so many television sketches 20 years or more ago.

"Luton for the Cup" has not rung out this season, as the Hatters concentrated on winning a first-time return from the Third to the Second Division. Even the LDV Vans Trophy failed to register on the fans' radar.

The bizarre news last week for those spoilt darlings who denigrate the game's poor relations and particularly those who moaned about having to drag themselves all the way to Cardiff to find a fitting venue for London's FA Cup finalists was the announcement that Blackpool were to face a Football League charge for allegedly fielding an under-strength team against Brentford prior to their LDV final against Cambridge United.

That final, watched by over 20,000 fans who hugely enjoyed their trip to the Millennium Stadium, was won by Blackpool, 3-1.

When ITV Digital was put up for sale last month, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, urged football's leaders to meet urgently to consider the options for clubs facing "tough times" and said if she could do anything to help, she would.

At any level there needs to be a harmonious working relationship between manager and chairman and I do not have sufficient details of the problems at West Bromwich Albion to know whether they have been caused by the current financial climate in the game. Suffice it to say that Albion's supporters were terribly unfortunate to have their hour of glory marred by the rift between their chairman, Paul Thompson, and his manager, Gary Megson.

I have sympathy with both sides. Thompson is a millionaire who hasn't got where he is by throwing his brass around and knows, as do the new owners of Sheffield Wednesday, that the gravy train has hit the buffers. He wants to be at the controls in future. Megson, like any manager worth his salt, resents the chairman's presence at meetings with his football staff. For many of a previous generation, this is akin to a Liverpool chairman bursting into Bill Shankly's Boot Room. To Thompson, trying to break a mould, the cult of the manager – and the agent – has vastly contributed to the financial irresponsibility of the last 10 years.

Perhaps someone needs to rewrite the rules in order that the two parties can happily co-exist. But how do you re-invent a fan culture, which, of course evolves, and which both have to satisfy? The League has announced that clubs in administration at the end of the 16-week close season will be allowed to start the new campaign. Although it is now accepted that there will be an unprecedented shake-out of players at the end of their contracts, my worry is that clubs hardest hit by the current financial pressures, unsure about future grants from central sources and demoralised by diminishing returns from the transfer market, will cut back on their youth development programmes. This would be a false economy.

One route to salvation for smaller clubs increasingly being advocated by Premier League chairmen is the adoption of nursery clubs. Currently, Football Association rules bar from membership of the FA any club which does not exercise sole control of its own management, finances and players. Leaving aside the question of membership of the FA, I doubt whether supporters of small clubs would trade their independence for better medical facilities and relinquish the opportunity for some genuine giant-killing. That really would be the final nail in the coffin of the FA Cup.

I don't know whether Tessa Jowell has yet met the FA chief executive, Adam Crozier, and his colleagues to discuss any options facing the game other than ploughing more than £700m into the rebuilding of Wembley. I suspect not. Meanwhile, down among the not so dead men, the Nationwide chairmen continue to battle against the odds.

Possibly the play-offs, the best innovation since the FA Cup (unless you have to police the streets) will be extended, and thus breathe more new life into the lower leagues already enjoying higher attendances, and the clubs will all confound everyone once again by surviving against the odds.

It's grimmer than ever, but if they do make it, it will be because they know better than our Culture Secretary that the game has a unique ability, more than music, more than art, certainly more than politics, to bind together the generations and the sexes right across the social spectrum.

Why Luton? Why not?

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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