Inside Football: Oligarchs, agents and FA angst - testing times for beautiful game

As we wake up, bleary-eyed, to face 2005, here in the spirit of hope, forgiveness and determination to change which underlie all the best-laid new year resolutions is some post-hangover food for thought for the beautiful game.

The three-horse race

With deft timing, 2004 ended just as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United clicked into the Premier League's top three spots. Premiership clubs are beginning to wrestle their finances under control after the years of "living the dream" disease, but when will they realise that the League is not sufficiently competitive? Apart from Blackburn's Jack Walker-funded blip in 1995, only United and Arsenal have won the Premiership since it began in 1992 as a breakaway from the Football League. Money - and the right manager - pays for success, success reaps more money, and so the already rich compound their domination.

Chelsea, for all the fascination of the Stamford Bridge soap opera and Jose Mourinho's steel and mischief, are arrivistes due only to Roman Abramovich's unfeasible fortune. Before that, they were financially crumbling under Ken Bates, who, from his new Monaco base, now casts himself as a saviour for lucky old Sheffield Wednesday. Chelsea fans transfixed by the promise of a Premiership title should keep half an eye on the Putin government's unfolding attitude to the "oligarchs", who are deeply unpopular in Russia for the ways in which they obtained their wealth.

One game, two leagues

No sign of mending English football's defining fault - the gap between the Premier and Football Leagues. Before 1992, the Football League's television money was shared, 50 per cent to First Division clubs, 25 to the Second, 25 to the Third and Fourth. The First Division clubs broke away to keep all the money about to pour in from satellite TV and, since then, the Premiership's TV deals have amounted to £3.675bn, shared only in drips and parachute payments to relegated clubs. The Football League's 72 clubs share £24m a year, a figure made by one average Premier League club. Promoted clubs struggle to compete, while relegation is a financial catastrophe.

Yet this most blatant of issues has become the great unmentionable. Even the Football League dares not call for unification of the leagues or more sharing of money because it relies on Premiership clubs playing in the Carling Cup. This is a job for an independent governing body, ruling in the interests of all - but, oops, the Football Association backed the breakaway in the first place.

Clubs in crisis

The pulling of ITV Digital - while Brian Barwick ran ITV Sport - precipitated insolvency for many Football League clubs hovering on the brink. Since 1992, 37 of the League's 72 clubs, over half, fell into administration or receivership, with clubs relegated from the Premiership collapsing hardest: Ipswich, Leicester, Derby, Bradford, Wimbledon, Barnsley, Queen's Park Rangers and others.

New realism in the League, with League One and Two clubs restricting players' wages to 50 per cent of turnover, has produced a sounder picture. Clubs are rediscovering their appeal, reaching out to local communities and, in many cases, working with supporters' trusts. Crowds are phenomenal, up again after last season's 40-year high.

There are, however, clouds in the confidence. The League warns that the world governing body Fifa's insistence that it must comply with transfer windows and shorten next season to end in mid-May threatens clubs' fragile finances. Wrexham are in administration and several clubs in pain: Bury are fighting cash problems again; the League's second-bottom club Cambridge recently sold their ground to a director to stave off administration; Burnley, too, sold the ground to the chairman, Barry Kilby. Fans will hope for a year of consolidation, not bucket collections.

Agents

The publication of payments made to agents by Football League clubs and Manchester United, and the unravelling murk of the Paul Stretford blackmail trial, illuminated agents' dark arts more than ever last year. The League is set to publish its clubs' latest list of payments next week.

Reform, however, is still a long way off. Agents are routinely paid by both player and club, yet we are told that does not breach the rule that agents may represent only one party to a transfer. For all the FA's insistence that it would investigate Stretford following the collapse of the trial last October, we have heard nothing one way or the other - which was hardly the biggest surprise of 2004.

Race relations

Racism echoed into the international stage after the booing of England's black players by the Spanish crowd, but our football establishment's outrage then should not obscure the distance we still have to travel. After I wrote last month that no black or Asian people are employed in senior positions at the FA, Football League or Premier League, I was reminded there is in fact one: Javed Kahn, the finance director at the Premiership. Perhaps that counts as something to build on.

There are still only three black managers and three first-team coaches at the 92 clubs, and just three per cent of supporters are estimated to be black or from the ethnic minorities. Despite 22 per cent of the talent on the pitch being black, and the mostly successful clampdown on overt racism by fans, football's grounds and offices are still overwhelmingly white.

Watering the grass roots

The Football Foundation is one of the game's lesser-sung successes, springing from the commitment gouged out of the Premier League in 1999 to trickle five per cent of its television windfall to withered grass roots facilities. With the Premiership's money matched by the FA and Government, the foundation has since spent £270m creating decent facilities. Municipal mudbaths have been reclaimed and changing-rooms provided at some large sites in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and London.

However, the FA itself, under the now departed national game director Steve Parkin, who oversaw the first ever national facilities strategy, calculated the cost of repairing decades of neglect at £2bn. Laudable though the foundation's initiatives are, it is only patching up. Yet last year saw funding reduced, not increased, by 25 per cent from £60m to £45m, a dismal statement of priorities.

The FA: can it manage?

If the FA can be mentioned in a sentence this year without the accompanying word "crisis", it will feel like nirvana. Yet the toe-curling embarrassments of "Palios-Alamgate" have obscured the true, fundamental nature of the FA's problems. The governing body must manage the sport for all, and the game desperately needs firm regulation, but the FA has spectacularly failed to balance the big clubs' interests with the wider football nation. Instead, it backed the Premiership breakaway and now, several concessions later, finds itself with the big clubs camped in its boardroom - four representatives from the Premier League and two from the Football League, facing six national game amateur representatives who, belatedly, are fighting back.

They must battle for the FA's future this year in a "structural review" chaired by Lord Burns, previously a Thatcherite at the Treasury - not the most promising individual to heal football's fractures and see money shared more equally. Already, Rupert Lowe, Southampton's chairman and one of the Premier League's representatives, has called for the clubs to have yet more power and run the FA Cup and England team.

Into this strife, at the end of this month, will step Brian Barwick, who survived his association with ITV Digital to be appointed the next occupant of the FA chief executive's ejector seat. Senior FA sources have emphatically denied to me that his appointment was a stitch-up, saying those who voted for him - the six amateur representatives, plus Peter Heard of Colchester United and Arsenal's David Dein - did so principally because they believe he can motivate seriously demoralised staff.

Whether he can lead the FA back to governing a unified game - or whether he even sees the job that way - will, no doubt, emerge in the laundry.

The Government

The word is that the Sports Minister Richard Caborn will stand down after the election expected this year. What, in football terms, will he have to show for his tenure? He has fulfilled the commitments, piffling in an ocean of public money, to the Football Foundation and Supporters Direct, another progressive success story.

On the big issues, and the game's crushing financial inequalities, the Labour minister has had little to say and done even less; his recent utterances on the FA's structural review have veered alarmingly close to the Premier League's line.

The possibility of a Government regulator was raised last month by Lord Davies of Oldham, the Government's spokesperson in the House of Lords, saying the Government could consider it in a "dire crisis" represented by the Premiership trying to take over the game.

Similar words from the minister, or even, dare we think it, some action, might help keep us warm in the months ahead.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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