Reality comes crashing down on fools' paradise

The screen test: Digital meltdown has hastened, but not created, the need for dramatic change in the club game
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The Independent Football

For those of us on the long, long haul up to Leeds on Wednesday for England's run-out with Italy, the radio airwaves were dominated by two stories: ITV Digital going into administration and the death of Dudley Moore. After a time, following endless cones and avoiding assorted shunts, the two items started to become one in the consciousness as tributes were paid to a fine comedian and last rites said for an embryonic station. By journey's end, the thought was going round in your mind that ITV Digital was a Dud. Strangely enough, there was a certain truth in that.

What was clear was that both were dead, though in the case of the former, not quite, of course. It still stirs on its life-support machine, and the Government, for one, will be praying for it to rise from its bed in something other than a vegetative state as the administrators, Deloitte and Touche, attempt to extract a compromise with the Football League.

Because that is the reality that no amount of the Football League encouraging the boycott of Coronation Street will change. Attempting to depict the heads of the TV companies concerned as Messrs Machiavelli may make good reading, but serves only to distract us from the significant issues. This is far less about a dodgy TV contract and far more a blaring warning that football urgently needs to restructure itself.

That it should come to this is not a surprise, however. It was utterly predictable, and surely must have been to the Football League chairmen who are now brandishing their placards.

Over the last three years I have frequently attempted to subscribe. But from that awfully nice woman at OnDigital (as ITV Digital was originally) there has been the same response. Your area is not covered yet. A problem with the transmitter. Oh, and incidentally – this presumably just to make you feel better – there are vast swathes of the country in a similar predicament.

The other factor is that there simply have not been sufficient of us interested, even in areas where reception has been possible. The occasional "highlight" like Manchester City v Wolves – and even that is scarcely one to have the hairs on your neck bristling – is the only conceivable reason for signing up to this particular form of the digital revolution.

So, the lurid headlines have ensued: 27 clubs to fail, 1,000 players out of work. There have been dire warnings about Norwich, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and others. They won't fail, of course, although anyone who followed closely the demise of Aldershot, as this observer did, should not belittle the genuine fears of players and supporters.

That ITV Digital paid way over the odds is scarcely worthy of debate. The football market might have been buoyant, but not that inflated. BSkyB used to screen Nationwide games and hide them away on Friday nights. When ITV made their offer, to the Football League chairmen it was like putting their card in a cash dispenser, keying in £100 and the machine spewing out £1,000.

It was followed by ill-concealed glee as the windfall was doled out, and more than a faint suspicion that this was all too good to be true. So it has proved.

That is long gone now. It is for the lawyers to argue over the detail. But despite the posturing of the League chairman, it is clear, as one of their number, Crystal Palace's Simon Jordan, suggested this week, that they would be better employed agreeing a deal – the sum of £60 million has been mentioned – which they could probably achieve rather than chasing their £190m through the courts.

They do possess one weapon, the PR one: if you tell everybody often enough that 27 clubs could go bust, the Government might be persuaded to intervene or Carlton and Granada, ITV Digital's owners, might acquiesce, but both outcomes are highly unlikely. So clubs like Swansea City, who would lose £260,000, are vulnerable, we are told. Except they were anyway, along with Halifax, Hull City, Northampton, Rochdale, and every other club surviving on low gates. It may be cruel to suggest it, but if a club's finances are that precarious, what are they doing in business anyway?

The TV money, or lack of it, is an irrelevance. The pipeline feeding that bonanza each year was a short one, in any case. Then what? Much though we may take pride in our 92 professional clubs, it has long been a fool's paradise. The advent of the part-time player is inevitable. Maybe there should be some regionalisation. Carlisle v Torquay is a nonsense. Feeder clubs might become common. Perhaps there should be more democracy in the game, and less self-interest. The major Premiership clubs have a part to play here, too, because, despite the foreign intake, the lower leagues remain a breeding ground for talent. But at some stage, many chairmen would have been forced to take some extremely tough decisions. And now rather than later.

Away from the never-never land of football, they call it prudence and foresight.

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