Sheepshanks calls for calm on strike

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David Sheepshanks, the influential chairman of Ipswich Town, will call tomorrow for "cool heads" to prevail as the threat of industrial action by the Professional Footballers' Association moves closer. He has already "urged" his players to persuade their union to achieve a negotiated settlement.

Ballot papers are being sent out today. With no sign of peace between the PFA and the Premier and Football Leagues, a strike could be called before the end of the month.

Sheepshanks, a member of the FA Council and past-chairman of the Football League, writes in the match-day programme for tomorrow's Premiership game with Everton: "Industrial action can only be thoroughly harmful for the game. Cool heads and reasoned minds are called for."

After a "friendly and constructive" meeting with the Ipswich players Sheepshanks said he believed "the last thing they want is to be put in the position of voting to strike". He added: "I have urged them to ask questions and use their influence on their union to require this problem is sorted out around the table."

However Sheepshanks, regarded as one of the more moderate chairman, and one who sees the bigger picture, echoed the hardliners' view when he stressed he "cannot agree" with the PFA's claim that it has precedent on their side.

The dispute centres on the size of the PFA's cut of the television income received by the Premiership and Football League. Paid in lieu of appearance money for televised matches since 1955, this came to £7.5m under the old television contracts, equivalent to five per cent. A similar percentage under the new deal would bring the PFA £27.5m. The leagues are offering, depending which side you listen to, £5.2m or £10m.

The PFA claims there is an "unwritten" agreement that it receives five per cent of any deal. But Sheepshanks said: "I cannot agree the game is responsible for paying five per cent of a new TV deal. There has never been any percentage agreement."

The PFA argues it needs more funds to finance benevolent work for former players. Sheepshanks, having paid tribute to this work, said of the emphasis on the latter: "It disguises the true nature of this dispute. There have been many misleading statements made that conceal the true facts. There is no doubt Gordon Taylor [the union's chief executive] and the PFA have won the propaganda battle."

The chairman claims one third of the PFA's income is allocated to benevolent causes and the union does not even spend the amount it receives at present. The other two-thirds, said Sheepshanks, is returned to the clubs to subsidise accident insurance, educational programmes and salaries of Academy scholars and youth apprentice players. Citing Ipswich's £50,000 accident insurance bill, and £10,000 related subsidy, he said: "For most clubs these amounts do not cover our expenditure in these fields."

Sheepshanks added: "The point the leagues have not explained very well is that clubs are saying 'we are not asking for extra subsidies for such expenses' and therefore see no sense in paying extra money to the PFA just to receive it back again.

"The Premier League have instead preferred to direct large amounts of money to the grassroots of the game [£20m a year to the Football Foundation] and the Football League Youth Development schemes [£5m pa]."

While this is true, critics would argue giving £5m to be shared between 72 Football League clubs is not overly generous from a Premiership which hands out £20m a year to each of its own clubs. In addition the Football Foundation funding was agreed, in part, to enhance the Premiership's case when the Office of Fair Trading challenged the practice of collective bargaining in television negotiations. It is rumoured this subsidy may be under threat if this dispute goes the PFA's way.

If every club spent their income as wisely as Ipswich the case for the PFA distributing Sky's largesse would be significantly weaker. However, the East Anglian club remain the exception rather than the rule.

Although previous disputes have ended in compromise there is a danger that this one will not. Not only has the issue become personalised, largely due to the Premier League highlighting Taylor's generous income, it has also become a power struggle. The union believe its survival as an influence within the game is at stake.

Thus the entrenched positions which may result, this time, in industrial action. As baseball and ice hockey found across the Atlantic, no-one wins then.