The Matt Holland Column: In a money-mad world, the fans still hold the key

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The Independent Online

The scriptwriters of EastEnders would have struggled to match the stories that dominated football this week. If you are in any doubt that the game is a giant soap opera, then consider the news that Arsenal have been granted permission to build a new stadium a stone's throw from Highbury at a cost of £400 million, and two Leeds United and England players, Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, were found not guilty of grievous bodily harm after two trials that spanned a period of 18 months.

The former is the foundation stone to make Arsenal one of the financial power houses of world football – at over £400m it needs a fairly grandiose purpose – and the latter is the culmination of a drunken chase that ended in a violent brawl, although not involving the two players.

A sparkling, shiny all-singing, all-dancing plan for the future contrasted with a fairly sleazy example of the worst of human nature.

How are the rest of us going to compete with the big clubs if they are to keep spending astronomical sums of money? The true answer is that we probably won't. The Premier League is increasingly being polarised into the phenomenally wealthy and the not. Or maybe I should qualify that by saying those with access to vast sums of money despite current debt levels, and those without.

I read a report only a couple of weeks ago that demonstrated most clubs were not actually viable businesses but relied on the goodwill and patience of the banks. With thousands of loyal fans and a steady revenue stream, it is easy to understand the support of the banks but that means the only way a club can actually become solvent is stricter control of costs. Ha, I hear you laugh. Stricter control of costs means lower wages for the players and a couple of Porsches fewer in the car park. And that is exactly what needs to happen.

At Ipswich we have a strict wage structure with 65 per cent of revenue being allocated to developing and paying the playing staff. After years in debt, we are hovering around the break-even mark and in excellent financial health. However, we are missing out on players because they will not accept the wages offered. The funds are there for the transfer but the players want bigger salaries. If the club was to capitulate, it would be back in debt. We are a small club that enjoyed a wonderful season last year but for others, being at the top is a must.

Aston Villa is a big club, well supported and capable of European football each year which not only is the real money-spinner, but also the draw that attracts the best players. Doug Ellis, the chairman, believes in strict financial controls but also wants to compete with Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Internazionale.

Chelsea, on the other hand, have signed star names in abundance from all over the world. There can be no question with regards to their spending, but still they have not won the Premier League or imposed themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Europe. I have picked these two clubs because they have similar ambitions but different fiscal ideals.

Can they compete with the big boys? Personally I think Chelsea should be one of the élite and if they allied consistency to their talent, they would be. Villa lack the strength in depth that only a chequebook can supply. The root to money in the real world is a stock-market listing and football explored this avenue a few years ago to varying degrees of success. It worked for Manchester United and not really for anyone else.

The problem with the City is they want to see the bottom line. Demonstrate that you will make money, generate revenue and profits and the City will back you. Give them the chance to invest in a business with rapidly increasing costs, uncertain television income and a temperamental striker, and they will laugh while fastening up their wallets. So what is left? A sugar daddy with bottomless pockets. It worked for Blackburn for a bit and Fulham seem to be thriving with Mohamed Al-Fayed in charge, but it is not a foolproof system.

The facts are that most will not be able to compete with the rich clubs and will end up fighting each season for survival. A large support base is the key. The punters that walk through the turnstiles, buy the shirts, mugs and posters are the cash cows that keep the clubs afloat. That is why Arsenal want to move. Another 15,000 in for 30 games a year is a lot of money and the easiest way to cover interest charges on the loan. Do not be surprised if Liverpool follow Leeds' example and look to move soon as well. And with good financial management, Newcastle should reward their huge fan base by becoming a major club. Or maybe the banks will demand better accounting and the agents and players will be squeezed. It could happen and sooner than people think. A lot depends on the next TV contract.

Anyway, despite a dreadful start to the season, the fans at Ipswich are as supportive as ever. I spent two hours doing a book signing in midweek and not one adult or kid chastised me for being bottom of the table. To a person, they were desperate for us to start winning and I left the shop buoyed by their belief in us, the players. Time to reciprocate with some points.

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