The Matt Holland Column: Now the game faces a real test of management skill

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The Independent Online

Is it me, or does football seem to lurch from one crisis to another? In a week of important international friendlies, a vital week for both England and the Republic of Ireland and their World Cup preparations, money has dominated again and it has not made for pretty reading. I speak as a player, but I'm sure it is the same for the fans. Remember it is only four months ago that the players' strike was threatened over a share of the TV revenue.

Is it me, or does football seem to lurch from one crisis to another? In a week of important international friendlies, a vital week for both England and the Republic of Ireland and their World Cup preparations, money has dominated again and it has not made for pretty reading. I speak as a player, but I'm sure it is the same for the fans. Remember it is only four months ago that the players' strike was threatened over a share of the TV revenue.

Now the lower leagues have been told by ITV Digital that the sum they were guaranteed in the contract is not forthcoming. The knock-on effect will be less money for football in general.

For the moment I don't want to argue the merits of the amounts, but the point is that domestic football is fast approaching a crossroads. Keith Harris, the Football League chairman, has suggested that 30 clubs could go bust, and he has the support of a professional accountant to back up this view.

I do not know whether this is scare-mongering or just a response to the brinkmanship of the TV company, but I do feel it is vital that clubs do not go under. If the economics of the situation demand it then I suppose it will eventually happen, but I know from my playing days at Bournemouth that clubs play an important role for and in the local community. It would be disastrous if clubs were lost for want of a few shekels – but that is the problem, football is no longer about a few shekels. It has positioned itself as a major business and as such needs to balance its books as a major business.

And don't think that it is only clubs in the lower divisions that are in trouble. Very few Premier League clubs are technically solvent, and when their own TV contact is up for renewal they will also find less cash is forthcoming.

Now, the obvious solution is to cut costs, and at most clubs the greatest cost is players' wages. But, ignoring the Premier League for a moment, not all professional footballers are wealthy. Assume a player in a lower-league club earns £60,000 a year. Against the national average it is a lot of money, particularly as he isnot at the pinnacle of his profession, but he will be out of a job at around 35, and that is if he is lucky enough to remain injury-free.

Also, many players in the lower leagues won't have insurance because the premiums are so high. I paid my own at Bournemouth and had it stipulated in my Ipswich deal that the club paid the £8,000 that it currently costs. Lower-league players might baulk at the amount because it will be a substantial percentage of their overall earnings. One kick and they could be jobless, with only a small payout from the Professional Footballers' Association as compensation.

In contrast, we have the reported £100,000 a week for David Beckham. Is he worth it? Is it obscene? Is the chairman of BP worth his wages? Are big city traders worth their bonuses? The fact is that Manchester United make money and their wage bill, even with the new bumper deals being negotiated, is below 50 per cent of revenue.

I abhor the argument that kicking a ball is overpaid. So is pressing buttons on a foreign-exchange screen. If you disagree with United's policy, don't buy their shares. Nothing is more free- market than that. At Ipswich, wages are strictly controlled at 63 per cent of revenue. The club break even and the simple equation is that the better we do, the greater revenue we create and the bigger wages we will receive. Admittedly, we are not a quoted company and do not have shareholders to appease, but we are not forcing ourselves into debt. We are well managed, although our average wages are low compared to the rest of the League – low being a relative term.

It is time for the game and clubs to analyse their finances thoroughly and accept that the boom of the past decade is probably over. Let's hope that the cost is not clubs going bankrupt.

The good news this week was the Republic of Ireland's comprehensive win against Denmark. I was asked by a reporter on Monday who our surprise package would be in the summer and I nominated Damien Duff. Well, surprise no longer. He was magnificent and can play either on the left or up front. He is skilful, pacy and gives flexibility. I don't like building up players, but he could be a star come August.

That is now only one defeat in 19 games and our success is starting to work against us. We benefit from being underestimated, but the danger is that people will start to take us seriously as a threat. At least England had a wake-up call. Losing to the last kick of the game against the Italians will sharpen their focus. It was a valuable lesson that the top sides in the world can win a game in an instant and frequently need only a single chance to do so.

As for Ipswich, we are under threat. At least our original run-in from hell, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, has been broken up. I figure we need eight points, and that means two wins. Middlesbrough, just after the Arsenal match, could decide our fate.

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