The sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, was forced into an embarrassing climbdown yesterday after he criticised John Terry for earning "obscene" wages and claimed that Chelsea were "£250m in the red". Coming just one day after the Football Association and government launched their bid for the 2018 World Cup, Sutcliffe's comments have done little to strengthen bonds between the two camps.
In a speech in which he also attacked Manchester United, Sutcliffe claimed that Terry, the England captain, earned "£150,000 a week". "I understand that a footballer's career is limited in time but people in the street cannot understand salaries like that," said the MP for Bradford South whose position is a junior ministerial role.
While players' salaries are never officially disclosed, the reported figure of £135,000-a-week was not contested by the club when Terry signed a new five-year deal in July. Widely reported at the time, Sutcliffe, who has only been in the job for four months, would have learnt that from any press cuttings.
The 54-year-old, who was born in Salford and counts Manchester United as his team, then went on to attack Chelsea for running up debts of £250m. "Chelsea are £250m in the red and they may be able to cope with that but it's not the real world," he said. "£250m in the red is not sustainable."
Unfortunately for Sutcliffe, Chelsea do not have any debts – their spending is sustained by the owner Roman Abramovich. Sutcliffe may have confused himself by referring to the losses that the club have posted in their last two sets of published accounts. For the financial year of 2004-05 they posted losses of £140.4m and the following year returned figures of £80.2m losses.
To describe them as debts, however, was the quickest way to invite an angry phonecall from Stamford Bridge's hierarchy who spoke to Sutcliffe's office in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport soon after his speech at the FT Sports Summit in London was circulated. As a result, the minister who has a background in the print trade unions was forced into a backtracking exercise and was understood to have contacted the club last night to explain himself.
A statement from the DCMS accepted that the figures quoted by Sutcliffe were not "100 per cent accurate". It added: "But Gerry stands by the wider point that he made. This is not a personal attack on John Terry. He was talking generally about the inflation of wages and ticket prices in the game and as a result of this, alienating fans."
Sutcliffe's comments also earned him a dressing down from Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association – the players' union – who said that the sports minister should be encouraging excellence in sport.
"It is personal," Taylor said. "He names John Terry but what has he got to say about salaries in the City, or the head of Merrill Lynch who has walked away with millions? This is a lad who has put his limbs on the line for England and played for his country with broken bones. Every labourer is worth his hire.
"At least John Terry has not gone to live in Switzerland. He pays his taxes and puts a lot of money back into the Treasury – as does football in general. I thought the government would want to motivate and encourage young people to do well in sport. We should reward success and John is one of the few Englishmen earning the very top wages."
The chief executive of Manchester United, David Gill, was also at the event and defended his club's policy on ticket prices after Sutcliffe claimed that "ordinary working people who want go and see Manchester United face being priced out". Gill said that prices were between £25 to £44 a game. "We think that's good value," he said. "We are turning away 10,000 people from every League game."Reuse content