Game in danger of creating poverty trap Cole takes game nearer point of no return
In the week that Andy Cole cost £7m, Gillingham went into receivership. Glenn Moore calls football to account As one club paid £7m for a player, another called in the receivers. Glenn Moore highlights football's big division
It was a classic case of "if only". If only they had gained an equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, Kent's only professional club would have secured a third-round replay at Hillsborough next week.
That would have been worth about £80,000 to Gillingham. Enough to pay the bills and bank interest for another few weeks while a buyer is sought; enough, perhaps, to keep the club out of the hands of the receivers; but not very much really, not in a week when an uncapped player has been sold for £7m.
Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the difference between the Premiership elite and the Endsleigh League's also-rans. Last month Orient went up for sale for £5, (plus around £1m debts). Gillingham, though losing marginally less, owe £2.3m. The assetscover them but can only be realised by closing the club. Earlier this season Exeter City went into administration. All over the lower divisions there are clubs on the edge. Their finances as shaky as the fenced-off terraces that litter their grounds - too dangerous to use, too expensive to replace.
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, glittering stadiums teem with supporters. Underneath, in plush offices, the marketing men plan another offensive to create Liverpool supporters in Exeter, Manchester United fans in Gillingham.
The Premier League make the point that, though it would appear that they are taking all the money that now floods into the game, they have not reduced the income distributed to Endsleigh League clubs. Indeed, with separate television and sponsorship deals, that income has increased, albeit marginally.
But there is something obscene about Manchester United's forward line earning enough in a year to buy Gillingham and clear the club's debt. Jurgen Klinsmann earns as much in a week as many Endsleigh League Third Division players do in a year.
Given the money such players generate it can be argued they deserve it. Football, at the top level, is big business and these are the best exponents around. It is only a short career and they are still modestly paid compared to the boss of British Gas ora successful investment banker in the City. Even so, it means the Prime Minister's salary is now less than many of the players he watches at Stamford Bridge.
And wages, like transfer fees, are simply going to get bigger and bigger. The next television deal will dwarf the current one. With Premier League clubs close to finishing the ground improvements that followed the Taylor Report there is going to be a lotof cash swilling around.
Once clubs - and agents and players - get used to that there will be, as the television paymaster says, no turning back. When Premier League officials went to America to see how their sports were marketed they were told: "If you think you have problems with greed now, just wait until real money starts coming into the game." Baseball and ice hockey have since been halted in America by strikes. Supporters have been alienated and, perhaps, lost for ever.
It is therefore imperative that football's high rollers accept some degree of collective responsibility before it is too late. Without the smaller clubs the game will not be the same; even if promotion and relegation are maintained, the knowledge that going up can only mean coming back down will dampen the passion of any supporter.
Already clubs like Gillingham struggle to attract young fans in their natural catchment area. Why should a keen eight-year-old condemn himself, or herself, to a life of coming second when they can follow the glamour clubs on television and in myriad magazines.
And, if these clubs go to the wall for the want of a few thousand pounds, or because of half-a-dozen years' bad administration, the game's infrastructure will be savagely weakened. Three of last year's FA Cup finalists began or revived their careers at Gillingham: Steve Bruce, the captain of the Double winners, Tony Cascarino and Gavin Peacock.
At the moment, all a club gets when it announces it is in trouble is a reading of the riot act from the Endsleigh League. The message to Gillingham this week is roughly: "How dare you go bust during the season - you'll mess up the tables."
The League argue that they are only a "clearing house" for monies collected on behalf of its shareholders. There is no provision for a "hardship fund", they can only offer financial advice.
This is where the Premier League, whose coffers are so swollen they can set aside £50m towards a new national stadium, can contribute. When countries go bust the International Monetary Fund comes in and offers funding with strings. An independent body, drawing on the wealth and expertise of the Premier League, could do a similar job to stricken football clubs. At present the Professional Footballers' Association is the only group that ever dips into its pocket: it is as if the TUC had bailed out Swan Hunter's shipyards.
It would need agreement from a distrustful Endsleigh League, and from the chairmen of the club concerned. Ideally local government would also be enlisted, as happened at Huddersfield. Some councils do not seem to appreciate the importance of a football club to the community until it is gone. Funding could come from a small slice of the television money, or through a levy on transfer fees. A five per cent cut of last year's deals would have realised £6.5m.
At this point I should declare an interest. I spent my youth on the Rainham End terraces at The Gills' grandly named Priestfield Stadium and remain a fan. They say losing your football club is like suffering a death in the family - I cannot believe that,not close family. But it would be a cross between that, and losing your first great love. Except that, instead of forever being reminded of the past by a certain perfume or record, that moment would come every Saturday when James Alexander Gordon read the football results, or every Sunday morning when the League tables were in the paper, but Gillingham's name was missing.
To me, and Gillingham's thousands of actual, lapsed and latent supporters, football would always be poorer. Many would reject the game altogether.
Football, for all its growing profile and affluence, can ill-afford to discard its clubs and supporters. It is time the elite regarded themselves less as the chosen ones, and more as the equivalent of a particularly successful member of the family. Footballers are notorious for buying their mums and brothers new houses when they get that big move. It is time the clubs, too, recognised their moral obligation to help the less fortunate members of the football family.
There is a baser motive, too. Tottenham, Wolves and Chelsea have nearly gone bankrupt in recent years. If it were not for Sir John Hall and Kevin Keegan, Newcastle United could have done so too. Nobody is immune. It could be your club next.
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