The game's future depends on balance

FOOTBALL: With a new season imminent, Glenn Moore examines the problems of the sport's new wealth
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The Independent Online
Two years ago Rick Parry, the chief executive of the Premier League, went to the United States to see what could be learned from American sports. While there, one senior executive said to him, "If you think you have problems now, wait until really big money comes into your game." Shortly afterwards, baseball's millionaires proved his point by going on strike.

English football has not come to that yet, but it is getting close. A strike is threatened, not among the Premiership's millionaires but by the relative paupers of the Nationwide League (what a good start for that sponsorship). Meanwhile, the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli are taking home more in a week than the national average annual wage.

It all makes for differences in mood as the season starts. On the one hand the game is bigger, more fashionable and, arguably, more exciting than ever. The Charity Shield performances of Manchester United's players and Newcastle United's supporters left one drooling at the prospect of the season to come.

But, behind the gloss of the Premiership, there are problems. The crux of the Nationwide row is that all sides have a valid viewpoint. The First Division clubs are aware that the gap to the Premiership is growing so fast it could become insurmountable to all but the likes of Wolves. The rest are thus desperate to grab as much of the cake as possible.

That leaves the Second and Third Division clubs even further behind. It also threatens to squeeze the Professional Footballers' Association. Given the meteoric, and largely unforeseen, rise in television income, there is an argument for suggesting the PFA's customary 10 per cent cut from Football League TV deals could be reduced, as the PFA's members, the players, are being paid indirectly for performing on television through their clubs' ability to pay higher wages.

However, it appears that the PFA is the only body that can be trusted to have the wider interests of the game at heart. The PFA is not immune from politicking, but also has nothing like the internal problems of the FA - though that organisation is improving. As for the clubs, most of them cannot see beyond their own overdraft.

One thing we can say with some certainty is that the next television deal with the Premiership is going to be staggeringly large. The future shape of the game will be decided by the way that money is distributed. This is why the PFA does not want to lose the battle with the League.

With the Bosman ruling likely to affect the small clubs' traditional lifeline of transfer income, there is a need to establish a system of compensation and subsidy. Otherwise, the smaller clubs will not be able to justify the expense of bringing on young players. The obvious way to do this is to take off a large slice of Premiership television income before it reaches the clubs. If that was proposed, the PFA might be more amenable to reducing their cut.

Some chance. A few Premiership directors and chairmen have paid lip service to the idea, and so has Parry, but there has been no indication to date of it being instituted. If it does not happen, the long-term result will be the change to the kaleidoscopic nature of the English game, seeing it replaced by a more monolithic version, similar to the American sports scene, where a group of superclubs form a closed shop at the top.

It might be even worse. In America, the draft system and salary caps mean there is a measure of equality. Here, the Premiership is already forming into sub-divisions. There is a trio of clubs capable of winning the title, a clutch of other clubs which, with good management and financial input, could break into that group, and a rump just hoping to stay above the relegation zone.

Among those are Sunderland and, while it may not last, it is good to see all three North-east clubs in the top flight. Sunderland are the poor neighbours, while the other two show the positive side of the new money flooding the game. Five seasons ago, Alan Shearer would have been lost to Italy, while Ravanelli would never have left there. Part of the funds to buy them and pay them has come has come from TV, but much has been generated by the clubs themselves.

A similar story across the Prem-iership has created a division rich in skill and enterprise. Old players criticise the lack of "characters" in the game, but the foreign influx has meant that few clubs do not have at least one player worth watching.

The downside is the possible long-term consequence for the England team. Being able to train alongside Roberto Di Matteo may be a boon to Chelsea's England youth international Jody Morris, but it is no good if he cannot get into the team. The same applies to Rio Ferdinand at West Ham and Chris Holland at Newcastle.

In the short term, the national team looks in good hands. Glenn Hoddle is capable of maintaining the progress achieved by Terry Venables, and he will be grateful for the way his predecessor blooded a succession of young talents. Even England's World Cup draw now looks more friendly, as Italy flattered to deceive in Euro 96 and their Olympic Under-23 team fared even worse.

It is also a season of promise in European club football. There are still doubts about the mobility of Manchester United's central defence but their chances have been considerably enhanced by the ending of the foreign player restrictions. For the first time since English clubs returned to Europe there should be interest, post-Christmas, in the Champions' Cup.

Whether Manchester United can cope with both their European and domestic commitments is likely to determine the Premiership. United play football the right way, and have been a shining example in the development of young players, but a fourth title win in five years would not be good for the game.

Their shareholders would not agree, but it might not be good for United either. It may be hard to appreciate at the time but every team needs to fail occasionally, it makes the successes all the sweeter. The trick is not to make a habit of it. Especially not starting with Saturday.