English football is in a mess. An awful, painful, bloody mess that will see hundreds of footballers out of work this summer, a slashing of budgets unheralded in the modern game and a deep collective drawing of breath before next season, when the Football League's three divisions will take their first tentative steps in to the post-boom era.
The position has been exacerbated, if not caused, by the collapse of ITV Digital, which was due to pay £178.5m into the League over the next two years as part of its deal to televise games but will now pay nothing. It was on the expectation of that money that the precarious finances of many clubs have been tottering.
The ITV Digital débâcle and the reluctance of the station's owners, Carlton and Granada, to underwrite the deal is regarded within football as a shameful act, a betrayal of the national game, a sacrificial slaughter of communities. In less emotional circles (i.e business) it was a straightforward commercial decision.
But. And there is always a but. Does this really mean that some 30 or more football clubs, often a focal point in towns and cities across the country, will disappear?
The Football League has warned it could happen. And the death yesterday of the Scottish club, Airdrie FC – which went into full liquidation, signalling the end of 124 years of history – will no doubt have sent shivers throughout the game,.
But the answer, despite the doom and gloom and the tough times ahead, is no. English football will not lose 30 clubs, nor 20, nor even 10.
There is even a chance, depending on prudent management and the huge reservoir of devotion that surrounds football, that it will not lose any. And it is the clubs themselves saying so.
During the past week, The Independent has contacted every club in the Nationwide League and asked the question: "If you had no television money next season, would you go bust or cease to exist?" A majority of the clubs have responded and the overwhelming response has been "no".
Losing the money will be tough, most have said. We will have to reduce our squads. We will be unable to sustain wages at current levels. We will have to make cutbacks.
Torquay United and Lincoln City have been forced to release their managers because of a lack of finances. Sheffield Wednesday and Crewe have already each let eight members of their playing staff go, Stockport County and Nottingham Forest five. Leyton Orient are struggling to put together new deals to keep two of their best players.
Exeter are one of several clubs who have received assistance from the players' union, the Professional Footballers Association, to pay wages. Plymouth Argyle and Kidderminster have put stadium development plans on hold.
The list of difficulties goes on. But the mood in general is positive. And in some quarters it stretches beyond positive. "This whole sorry mess could even end turn out to be a good thing," said one owner of a Third Division side, who asked not to be named.
"Any football club at our level that goes bust for the sake of a few hundred thousand pounds in television money was in serious trouble anyway.
"What we all need to do now is start acting like proper grown-up businesses. Don't spend money you haven't got. Set a budget and stick to it. What we might actually see now is a rationalisation of finances that have been unsustainable for too long."
His views have been echoed across the divisions, from Rushden & Diamonds to Reading, from Wycombe to Walsall, from Barnsley to Birmingham. We are not in danger, they have told us, as have many others.
So which clubs are in peril? Five are currently in administration – Queen's Park Rangers, Lincoln, Halifax, Bury, and Swindon. Of those, Lincoln are probably the most endangered, having already gone down the route of forming a Supporters Trust (a fans' takeover) but with few signs that things are working out.
QPR are also struggling, but such a relatively well-supported London club is always likely to find an interested buyer at some stage.
Halifax, who will play in the Conference next season after relegation from the Third Division, are certainly in trouble, having severed 21 players' contracts last week, but the chairman, Bob Walker, said that administration might even see his club emerge as a better business.
"I can promise our fans we'll always be a football club," he said. "I just can't promise at what level."
Bury have been the subject of three bids recently, only one of which was withdrawn because of the ITV Digital pull-out.
Swindon are also optimistic about the future, despite drastic survival measures, such as doubling ticket prices for next season, which have upset fans. "We're as popular as a turd in a swimming pool," said Bob Holt, a director. "But we could still be OK."
The next most endangered clubs should, in theory, be those with the smallest gates. Yet the likes of Walsall have regularly posted profits, thanks to sound business management and a sensible wage policy.
Macclesfield, who have the lowest gates in the country apart from Halifax, have also kept their heads above water. Colin Garlick, chief executive, said first-team players at the club earn about £25,000 a year on average. The loss of the ITV Digtal money will be painful, but with realistic salaries, not fatal.
The division where salaries have escalated most (and where the loss of TV money will hit hardest) is the First Division. But even there, where a squad player at a mid-table club is typically paid about £250,000 per season, there are plenty of clubs who are optimistic about the future.
Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion will play in the Premiership next season and have the chance to prosper (unless they succumb to the urge to blow their windfall). The likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Crystal Palace should also cope, being backed by wealthy benefactors.
Such individuals still feature throughout the divisions. And then there are the likes of once-great Nottingham Forest, who have been in an appalling financial state, and Barnsley, who were recently in the Premiership but will start next season in the Second Division. Will they go bust? "No" and "no" were the replies.
Some, not least the otherformer Premiership clubs such as Bradford, Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday, may struggle, but it is hard to imagine, even if they were forced into administration, that they would fold completely.
Football clubs are businesses, but they are supported by fervent fans who will not readily see them fail. As Alan Lewis, an insolvency expert who was formerly the receiver at Bournemouth FC, said: "Some clubs may well fail, a handful. And you wonder whether a new generation of chairmen exist who will take risk when wages are out of control. But I've seen supporters putting their giros in collection buckets, saying 'Use this to pay wages'. And that's for players on £900 a week."
It is not rational, it is football. And tough though it will be, most clubs will survive.
TEAMS IN TROUBLE BOARDROOMS PUT UP A STRONG DEFENCE
Average attendance: 21,978
TV income: £2.7m (20 per cent of turnover)
Benefactors: David Sullivan and David Gold.
Prognosis: Karren Brady, managing director: "The loss of the money will be tough but we're in no danger. We'll make cuts and we have backers who can bridge any revenue gap."
TV income: £3m (42 per cent of turnover)
Prognosis: Roy Whalley, chief executive: "We do not spend money we do not have, and [have] made trading profits during the past eight years. Even without television money, Walsall FC will survive."
Average attendance: 6,362
TV income: £450,000 (15 per cent of turnover)
Benefactor: Sir Seton Wills.
Prognosis: Bob Holt, director: "We're in administration for the second time and faced with substantial hardship. But if our creditors accept our repayment plan, survival is more than possible."
Average attendance: 5,771
TV income: £500,000 (22 per cent of turnover)
Benefactor: Dave Whelan.
Prognosis: Club spokesman said there was no danger of Wigan going out of business. The loss of television revenue will see a re-evaluation of budgets, as at almost all clubs in the three Nationwide divisions.
Average attendance: 3,827
TV income: £170,000 (13 per cent of turnover)
Benefactor: George Reynolds.
Prognosis: Luke Raine, director: "The Chairman has a few bob, so we'll be okay. But you need to run your club properly. Most spend money before they've got it ... This has been waiting to happen."
Average attendance: 2,997
TV income: £109,000 (6 per cent of turnover)
Benefactor: Lionel Newton (wants to sell the club).
Prognosis: "Our losses this year will be £265,000," a club spokesman said. "We'll need to cut our squad ... A new stand has been postponed. As a former non-league club we're used to no money."
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