Clubs In Crisis
Nobody wins unless everybody wins... 13 April 2009 - 16:37

Feeding The Rich

The problems of Nationwide clubs, by Paul Grech

Currently, three professional clubs in England are facing bankruptcy. But, unless you are unlucky enough to support one of them, it is highly unlikely that you'll know of their plight.

It is a sad fact that more importance is given to David Beckham's latest haircut or Steven Gerrard's growing pains than to the proceedings at a Second or Third Division club. These are only (patronisingly) mentioned when the Third Round of the FA Cup comes around, usually in sentences containing the phrases giant killing and romance of the cup.

When Chesterfield broke the mould last season, it was largely for negative reasons. Then again, whenever a small club makes the national headlines it is rarely down to good news. In Chesterfield's case, it could hardly have been any worse. In financial trouble ever since their relegation from the Second Division, it was revealed that they had spent money that wasn't really available and incorrectly reported gate receipts. Pilloried from all sections - in particular from others within the same division - the club managed to avoid the severe punishment many had expected the Football Association to hand out.

Despite having nine points deducted, Chesterfield still achieved promotion. But, at that point, promotion was the least of their worries - the club's very existence was in doubt. Only the hard work of its fans saved the club. Even now their financial problems have not subsided.

Sadly, Chesterfield's isn't an isolated story. Hull City also had to face similar drama. The club that also has the stigma of having one of the most irritating trivia questions associated with it (which is the largest town in England never to have hosted top-flight football?), was within a couple of hours away from closing down.

Whilst Hull have managed to attract new investment, others are still fretting about their future. Apart from three clubs in administration (Chesterfield, Southend and Swansea), more than seven others are facing severe financial difficulties. Since 1992, around 20 clubs have been in administration.

It is bitterly ironic that these problems have come about just as football is going through an unprecedented financial boom. If a town with over 270,000 inhabitants has problems to support a professional football club, what lies ahead for those clubs that hail from a smaller catchment area?

The money coming in at the highest levels is not filtering down to the lowest levels. This year, more money was spent on foreign players than on English ones. Selling players to clubs higher up the league, such an important source of revenue in the past for smaller outfits, is slowly drying up.

Whilst the work of Supporters Direct is proving to be invaluable for clubs struggling with financial difficulties, matters usually have to degenerate before the fans are allowed to have their say. Chesterfield is, once again, a case in point. The club has survived largely thanks to the work of its supporters, but a deficit in excess of 1.6 million might be too much even for them.

The reality is that most clubs live on a hands to mouth existence. In such circumstances, the slightest change could be a recipe for disaster. Which has led to claims that professional football can no longer support so many teams.

Such claims are, at best, laughable. Ever since the end of the war, English football has been supported so many professional clubs. How can it be that this is no longer the case when football is on such a crest of popularity? In most cases, these claims are made by people who are only interested in the Premiership. People who like to talk about the economics of the game and refer to the club as the brand or to the supporters as the client base. People who don't know that fans - real fans - don't care about how much money their club is making.

We are also frequently told about the benefits of smaller sides becoming feeder clubs. What this means is that a small club - say Rochdale - is taken over by a bigger side - Manchester United - who then run and finance the feeder club as they deem best. Each party would benefit, or so we are told. The big club would have a laboratory in which it could test its youngsters whilst the smaller club would benefit from not only having players of a good level but also from having its existence guaranteed.

There is one slight hitch: why should anyone want to watch a soul-less club?

When, a couple of years' back, Liverpool and Crewe announced that a link had been established between the two, the normally sedate Crewe fans were up in arms. This, they feared, was the first step towards turning their club into a feeder for their more illustrious neighbour.

With hindsight, such fears were unfounded. Yet the dangers are there. The model that the proponents of this theory look at is that of American sports. There is a senior league with no promotion or relegation. Each major club owns a side in the minor leagues and any promising players are sent to this club. Depending on whether this player proves to be any good, he is either promoted to the senior side or sold on. The interests of the feeder club rarely feature.

It is easy to understand why this model would be attractive for the smaller Premiership sides. Whilst for the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool the threat of relegation might not be a serious issue, at Southampton or West Ham is. Which is why some of these clubs are pushing through the proposal for the Phoenix league. For such clubs, hiding behind the pretext that it would help smaller sides survive would be the perfect excuse.

But what's in it for teams lower down the league table? It is already bad enough for the fans to know that if they manage to produce a player who is good enough he will be sold to allow the club to survive. Knowing that the players aren't even yours would render matters unbearable.

Worse still, such a system would rob the fans of the dream of making it to the Premiership. Would it be worth surviving if their fate simply were that of feeding the rich?

Paul Grech

See also The Ultimate Drop - Paul Grech wrote the Chester chapter, and is the articles editor on Footie 51.