Millwall's Steve Claridge has seen life as a player and, briefly, a manager in the First Division. He tells WSC how the ITV Digital crisis has affected his outlook and the career prospects for League players at all levels
"I don’t think that the financial crisis in football right now would put off players who were thinking of going into management. Certain problems were there anyway at the lower levels. I said to Tony Cottee when he was going to Barnet, what are they are going to give you? A good year there is tenth place in the Third Division, but if things don’t work out there you’re back to square one. The amount of money around always makes a huge difference.
Where things have changed now is that a new manager is going to be faced with a squad of players who aren’t really up to it – because if they were the previous manager would still be there – but who have a year or two years left on their contracts. In today’s market, you’re not going to be able to bring anyone else in, so you’ll have to make do with what you’ve got. So you might as well write off the first 18 months or so in the job because it will take that long for you to stamp your personality on a club. But will you get the time you need?
It’s been said that there will be hundreds of players out of work as clubs cut back on squads, but I don’t think that will be as big a problem as some say. Now that a lot of Conference clubs are professional, you’ll have more ex-League players seeing non-League football as a serious option now. It’s much less of a drop into the unknown given that average wages below the top level in the League are only £400-£500 per week. Clubs like Rushden were paying more than a lot of League sides when they were on their way up.
I don’t think we’ll see a big wave of foreign players coming in lower down either. It’s a bit of a myth that they’re the cheap option. I don’t see many cheap players from Italy or Spain. Where clubs can pick up bargains is in countries where the local scouting networks aren’t so well developed, so you can find good players with small clubs. In any case, I’m all in favour of foreign players coming over. I wouldn’t want to see whole teams of them but I think they helped to revive the game here when it was dying on its feet. The very best ones will move up to the top level, the ones who don’t make it won’t stick around.
Agents sometimes get the blame for clubs’ financial problems, and in some cases you wonder exactly what they do for the money they make, but there are some good ones too. I can’t see that there will be a time when they’re not going to be around, so clubs are better off having good relationships with them. Ultimately, managers and directors want to be able to improve their teams and players will always have representatives that you’d have to deal with.
The worst suggestion I’ve heard in relation to the future of the League is that smaller clubs could become nursery clubs where Premier League clubs could place their young players. It’s an appalling idea and would be the ruination of the game. Smaller clubs have to keep their own identities. Other people have suggested a salary cap, but that wouldn’t work unless it was enforced worldwide, otherwise it would be a waste of time. If we had one here but it wasn’t applied in Europe there’d be no one left to play in the Premier League – it would be a desert. And if it’s voluntary there will always be clubs prepared to break the barrier.
Obviously the Premier League can seem like a different world for players at League clubs. Even one season at that level will help you get more opportunities to play there in the future, plus you’re likely to get the various sponsorship deals that wouldn’t be available to you lower down. But I don’t think that the health of the top level makes the rest of the League look bad in comparison. The ITV Digital deal failed because they messed up – there was nothing wrong with the product, and that’s reflected in the crowd figures for League football and the fact that there’s never been more interest in football generally than there is now.
Personally I don’t see much football on the box anyway, I never have. It’s always been the live game I’ve watched. I’ll travel 200 miles to see a match that I might not neccesarily watch if it was on TV. I’d agree that TV coverage of football has reached saturation point in some ways, though I’m also sure that a broadcaster will pick up the rights for the League. I’m optimistic for the future, generally. The financial crisis we’re seeing now is a serious blip but it’s not going to be terminal."
From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month