Barney Ronay scrolls through the list of Britain's highest earners and finds it an incriminating document in the case against football's economic competence

Benito Carbone, Mark Bosnich and Winston Bo­garde have something in common. Draw up a list of controversial transfers, and all three would un­doubtedly feature. But Beni and the boys appeared on another list this month: the Sunday Times Pay List 2002, which sets out the 500 highest earning individuals in Britain. The List includes 46 footballers, only one of whom – Steve McManaman at No 213 – is em­ployed outside the domestic leagues. At first glance the temptation is merely to gawp at the presence of such high profile failures as Fabrizio Ravanelli and the notoriously overpaid cheeky boys of Chelsea.

But there is also a certain weary portentousness about the List. Like a foghorn on a ship that’s already been holed below the waterline, the List is yet another harbinger of the problems facing football in the wake of ten years of rabid spending and ever more desperate milking of the cash cow. A comparison with next year’s line-up will make interesting reading. For one thing, you get the feeling either Ravanelli goes or Derby do – either way, he won’t be at No 377 in 12 months’ time. 

The names at the top of the tree are not surprising. David Beckham heads the pack, his £15.5 million haul placing him 45th overall. Next, with £7.44 million, is Michael Owen, who can console himself with the fact that, five years Beckham’s junior, he still has plenty of time to climb the ladder. Storming angrily in at No 99 comes Roy Keane, no doubt furious that he earns half a million less than Owen.

The youngest player on the List is Joe Cole, show­boating around at No 332 – one place ahead of the chief executive of Marks & Spencer. Cole, 21 in November, earned £2.3 million last year. Which, for a player of un­limited but hitherto unrealised talent, is not entire­ly encouraging. Comparisons of relative worth are often meaningless. But Tony Blair’s salary last year was a mere £171,554. The highest earning silk at the London bar earned close to £2 million, which puts him slightly below Tore Andre Flo and Jari Litmanen.

Look further down the List and you start to get an idea why so many clubs are desperate to trim their wage bills. Chelsea have six players in the top 400, two of whom – Bogarde and Bosnich – tend to spend Saturday afternoons enjoying a cappuccino on the King’s Road. Bosnich has banked £3.5 million in his time at Chelsea, during which he has played a total of five league matches. The revelation of the true extent of his outrageous wealth comes at an unfortunate time for the Nazi-saluting, three-in-a-bed-romping, photographer-worrying, drug-scandal-dogged, depression-clinic-visiting goalkeeper. Too much time on his hands that boy – what he needs is a hobby.

Chelsea, out of Europe and with a shaky “vil­lage” dev­elopment for company, stand alone as the most obvious – and indeed comical – offenders. Bogarde earned slightly less than Liz Hurley last year, but slightly more than Sir John Bond, chairman of HSBC. The elusive Dutchman has started two – yes! Two! – league games for the Blues during his two years there.

But Chelsea are not alone in this. More than 80 per cent of most top clubs’ turnover is spent on wages. These are the kind of figures that make accountants break out in a cold sweat. Looking down the List, it seems clear that something is going to have to give. Already Benito Carbone (£2.2 million) had almost single-handedly taken Bradford City to the wall before they managed to offload him, while Ravanelli’s Derby County have been forced to insist on all staff “deferring” a percentage of their wages.

Unsurprisingly, the highest paid person in football is not a player. The former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards earned more out of the game this year than his club’s entire midfield put together, raking in a whopping £22.058 million, largely through share sales. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Edwards, whose family’s controlling interest in the club was acquired in exchange for a string of coloured beads and an ostrich feather, may have got out just when the time was right.

This year’s List is undoubtedly an anat­omy of an in­dustry spending its way into trouble; a monument to the fag end of an era of bubble-bloating greed, the de­fining achievement of which may turn out to be mak­ing Dwight Yorke the 275th best paid per­son in the country, in a year in which he spent almost every wa­king hour in a hotel room buried beneath a pile of gla­mour models.

Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering Beckham and co still have a long way to go before they reach the heights of Len­nox Lewis (£30 million), Madonna (£36 million) or even Pop Idol guru Simon Fuller, who waltzes in at No 19 with a £30 million haul.

Value for money is, of course, a subjective notion. All the same, it might be worth spending a few minutes listening to a Gareth Gates record before you make up your mind whether Becks and the boys don’t perhaps deserve a few quid more.

From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month

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