Growing pains

Risk taking and rapid changes from big clubs puts others' futures in doubt. Can it be sustained?

Do football clubs know what they’re doing? Put like that, the question seems ludicrous. Of course they don’t. They blunder from manager to manager, most are clueless about public relations and their management style is archaic. That much we know. But there’s a more particular question. Do clubs know what they’re doing now, given football’s current financial state?

In the past two weeks alone there have been two cases of players being sold over a manager’s head, at West Ham and Everton, with the avowed intention of balancing the books. Those two instances were enough to produce a flurry of headlines about football’s impending financial crisis, which ought to bring a wry smile to any lower division supporter long since accustomed to seeing their teams selling-on their best players simply in order to survive.

Whatever may have happened to produce the upheavals at Upton Park and Goodison, it’s obvious that football’s new-found wealth has largely been funnelled in through one huge revenue stream (television) and out again through one huge cost (players’ wages). They may keep pace with each other. But the point is that neither is readily controllable.

Clubs were, of course, ecstatic to find Sky pouring in relatively vast amounts of cash in the early Nineties, but they had hardly anticipated it. Their best guesses as to the future shape of the TV market now may be no better than they were back in the Eighties, when many knowledgeable voices could be heard warning that too much football on TV would reduce interest in attending live games, and when the two terrestrial companies could get away with paying derisory sums for their rights. And in the present, highly volatile times, individual clubs may have to make much bigger decisions about their TV options, rather than operating as a group, particularly if the Office of Fair Trading rules that the Premier League is a cartel and cannot legally negotiate its rights collectively.

And do clubs know what they are doing about Europe? The evidence is unconvincing. If UEFA’s proposals for the restructuring of club competitions are implemented next season, as seems likely, the effect is going to be that more English clubs will be playing more games in Europe.

Despite their manifest failings on the pitch again this season, England will get an unfairly high number of places in the revamped Champions League and UEFA Cup. It has even been suggested that the latter will also incorporate a group stage once the east European undesirables have been winnowed out in preliminary knockout rounds.

As a result, the biggest clubs will insist that domestic programmes – except the Premier League – and national team commitments should shrink. We can ex­pect to see attempts to have the Lea­gue Cup done and dusted before Christmas, the scrapping of replays in the FA Cup, and a stepping-up of the war over availability for absurd non-events like the Confederations Cup. For the very biggest, those likely to be regularly among the three English teams eligible for the Champions League, that probably makes sense in their own, narrow terms. But the issue is far less clear-cut for the medium-sized would-be followers, a diverse and fluid group that currently comprises teams like Aston Villa, Chelsea and Liverpool, but would have included Blackburn last year and might mean Middlesbrough in 1999.

What is their future in Europe? Bla­c­k­­burn drew 13,000 for their home leg against Lyon in this year’s UEFA Cup. Chelsea’s gate for their Cup-Winners Cup tie against Helsingborgs was half that of their League average. Even Anfield was lukewarm over the visit of Valencia for which less than 30,000 turn­ed up. It’s a pretty unappealing future for which the guaranteed revenue of domestic competitions is to be sacrificed – English teams struggling against equally mediocre European sides in half-full stadiums.

These rapid changes in the familiar structure of the English game don’t just have implications of fairness towards the smaller clubs. They are also about competence and clear-sightedness. Do the clubs know what they’re doing? Maybe. But the risks they are taking and the speed at which they are moving suggests there are going to be some spectacular casualties somewhere down the track.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month