Help at hand

The Conference has recently received a Premier League windfall. Andy Brassell is not alone in asking how, and why

If you thought the Premier League was an insular, money-hoarding microworld of its own, think again. Maybe. Even at its most altruistic The Best League In The World can’t catch a break from some cynics, though their powerbrokers surely can’t be surprised that their relatively recent interest in the Conference is raising a suspicious eyebrow or two. 

The Premier League issued a statement on July 16 announcing a three-year “solidarity package” with the Conference worth £6 million. This breaks down at £35,000 per year for each Premier club (£7,500 for each North and South team) until 2013, with an additional £800,000 “development fund” available annually to go towards youth and community projects.

This follows last September’s one-off £1m payment, to fill the black hole left by the collapse of Setanta in June 2009. The Conference had been one of the main beneficiaries of the Irish-based broadcaster’s frankly bonkers business model. When Setanta went under, they had just come to the end of the second year in a five-term deal worth £2.5m to the Conference clubs, with each Conference Premier member alone guaranteed a minimum of £70,000 per year.

Since the ITV Digital collapse of 2002 lower-league football hasn’t had much financial good news, but often the clubs haven’t helped themselves. The installation of Luton Town as favourites to go straight back up into the Football League in 2009-10 said much for their unique circumstances; the club was victim of an administrative decision rather than the usual reasons for relegation from the League – successive seasons of poor financial decision making and slow decay in the manner of Chester, York and now Darlington, to name a few.

In this context, it is questionable whether giving a load of money to Conference clubs is such a great idea. One wonders if they can they be trusted not to squander it on new signings rather than infrastructure. Under the terms of the Premier League’s “gift”, only 40 per cent of the money is earmarked for community initiatives. It remains to be seen whether the Conference’s senior colleagues will be sharing best practice or simply leaving them to get on with it, and to hell with the consequences.

While sympathy for the effects the recession has had on non-League is due, many feel that the Conference’s failure to secure a replacement for the Setanta deal had much to with chairman Brian Lee and company’s inability to accept drastically lower offers after the golden days of Setanta’s frivolity. While welcome, is the Premier League’s investment really helping the Conference deal with reality?

So, going onto the inevitable “why?”, the old adage about getting nothing for nothing springs to mind, and it will be fascinating to see how the relationship between the Premier League and the Conference develops over the course of the deal. One assumes that big clubs will seek to accelerate the blooding of their youngsters in competitive lower-league football at Conference clubs, as well as possibly holding reserve fixtures at their grounds. But these are both practices that have been going on for years.

A more pressing concern is that Premier League clubs will seek to colonise their Conference cousins into satellite clubs within their own extended structures – rather than preserving independent institutions that are “all extremely important within their local communities”, to quote Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore.

Hyde United’s burgeoning friendship with neighbours Man City has led to great benefits already – stadium and pitch refurbishments, and even shirt sponsorship. Yet an investigation on reports a few “coincidental” changes within the club to complement this, including the trimming of “United” from the club name, a move from a red strip to black and white, and even the application of a Man City crest to the main stand.

The Conference North side are considered lucky to have the option of pondering such a moral dilemma by levels further down. Struggling clubs below Conference level feel forgotten by the Premier League. Evo-Stick League chairman Mark Harris told the Non-League Paper recently how top-level authorities were “totally out of touch with what happens in the semi-professional game”. Harris pointed out that the Premier League needs to recognise the role played further down the pyramid, with young talent like Man Utd’s Chris Smalling starting out at Maidstone.

Nobody is saying that the decision to recognise, encourage and support football outside the Premier League bubble is a bad thing. But simply throwing money at the Conference is a very Premier League solution to a more complex, localised set of problems.

From WSC 283 September 2010