In a different league

Peter Kenyon's call to cut the number of professional teams to 40 is being met with fierce opposition

At the time of writing, York City could be less than a fortnight away from disappearing. The club is in administration, players aren’t being paid and prop­erty developers Persimmon, who hold shares in the company that owns the ground, Bootham Crescent Holdings, plan to build flats on the site.

As was mentioned in WSC 181, fans’ dismay at the way their club is being wound down is exacerbated by the fact that one of the directors of Bootham Crescent Holdings is a former local hero, Barry Swallow, a member of York’s best ever team that played two seasons in the old Second Division in the mid-1970s. Manchester United chief executive Peter Ken­yon may have seen Swallow and his team-mates play, in March 1975, when York lost a League match 2-1 at Old Trafford.

Whether or not they survive their current crisis, Kenyon clearly doesn’t expect to see York City again, for they were surely the sort of club he had in mind when cal­ling in December for a review of the way in which English football is structured. “Quite clearly, I don’t think we can have four divisions of professional football any longer,” he said, suggesting that there should be “around 40” full-time clubs in two divisions.

Yet many of the 40 or so who would survive Kenyon’s cull, including the various “sleeping giants” of the First Division and certain Premiership clubs who pay £40,000 per week in wages to non-playing reserves, have run up debts many times greater than those affecting York. Leicester and Coventry players need to win promotion back to the Premiership in order to collect some of the wages they agreed to defer earlier in the season; Sheffield Wed­nesday, seemingly heading for a second relegation in three seasons, are saddled with several players on Premiership contracts whom no one wants to buy.

York, too, have committed themselves to pay struc­­tures they can no longer afford – goalkeeper Alan Fet­tis is said to be on £3,000 per week, or at least he would be if his wages were being paid – but their current predicament is far from being inevitable. It is the result of mismanagement and, more particularly, the un­checked greed of board members.

The Third Division may seem like another world to the chief executive of a club who play regularly in front of 60,000, but there is no reason why York shouldn’t be able to sustain professional football on their typical gates of 3,000. Proof of that can be found even further down, in the Conference, where the current top seven includes five clubs who dropped out of the League in the last de­cade (two of whom, Doncaster and Ches­ter, survived being all but run into the ground by former owners).

In fact the trend in lower-level football is towards more rather than fewer full-time professional clubs, with the Con­­ference now considering plans for a national second division. Crowds are gen­­erally buoyant in the lower levels. The Third Division’s average attendance in 2001-02 was 11 per cent up on the previous season, with a 13 per cent increase over the same period in the Second.

The set of circumstances that can lead someone like Peter Kenyon to claim there are “too many clubs” goes back to the creation of the Premier League in 1992, after which immense wealth came to be concentrated in the hands of a small coterie. To stand a chance of joining that elite band, aspirants had to spend, usually with disastrous consequences (for the clubs if not always for the individuals responsible – Premier League chairman Dave Richards jumped ship from Sheffield Wednesday in March 2000 having presided over the accumulation of huge debts).

Inflation spread through the lower levels of the League with many clubs, lacking access to the television riches available to their Premiership counterparts, committing themselves to wages that couldn’t be cov­ered through gate receipts. Those clubs that declined to run the risk of bankruptcy in pursuit of promotion remain, alongside some now in administration, in the lower divisions, solvent but deemed to be unworthy of professional status by Peter Kenyon. They are being asked to take part in a game they can’t possibly win.

From WSC 192 February 2003. What was happening this month