FOOTBALL USED to be called ‘the people’s game’. Not any more. The professional game now mirrors Blair’s Britain, with a growing gap between the handful of rich clubs at the top of the Premiership and the also-rans in the Nationwide leagues. Clubs used to be owned by local businessmen with big cheque books and even bigger egos. But now the top clubs are listed on the stock exchange and are controlled by the City of London institutions.
The game has changed out of all recognition in the past ten years, since Rupert Murdoch’s Sky television channel organised a coup with the Football Association that led to the breakaway of the top clubs and the creation of the Premiership. The handful of the richest clubs – Manchester United and Arsenal in particular – have annual turnovers running into millions.
Manchester United can afford to pay its players vast salaries as a result of the enormous income the club earns from sales of merchandise, TV rights and, of course, the 60,000 fans who pack Old Trafford for home games.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is that football is still followed by mainly working class supporters and played by men from working class backgrounds. But there’s now a yawning gap between fans and players. Peter Reid, the manager brought in to save Leeds United from relegation, had to remind his under-performing stars that they were all millionaires who owed their wealth to the fans and needed to make more effort on the pitch.
Meanwhile, the fans dig deep from our modest incomes to pay inflated ticket prices. But even the high price of tickets may not help some clubs survive.
West Ham United, the club I have supported all my life, has been relegated from the Premiership. In a desperate attempt to keep in touch with the top clubs, the Hammers paid absurdly inflated salaries to attract and keep players such as Paolo Di Canio.
It spent a fortune rebuilding and extending its East London ground. The club has accumulated debts of £45 million. It will lose an estimated £15 million as a result of relegation. It can only stem the losses by selling its best players, which is a recipe for decline and floundering around in the lower reaches of the First Division. The smart new ground at Upton Park holds 36,000, but how many will turn up on a wet Friday night when the opposition is Ipswich or Norwich, rather than the great London rivals from Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham?
In common with several other once successful clubs, West Ham could easily slip into administration, which means it will be run by its banks instead of the shareholders. If the debts become unmanageable, the banks could pull the plug and the club would be declared bankrupt.
In the long years that I have supported the Hammers, the club has been relegated several times. Before the Premiership, relegation was sad but not terminal. Gates remained high because the club kept its squad together and continued to play attractive football against other good teams.
But now greed dominates. Murdoch’s aim was simple – to create a footballing elite whose matches would be watched by millions on television. With the collapse of ITV Digital, which offered television exposure and income for Nationwide clubs, the gap between rich and poor gets ever bigger. People’s game? Phooey. It’s Rupert Murdoch’s rich man’s game.
But mugs like me will go on stumping up for tickets to support the clubs we love and hope against hope that they will survive and perhaps even win a trophy.
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