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Too Many Questions, Not Enough Answers

By: Richard Hubbert
Date: 19/05/2002

FOR months, since ITV Digital announced that they would not be able to pay off the remaining £178.5 million they owed the Football League, we knew a crisis was on the horizon.

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However, not until the last twenty four hours had Town fans felt the consequences of this ongoing saga which threatens to ruin football clubs across England.

The forced release of fans' favourite Bradley Allen and utility player Danny Butterfield is just the first result of the ITV Digital fiasco, and it has left me, personally, bitter and angry. Allen played a key role in the Mariners' success to stay in Division One last season - forming a partnership with Michael Boulding that resulted in Town scoring 19 goals in just seven games.

Even though he was a little prone to injuries, Allen undoubtedly would have been offered a contract if these financial implications had not come to force. Similarly, so would have Danny Butterfield, who took part in every one of Town's league games last season whether it be at left back, right back, right midfield, left midfield or in central midfield.

Although Butterfield was sometimes criticised for his performances, particularly in the middle of the season, he was one of many bright sparks at the end of the campaign, putting in some excellent performances down the wing. I feel a sense of injustice when the likes of Menno Willems and, to an extent Phil Jevons, who sat on the sidelines for the end of last season watching these players play their hearts out for what? To make sure that players like Willems don't have to take a pay cut the following year? And at the end of it - they are the ones that get the chop - because their contracts have come round first, and it seems that Michael Boulding, Simon Ford, Ben Chapman and Wayne Burnett all face a similar fate. What also compounds most Mariners' fans misery is that I'm sure most people would rather see Willems and Jevons be released than Allen and Butterfield, not only because they are paid more, but because of some of the very average displays we saw from them both last season.

It is no good, however, moaning about what has happened as a consequence of this TV money wrangle, we now have to deal with it and get on with it. Football has been on an upwards spiral since the form of the Premiership - transfer fees have got higher and wages even more so. 10 years ago, to pay anywhere near £3million for a player in the top flight was big money. Take Manchester United - this time ten years ago their record transfer fee paid for a player was £2.3 million for Gary Pallister, now it's £28 million after the purchase of Juan Sebastian Veron last summer. For a million pounds nowadays, you get a pretty average player.

All this affects the smaller teams - clubs like Portsmouth become inclined to gamble on paying players like Robert Prosinecki £25,000 a week to try and get promotion - they ended up only a little higher than Town and have lost thousands, if not millions in the process. Inevitably, once the clubs at the top do certain things, the rest will follow and nothing can be closer to the truth. To compete with the other teams in Division One, Town have had to increase both their squad size and wages - albeit only a little. But still, despite not spending "silly" money, they are made to suffer, and consequently have lost 55% of their income through the ITV Digital collapse.

What we now need is answers. No one is going to match or get anywhere near the fee ITV Digital paid the Football League for the Nationwide League TV rights. Town received £2.5 million last season, this season they'll be fortunate to acquire even a million pounds for television coverage. So, Town will have to make cuts, like some other clubs - but then, if they offer players on lower terms, teams with lots more money and millionaires on the board could offer more - and Town's wage packets will not be competitive at all - bringing the added consequence of relegation.

The only solution to the crisis is for certain recommendations or cuts to be implemented across the whole of England. It is no secret that footballers are being paid a lot more than they should and firstly, we need to start at the top. £100,000 a week, even for David Beckham's talents is ridiculous - if he donated three week's worth of his wages - he would get Lincoln City out of administration. Large sections of the media are claiming that smaller clubs are not run properly - a statement I agree with in the case of teams like Bradford City who have paid ridiculous wages for certain players. But claiming that teams like Grimsby, Bury, Lincoln and Halifax are not run properly is a little harsh. These team do not have millionaires like Jack Walker or Mohammed Al Fayed backing them - they have local business men who are investing their OWN money into local football clubs that they feel passionate about. They make "investments" that at times are almost as good as throwing money into a big hole - because most of it will never be seen again. It is obvious that the structure of pay and training of professional footballers needs to be looked at. The players at the top are on wages that will probably mean that they will never have to work again and this is one of the fundamental problems in football today. A wage cap is desperately needed - a cap of £10,000 seems fair to me, but that's unlikely to happen with the wealth and greed that seems to be running the game nowadays. What the players lower down the leagues need is a safety net. I'm currently choosing courses for university and instead of selecting a course like media, I have been told that it might be better doing a course in say, English, History or Politics because with a degree in the media, media is the only area you can work in. If you do a subject like History, there are a range of options open to you as a career.

A similar thing can be applied to these professional footballers. Once a professional footballer retires - football is all they know, and in the case of players like Grant Brown at Lincoln City, who has recently been released, they have been forced to look for a job. Brown, who has played for Lincoln for almost all his career and is the club's record appearance holder, has been ringing up the fire service and leisure centres - but these jobs require training, and in the case of PE teacher, this takes up to four years to acquire. This illustrates what is needed to make football a financially sound enterprise. Footballers need some sort of training away from football, which they can use when they retire. If this is implemented, then wage demands will be lower, because they know that they have a career behind their footballing careers and so they will be more inclined to these cuts.

At the moment, they have no security whatsoever, which is causing players to sign these hugely long contracts. What should happen, is that footballers should sign contracts set at a maximum of two years - a generous deal compared to the normal working environment, when contracts tend to be signed on an rolling, week to week basis. In the case of the Mariners, this would perhaps have seen players like Butterfield and Allen stay whereas players who have not pulled their weight, go. I can understand that footballers need security, like anyone else, but why should they get special treatment? If both this, and a training scheme is introduced then surely, if a footballer fails to make the grade or can't secure a contract, they can simply take a different career path like any other normal person would do.

The ITV Digital crisis has been a wake-up call to all football supporters and players across the country and this crisis was going to happen sooner or later. The whole structure of football today needs looking at, because they key principles of what the game is about have been lost. The purpose of EVERY football league club is to provide a decent match of football every Saturday afternoon for the fans to come and enjoy and I ask why this should cost so much money?

Both the footballers and the men with the money in football need to wake up to the simple facts that all the fans want to do is watch their team play on a Saturday and that footballers have no divine right to be paid more than anyone else. Once this is realised, we can then perhaps start to give some answers to a series of problems that are threatening the futures of football teams across England. And if football is argued as a "fair" society, then what justice is there in the release of two honest professionals like Danny Butterfield and Bradley Allen when people around them have not pulled their weight?

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