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Mentioned Part 44

By: Rob Sedgwick
Date: 23/02/2003

Home > Features > Mentioned > Mentioned #44


"No disrespect to the likes of Grimsby..."

sunday 23rd february

Prudent Grimsby

From: The Times.

GRIMSBY Town are typical of many First Division football clubs, desperately wondering where they can make savings when the money from ITV Digital dries up. At least the club have not been spending astronomical sums to secure players in an attempt to reach the Premiership. The last time Grimsby were in the top flight was 1948.

But Peter Furneaux, the club chairman, knows that unless the television deal can be successfully renegotiated, up to eight of his team’s 28 contracted players will have to be released during the summer.

For Grimsby, television income is particularly important because their crowds are low for the First Division, which averages 15,500. Grimsby’s gates have averaged 6,100 this season.

The ground, Blundell Park, may be situated overlooking the Humber estuary, but its location on the sea halves the potential support.

In the last financial year the club made an operating loss of £2,467,086 despite an income of £3,066,262, of which £1,265,054 came from their share of the money from ITV Digital. This was the biggest single income on their balance sheet, just ahead of season tickets and gate receipts, which totalled £1,031,947.

Easily the biggest expenditure is staff costs, which last season reached £4,345,541, a rise of £1,375,863 on the previous year.

Mr Furneaux says that the club are hoping to break even this season. "Unlike some clubs, we have been prudent. There is no meat on our bones. I know of one First Division club that has a wage bill of £16.25 million.

When we negotiated our contracts with the players last year, we wrote in a bonus for them if we again retained our place in the First Division."

Grimsby, who have been in the First Division for nine of the past ten seasons, are currently nineteenth, three points above the relegation zone.

If no more television money was forthcoming next season, Mr Furneaux said, "we would await the recommendations from the Football League, but we would have to renegotiate the contracts of the remaining players.

"There are a lot of players on the market and they know that the gravy train has come to an end.

"No more television money would also have an impact on our youth scheme. We have a staff of 50, including coaches, administrators and players. This number might also have to be reduced."

Mr Furneaux added: "We might have to reduce our contribution to the youth set-up here."

The club already receive £162,632 in grants from outside bodies for this developmental area, while they give funds of £102,211, excluding staff costs. This was a cut of almost £24,000 on the money Grimsby found for the previous year.

However, any Football League club would be reluctant to pare their youth scheme, largely because selling the odd outstanding player to a Premiership club can help keep them solvent. Clubs such as Grimsby have only to find one outstanding player to make his transfer the biggest income asset of the season.

Unlike the famous Premiership clubs, Grimsby cannot rely much on earning money from executive boxes and ancillary facilities.

The only businessmen going to be attracted to the ground are local ones, and last season they brought in £61,770, just over £5,000 up on the previous season.

Spotted by Grim Rob.

Staying alive

From: The Sunday Times.

As the cash problems at ITV Digital threaten the existence of many Nationwide League clubs, David Walsh

One hundred and two years have passed since Grimsby Town first played at Blundell Park. For all the paint and gloss, the ground looks its age; old timber and creaking corridors. Hanging high on the wall of the John Smith Stand are two signs, distinguished by their newness. They bear an identical message: ITV Sport - Enjoy The Game. Two years ago, they were emblems of the game's wealth. Television was football's friend and benefactor. With its money, clubs in the Nationwide League could dream of a better future. Grimsby was no different from the rest; it planned to make Blundell Park part of its past and move to a new stadium.

But we are now in the grim present, a Friday morning in late March 2002. The football landscape is changing. Football's friend has become football's problem; the future is no longer attractive territory. Those ITV Sport signs on the outside walls of the John Smith Stand now read like graveyard headstones. Should the inscription not be changed to "ITV Sport - The Game Is Up"? When ITV Digital admitted on Thursday that it could not honour its £315m contract with the Nationwide League, the cracks that had been apparent in the game coalesced to form one devastating fissure. Football's immediate response was to insist on the authenticity of their contract, but it knows, as everybody knows, there will be a deal and the game will lose significant revenue.

Inside Blundell Park, a handsome silver E320 Mercedes sits on a stretch of tarmac close to the pitch. Three years old, 76,000 miles on the clock, it used to be the manager's car; first driven for a short time by Alan Buckley and then for two years by his successor, Lennie Lawrence. In the football world of multi-million-pound television contracts and boundless wealth, the silver Mercedes became the symbol of football's extravagance.

But now the manager's car is up for auction. It sits in this corner of the ground so that prospective buyers can see it when they come to watch the team. In times of trouble, why shouldn't a football club turn one corner of its ground into a showroom for used cars? There is an offer of £15,000 on the Mercedes and unless somebody goes higher, it will be accepted.

Among the supporters, it is said the money will be used to help pay the wages of on-loan defender Andy Todd, but at Blundell Park there is endless choice when it comes to deciding how £15,000 might be spent.

IN the office he shares with assistant manager Graham Rodger, player-manager Paul Groves glances at the television screen. It is tuned to text: "Lincoln Chairman Rob Bradley Urges ITV Digital To Honour Contract."

The cries from the clubs' bosses are sincere but convey as much desperation as conviction. For what has come to pass was foreseen. "Initially you thought there were a few teething problems, and that once they were overcome, the viewing figures for Nationwide football would go up," says Groves. "That never materialised and now people are talking in a different way.

"Obviously there are implications for football clubs, but the signs were there. As a player you hope it won't affect your club, because if it does, it is going to affect you. That may be a selfish way of looking at the situation but that is how people react in these situations."

Grimsby would be hurt badly by any shortfall in television revenue. As a First Division club, their income from TV rights is greater than £2m a season. Their low fan base and the limitations of an old football stadium mean television accounts for more than half of the club's annual turnover. It is speculated that if ITV Digital does not honour its contractual debt to football, many clubs will go under. Given its dependence upon television, Grimsby Town FC is already classed as endangered. Groves has spent nine years of his football career at Blundell Park and has grown to understand the precariousness of the club's commercial existence: "Should the promised TV money not come through, there would be a possibility of the club going under.

"But then I know that the people in charge of this football club will work extremely hard to ensure that does not happen. There is a love for football around here, and it means a lot to the town to have the club. You just sense that in a time of crisis, people would rally round."

Groves is 36 but is mature beyond that. Maybe it is because he began his working life as a bricklayer and knows what it's like to have a day's rain dilute your pay packet. He was 22 when plucked from non-league football and spent good years at Leicester and Blackpool before finding his football home at Grimsby.

In his first four seasons at the club, he did not miss one League game. No injuries that he couldn't play through, no suspensions, and never out of the manager's first XI. Even this season, he has not once been sidelined through injury: "I try to prepare properly and look after myself, but I put my luck with injury down to the time I spent bricklaying. That gave me a proper physical foundation."

And a good attitude. When a coach was needed for the club's under-11 academy side, Groves volunteered. He was in his second year at the club. At first it was one hour, one evening a week. Soon it became two-hour get-togethers twice weekly. He promised himself he would keep Sunday free for his family, but at times it got too much and he had to see how his young protégés did in their Sunday-morning matches.

On December 28 last, Groves ended his eight-year association with the kids.

The club wanted him to take over from Lawrence and become the player-manager. The offer came sooner than he wanted and he understood the offer came because the club was close to crisis: "You have doubts at the back of your mind - can you do the job? If you believe in yourself, you take it. If I say no, I cop out and I make my own position very difficult: the new manager would know you had been offered the job and might feel threatened by your presence. And so in some ways, it was an easy decision."

At the time Groves became player-manager, Grimsby had won one of their previous 20 matches and were anchored deep in relegation trouble. In the way that you expect of good football men, he quietly went about the business of hauling that anchor off the sea floor. "What I said to the players was that I believed in them and I believed in their desire to do well for this club. That was about the gist of it."

Groves made no move for the manager's silver Mercedes. "To me, a car is not important. It's nice to have a good car, but it is still just a means of getting from A to B. To me, it wasn't important, and when you think of the finances of this club, it was something that I didn't need.

"One of our sponsors has made a couple of Volkswagon Passats available to the club and I am happy to use that. The Mercedes was surplus to my requirements."

As Grimbsy's young boss speaks, it is hard to imagine that the financial mess created by businessmen can destroy what he stands for. "I have been in the game for 14 years. If I had to walk out of it, I would do so without any worthwhile financial security, but I've loved every minute of it.

"Sundays are great days when you've won on Saturday and I've always felt privileged to be able to play this game for a living."

Groves breathed new life into the team when he took over. Not instantly, but gradually and painstakingly. He set the bar no higher than working into a position where the team would have a chance of avoiding relegation. After a season's best 6-2 victory over Wimbledon yesterday, and with five games to go, they have that chance.

At the centre of the defence, his own form has been exemplary: "I prefer others to judge how I am doing, but I am aware that at 36 and with the added responsibilities of managing the team, it would be easy for people to decide why I was playing badly."

Financially, Grimsby need to stay in the First Division, but it is the football imperative that motivates him: "I am aware of the club's difficult financial position, and as a group of players we understood the financial implications of going down, but it's primarily about pride, not money.

"We see ourselves as First Division players, not Second Division, and this matters far more to us than the financial considerations for the club. Of course we've got a tough job to survive in this division, but that's the challenge, that's what makes us work hard on the training ground."

THE tactical chart stands by a wall on the floor of Groves's office, Lincoln chairman Bradley is still preaching to the world from his perch on Teletext, and Grimsby's manager is getting on with the everyday challenge his job presents. Tactics are important, but less so when the end is near and the danger is close. Now it is down to the team's will to survive.

Of course there will be a fall-out from the problems being experienced by ITV Digital. This summer, Groves says, there are going to be a lot of players available on free transfers; that is, unemployed and touting for work. But how can he get his mind beyond the immediate? He figures it's like this: "Grimsby sees itself as a First Division club, but with its fan base, it has always had to beat the odds to keep its place. This season it's as tough as it's ever been. Maybe the problem with the television money will make things even more difficult, but I'm not sure. We just go on trying to beat the odds. That's the challenge."

The businessmen may now consider that the game is no longer winnable for clubs like Grimsby. Football men like Groves would never accept that view. And, as the businessmen settle in for a long and damaging conflict, the game will need its football men. Now, more than ever.

Spotted by Anthony Wood.

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