An obvious, unavoidable, in-yer-face fact: "Football has changed". A repetitive, unavoidable response to that change:
"Listen to the fans".
I've spent the last year or so watching and waiting. As someone implacably
opposed to the increasing divisions within football, I've eagerly awaited the
day when some heroic fans' spokesman would come up with an argument, a cause,
that all similarly-minded people could rally around. It hasn't happened.
The sad fact is that the people with whom my sympathies lie - Rogan Taylor,
Ed Horton - are not people whose arguments I can support. Their sense of
romantic, socialist injustice is ill-suited to today's climate of profiteering and
middle-ground politics. You achieve nothing by talking a language that those in
charge of the game don't understand.
So, although we spend so much time saying that the FA and the chairmen must "listen
to the fans", we have yet to provide them with a reason for doing so - the
fans aren't saying anything. There are only so many times that the
angry words "Give football back to the fans" can be flung at the authorities before
they respond with the seemingly unanswerable question "Why?".
There are some frighteningly fundamental problems with too many of the arguments presented
by football fans. For a start, as Simon Kuper astutely points out in this
month's When Saturday Comes, football is not big business -
Manchester United have an annual turnover that barely registers in the real
And, in failing to see this, fans are actually letting chairmen off the hook - the old excuse that
football clubs have to compete in the world of high finance (and therefore just
have to charge fans twenty quid for tickets) becomes rather less convincing when you
realise that the vast majority of chairmen would make considerably greater profits by levelling the grounds
and building supermarkets. The self-important world of Premiership chairmen is an
utter sham - they're playing at business, just as they're dabbling in football. Football makes money but it doesn't make that
much money. They've blinded us with business for far too long.
And so on. The Bosman ruling is not a dastardly imposition - it is a
way of freeing footballers from non-contract slavery (and, as such, it really ought to be
adopted in full in this country as long as the FA performs its duties - that is,
effectively advising its members how best to deal with the problems thrown up by freedom of
movement). Small clubs could survive in a post-Bosman British transfer market -
they just couldn't survive by covering up huge operating losses with the
occasional sale to a Premiership club.
Furthermore, you can't simply re-distribute cash from the Premiership to the
lower leagues because, at worst, you end up lining the pockets of the Bill
Archers of this world and, at best, you finance the losses of abysmally-run
football clubs. In addition, there is no logical reason why that 'trickle-down'
effect should suddenly stop at the bottom of the Third Division - non-league clubs
are affected just as badly by the market dominance of their Premiership competitors.
It's a recipe for chaos - assuming that the FA could implement a scheme
whereby clubs that are open with their accounting could receive financial
support, putting such a scheme into practice for (potentially) hundreds of
clubs would prove completely impractical.
There are some obvious measures that could be taken - and hopefully will
be taken, once the government review is completed - to make life a little
more pleasant for the average football fan. Stop the practice of charging different ticket prices
for comparable home and away sections; introduce legislation to combat racist
abuse (something that the CJA singularly fails to do - it just makes us all
criminals instead); create a transfer fee system for managers and coaches to end poaching;
make it impossible for chairmen and their directors to sell football grounds without
cast-iron guarantees of new stadia (thus preventing the Brighton situation from ever
repeating itself). But all of these bits 'n' pieces are just skirting around the main issue -
none of them will prevent the possible bankruptcy of lower division football clubs and
the widening gulf between the rich few and the poor majority.
I accept that the romanticism of football is inescapable. As a Watford fan,
I must live with the idea that I may never see my club win anything of note (beautiful
though it may be, promotion is nearly always tempered by worries about next
season's survival - last night, I watched Peter Withe score for Villa in the 1982 European Cup
Final and saw unadulterated joy). Equally, though, I know that if by some
miracle it did ever happen, it would be unbearably, heart-burstingly special.
But, to preserve those dreams, fans have to find concrete, logical, real-world
answers to the problems that face their clubs. Asking Manchester United to
lend a helping hand (and, similarly, banging on United's front door to complain
that they're making too much money) will achieve nothing. To be quite honest,
I'm sick of hearing that "Eric Cantona's wages for a month would've been enough to
clear Bournemouth's debts" (or whatever). Since Eric Cantona is unlikely ever
to donate his wages to the Cherries' cause, it's a complete irrelevance.
I think the answer is very simple. Don't play by the Premiership's rules. Don't
attempt to keep up with higher wages, higher transfer fees, higher ticket
prices, higher losses. If you're Hartlepool or Doncaster or Hull or Brighton or (here
we go) Watford, following the 'Premiership or bust' philosophy is tantamount to
signing your own death warrant.
More than that, it is an implicit endorsement of the world view spewed out
by wankers like David Dein. It says to the authorities - "We'll moan about
the Premiership while we're outside it, we'll take the cash and shut up if
we ever make it as far as the top flight". As it stands, too many football
fans will come up with very good arguments concerning inflated wages and transfer fees,
then abandon them all to jump up and down with glee at the first sniff of a
rumour regarding Paul Furlong's return to Vicarage Road for £1 million.
Post-Bosman, football clubs cannot expect to survive on transfer fees. They
must live within their means. It sounds obvious but it requires a massive
re-adjustment for lower division football fans.
At Watford, there have been recent seasons when more money has gone out in
wage packets than has come through the turnstiles. Things like that have to
stop. If clubs can't afford their wage bills, they will no longer be able to
flog their best player to Liverpool to pay the bank manager. The answer?
Cut the wage bill. Cut it. CUT IT.
If that means selling some of your better players because you can't afford
their wage demands, so be it. If it means cutting the size of your squad to
a more affordable level, so be it. Christ, if it means that some of your
players have to go part-time, so be it. These are hard, ruthless choices because these
are hard, ruthless times.
Fans must learn to accept that their demands cannot always be met. The
Bournemouth crisis began with a spending spree to consolidate the team's
promotion to the First Division - in attempting to satisfy expectations,
the then directors started a period of financial mismanagement that almost
destroyed the club. It is time to realise that the answer to a lower
division club's problems is not for the manager to 'get his chequebook out'.
The flipside of all this for the fans is that clubs must find other ways
to give their customers value-for-money. On the basis that we can no longer
expect to be dazzled by a Premiership-bound bunch of superstars (although a
decent youth policy, still important as a source of cheap players if not
vast riches via transfer fees, may change that), we should demand better
treatment for our admission money.
If you're Newcastle United, none of this makes any sense. If you're Scunthorpe,
I'd argue that it's the only means of survival - stay afloat, even if that
involves a severe down sizing operation. And I'm not arguing from a position of
lofty, patronising supremacy either - I'm arguing as someone who sees businessmen
in charge of his football club and worries that they don't understand the
financial realities of football. I'd rather watch Watford, my Watford, as a
part-time Third Division side with a shabby ground than drive down Vicarage Road past the ghostly shell
of an abortive attempt at a multi-million pound indoor sports arena in a few years
time. (Yeah, I'm a natural pessimist...)
Some of what I'm saying probably sounds like an admission of defeat. It sounds
like I'm expecting Torquay fans to make up songs that go "Yeah, we're Torquay,
we're never going to win anything, we're a bit rubbish, really, la la la la".
Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm suggesting that, rather than
feel inferior when looking at the Premiership big guns, we celebrate the
difference - we revel in the idea of the 'community club', we give a gigantic
V-sign to the Man Uniteds, Liverpools, Newcastles and Arsenals of this world because
they hate us and we haven't gone away. We feel superior because we've
created something better than twenty quid seats in a posh all-seater stadium.
And, perhaps as a result, success on the field can be achieved by the kind of
'us against them' team spirit that has carried several sides, including Watford,
towards the top.
It all sounds like a pipe dream, I guess. Maybe it is, maybe I'm expecting
far too much generosity and common sense from club chairmen. But I genuinely believe
that the arrival of the Bosman ruling to the internal British transfer market is
inevitable and that it will be a watershed moment. The big cheque to paper over
the financial cracks will no longer be available - clubs must fight for themselves and
the only way to do that is to accept realities and make revenues exceed costs. It
would make ridiculously good business sense to do that by marketing football
clubs within communities - "giving football back to the fans", if you like. It
may already be happening at Bournemouth, the country's first community-owned
As I said, I've waited for fans to stick their necks out and offer radical
solutions to the current problems. These are my thoughts and I dare say that
there are numerous things that I've missed - any counter-arguments are more