Five years ago, I wrote an article for "Blind, Stupid and Desperate" which included the following lines:
"Imagine the thrill of walking out there for your home debut. Six thousand people you don't know chanting your name and cheering you on. Paying to see you do something you really, really love doing. I wish I could. Never mind, I'll just leave it to them, write about it as often as I can and maybe, if I'm lucky one day, I'll get paid to do it...."
Remarkably, I have spent the last year and a half getting paid to watch football. In my final term at University I responded to a recruitment ad placed by On-Digital. They were seeking people with an interest in Nationwide League football. I had an interview in July 2001 and by the middle of the month I was a member of the Live football team on the re-branded ITV Sport Channel. My colleagues included two personal heroes, Garry Nelson, author of "Left Foot Forward", and a certain Mr Graham Taylor.
I began working as a researcher: writing to clubs, preparing statistics and cutting short video inserts for the programme. Within a few weeks I had worked on my first game and soon after I was working on two or three matches a week. My weekends were disrupted, my inbox often full of abuse from football fans but I was overjoyed, I had what I considered to be the perfect job. More than that, in fact. One joyful Friday night, following "getting to know you drinks", I had the most pleasurable taxi journey of my life - an hour with Graham Taylor. He is one of the most decent men I have ever met.
In the next few months I interviewed Luca Vialli, directed a cameraman at the New Den following Watford's on-loan celebrity Jermaine Pennant and cut music montages featuring Luther Blissett and Kenny Jackett ("Man Machine" was the track for Luther, "Local Boy In the Photograph" was Kenny's tune). But there were warning signs: our reported viewing figures were shocking, I had the dubious pleasure of working at Loftus Road on the briefly infamous match which the press reported had just a thousand viewers. You may be interested to know that they cannot possibly have known how many people watched - only seven homes were being used to judge the number of viewers tuning in to the channel. Nevertheless the reports were disheartening and my glamorous job was undermined by the abuse I got in the streets outside grounds from so-called football fans.
By the new year it was clear that things were not as they ought to be at ITV Digital. There were cuts in programming and the million pound truck that Carlton had invested in to cover the Nationwide League was often staffed by six or seven instead of the ten or fifteen assorted techies and producers who had worked on the opening matches. There was a pay freeze, reassurances that we would not lose our jobs and constant nagging rumours contradicting the official line. By mid-March I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn't be working at ITV next season.
I have a reason to hate Carlton and Granada more than most of you - they didn't just renege on promises to my club, they took away my livelihood. It was a fairly depressing experience being unemployed just ten months after starting my first job, especially a job that I loved. I am angry that the ITV companies used a legal loophole to get out of their obligations, I am angry that Charles Allen and Gerry Murphy (Heads of Granada and Carlton) were given bonuses and honours in the same year that their actions made me, my friends and countless others redundant. But the picture is bigger than that.
Throughout the year that the ITV Sport Channel was in operation, Sky TV appeared to do everything in their power to force the operation in to liquidation. Murdoch and his cronies refused to allow the ITV Sport Channel to be carried on their platform, they were linked with a company who were producing "chipped" ITV Digital smart cards and they charged ridiculous premiums for ITV1 and ITV2 to be broadcast on the Astra satelite. The bosses at Sky knew that if ITV were forced out of the market then they would have a virtual monopoly on football rights. The result? Sky picked up the rights to Nationwide League football for a fraction of the £315 million that ITV had paid for it the year before and are now in an even stronger position with regard to the Premier League TV rights.
There is no doubt that the Football League are also culpable. They accepted the ITV Digital offer greedily, without questioning the absence of shareholder guarantees in the contract. Furthermore, following the news that ITV Digital were unable (or unwilling) to pay the full amount, they refused to negotiate a rescue package which might have saved the enterprise. It is clear that ITV paid well above the market rate for the rights that they purchased and the money-men panicked when they realised that they would incur an enormous loss as a result. Sky's part in this bidding process is murky but their actions were far from above board.
So what can we learn from the last year? Football is a business and it must be run as a business. Banks are unwilling to carry on financing operations which run at a loss year after year and why should they? The ITV Digital contract was the cherry on top of a heavily inflated market and its collapse proved once and for all that the Nationwide Football League is not a lucrative, money-spinning product. Clubs will go out of business if they can't balance their books and this is understandable. How many other small businesses could expect to survive with millions of pounds worth of debt and negligible assets? The future of our local clubs must lie in their ability to produce young players, to ignore the glamour of the Premier League and to operate at a realistic level. TV rights are not a panacea for football's ills, they are only worth something if advertisers think that people are watching the games. Nationwide football does not produce high viewing figures, especially on non-terrestrial platforms.
It is terribly sad that the romance of Watford and later Wimbledon's surge up the League is unlikely to happen again, that for the foreseeable future there will be only four or five clubs challenging for the big trophies in this country and that in the next few years several football clubs will cease to be. But to a degree the clubs have brought this upon themselves. For too long they have spent way beyond their means with a devil-may-care attitude towards the future. Graham Taylor's sensible spending in Watford's season in the Premier League is all the more remarkably prescient considering the events that followed. And so was his decision to leave ITV for Villa, but that is a different debate.
This was not intended to be a depressing article, just a realistic one. The signs for Watford are good. It may be too late for some but it appears that Watford now have a sensible board with a long-term plan for the club's existence. In the weeks before Watford's Premier League season I wrote about the importance of "sustainable Premier League Football". Now is a time to ignore the middle two words. Of course, that should be Watford's ultimate aim but it is essential that we learn from the past. ITV Digital was a painful experience, let's hope some good may come of it.
(Following the collapse of ITV Digital I am now an Assistant Producer for another company you may have heard of. I still get paid to watch football.)