Jim White

A sorry week for some

Jim White

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If you are a glass half full type of person, then this week would have appeared a pretty good one for English football.

Three of our sides saw action at the highest level of the European game, playing to packed and passionate houses and huge television audiences. And all three remembered the primary rule of show business: leave 'em wanting more.

In both Champions League semi-finals, the drama remains perfectly poised: it would be a brave man indeed who could predict with confidence how either of the ties will pan out next week. Plus, there were English players intimately involved. John Terry, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Theo Walcott were as central to the action as any Spaniard, Frenchman or Portuguese. Look at those midweek fixtures and you might well construct a view of the game here that concludes all is robust, secure, well, enjoying the envious glances cast in its direction from France, Italy and Germany.

A step back from the show window, however, and the glass looks to be rapidly emptying.

This week Stockport County went into administration. Perhaps not something that might give pause to the mighty juggernauts of the Champions League, but depressing nonetheless. The thing is County's plight was not caused by poor recent judgment or cack-handed organisation. It is a particularly frugal club, one that had been run to a tight budget since it was bailed out by its supporters just three years ago. But the combination of a legacy of past debt plus a reluctance in the current market of banks to extend any form of useful credit mean they had no choice but to seek protection.

The one blessing for those supporters who dug deep to finance that previous rescue deal, the 10-point deduction that comes as punishment for such a financial move has not affected their league position unduly. They have merely slipped down into the lower reaches of the League One mid table. Unlike, say, Luton Town, relegation has not followed fiscal meltdown. Still, it means that County's demise marks the 86th time an English professional club has had to file for insolvency since 1986. Which is just six clubs short of the total for the entire football league.

Even County's position, however, seems optimistic compared to what is going on at the basement of the Championship. Here, in the three relegation spots, Charlton are already down, not just in the third tier of English football for the first time in a lifetime, not just preparing to play Stockport in the battle of the hard-pressed, but also into the money mire. They are joined by Southampton, a club whose administrators warned this week that unless a buyer can be found within the next month they will have to shut it down. Permanently. And likely to join those two in a downwards trajectory is Norwich City, a club said to be losing £1million a month, a sum that is largely underwritten by its owner Delia Smith and her husband. And that's an awful lot of turkey and cranberry roulade.

What is particularly revealing about that threesome is that but five years ago all of them were in the Premier League, where Charlton at least, had been residing for nearly a decade.

Such is the consequence of ambition. Once elevated to the top table all three were obliged to expand, to bring in pricey playing recruits, to buff up their back-room staff, to live way above any manageable means, spending money they didn't have to sustain the desperate scramble to stay up.

When relegation followed, the financial consequences were catastrophic. Tumbling attendances contrived with crippling contracts and falling television revenue to act like concrete shoes, sucking all three clubs on a downward spiral, in which morale disappeared almost as quickly as a succession of managers. Once the parachute payments - the very thing that is supposed to cushion the blow - stopped, all three were gone. Continuity, sustainability, coherence: such words long ago departed from their vocabulary.

But that is what membership of the Premier League does for a smaller club. The obligation to attempt to live with the real monoliths of the game suffocates the financial life out them. Nottingham Forest, Derby, Leeds: it is not just the current Championship bottom three who have suffered the curse of taking on the big boys. And it is easy to see who could be the next candidates. Were Middlesbrough, Hull and Portsmouth to be expelled from the top flight, the consequences would be equally dire.
So that is the condition of the English game in the week three of its more substantial institutions blazed a trail across Europe. Such is their scale, such is their success, anyone even attempting to challenge their dominance risks oblivion. And that surely cannot be a good thing.

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