herald

Thursday 21 September 2017

Cup final highlights football’s new order

IF EVER a game captured a perfect snapshot of everything that is good and bad about the Premier League then Saturday's FA Cup final was the one – the ultimate picture of the haves and the have-nots.

Chelsea now have a Double to boast about and Portsmouth's fate is unknown – an old and venerable club on the brink of extinction.

Remember, this is Portsmouth, a club which sold millions upon millions worth of players in the past three years and managed to reach two Cup finals along the road.

Yet the state of the club’s finances is such that UEFA would not allow them to play with the adults in next season's Europa League.

The comparison with Chelsea could not have been starker. This FA Cup win and the Double merely confirms what I thought about them at the start of the season, and for most of the nine months in between.

STRUGGLE

They had the best squad and a manger with a proven track record. There were a few hiccups but they deserve what they've won.

Carlo Ancelotti now has the platform to build something very special at Stamford Bridge and I have no doubt that Roman Abramovich will make more money available to him this summer.

But is it right that Chelsea can calmly shell out £100m for Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard while, below them, a desperate struggle for survival is now being played out in public by clubs in every division?

Every time I look at a newspaper, it seems like there's another club in administration, struggling desperately to stay alive.

Someone told me a while back that from the original 96 clubs which formed the Football League in England only four or five have gone out of business completely, which is compelling evidence of the remarkable resilience of those who beg, borrow and steal to keep the show on the road.

But, I wonder, will we be able to say the same in five or ten years’ time? Somehow I doubt it. So many clubs are now teetering on the brink of commercial ruin, and the big guns are not immune. There are many reasons for this, but I feel that one of the biggest problems for football is the fact that clubs have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the normal business world, with all the consequences that brings.

The goodwill that existed towards the game has been slowly but surely eroded. Where once the taxman was prepared to turn a blind eye if a club was in difficulties, that is not the case any longer. In the wider world, football is more and more subject to bodies like the EU, and UEFA has been forced to upgrade the concept of what it is to be a football club to accommodate new realities.

UEFA club licensing imposes a structure on football clubs that they believe will bring about a more sustainable model for the game. It's a realistic goal to set and a worthy ambition, but all clubs are guided by the selfish need to beat everyone else and will act accordingly.

That makes it difficult to imagine any set of rules that will stick.

Up at the elite level, where a man like Abramovich can write off massive loans at the stroke of a pen and owns a battalion of lawyers, they make their own rules. It will be interesting to see how UEFA cope in the coming months as marquee names like Manchester United and Liverpool struggle with well-publicised and serious issues about the level of debt that they have taken on.

For Manchester United, this is worrying rather than a cause for panic. Even if the Glazers went wallop tomorrow, there's a half dozen groups out there with £1.5bn ready and waiting to step in.

But clearly that's not the case with Liverpool; so much so that they may have to prove to UEFA that the club can continue as a going concern and, if they can't, may have to sell Fernando Torres and Steve Gerrard to pay the bills. This is an extraordinary thought and everyone who loves Anfield will hope that it will never become a reality.

But Leeds United supporters know only too well how easy it is to become complacent about debt and what happens when borrowing gets out of control.

Every week, Liverpool are paying about £100,000 a day to service the interest on the Anfield debt – that's the salary of a Torres or a Gerrard. In other words, that's seven big salaries that could be used to pay the wages of the seven world-class players Liverpool need to be competitive again poured down a black hole every week.

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