The summer is over: long live football!

From the Rage Online newsdesk Sunday, September 1st, 2002  

The summer’s over: long live football!

It’s back at last! Following the long dull summer, enlivened only by a circus in the Far East, and the tasters of the under-17 international tournament and the pre-season friendlies, we’re back to the blood and guts of division three football. It really couldn’t have gone on any longer; when I have to resort to watching the Tour de France, the Commonwealth Games or, god forbid, cricket in order to get a sporting fix then a return to footy is essential.

Apart from the United squad leaking players like water in a sieve it’s been a fairly quiet close-season for the club, although the recent news of Bobby Ford and Dave Oldfield signing for us, with the promise of further players to come, has been worth the wait. There are some who question the point of going to pre-season friendlies and who would rather wait until the real thing before seeing United in action, but if they had seen Ford donning a Yellow shirt at Aylesbury for the first time in five years, or witnessed Deano’s goals against Chelsea and Southampton, then I’m sure they would have changed their minds.

Pre-season friendlies are, I agree, fairly meaningless, especially as far as the results are concerned (otherwise I would get just too distraught at the thought of United losing to Nuneaton Borough or, worse, Chelsea), but they do have a certain something that makes them a bit special, a bit out of the ordinary. On the one hand there’s the ground-hopping opportunities presented, with the consequent delight of visiting non-league venues with terracing, no segregation, beer drinking during the game and seeing all manner of constructions that can comprise a football ground. In addition to that there’s the pleasure of getting to know your new players and seeing what they can do, all adding to the inevitable build-up of pre-season optimism that starts around mid-June and builds to a crescendo just before the first game of the season.

This pre-season optimism is a funny thing, and defies all reality and logic. Even last Summer I was convinced, right up until half-time of the Rochdale game, that the Us were going to storm back into Division Two, even though we were, really, still on the way down. When we released players like Steve Anthrobus, Peter Fear, Lee Jarman, Ian McGuckin and Matt Murphy it was difficult to imagine that the new look United could have been any worse. Unfortunately we reckoned without Mark Wright’s inept tactics, underachievers such as Martin Thomas, Sam Stockley and David Savage, and the fact that we had too many players content just to turn up for their wage packets.

This close-season we have released even larger numbers of players, with Phil Gray, Paul Tait, Paul Moody, Jon Richardson, Robert Quinn and, most significantly, Joey Beauchamp all gone. However, the apparent quality of their replacements, especially Matt Robinson, Steve Basham and, of course, Bobby Ford, means that surely, now, the rot has been stopped and the climb back to Division One has begun. Hasn’t it? At least that’s what this year’s dose of pre-season optimism is telling me.

In spite of the World Cup, which failed dismally to live up to the hype, this summer’s real success story has been the founding of AFC Wimbledon. This was the perfect riposte to Charles Koppel and his antics in trying to move the Dons to Milton Keynes. I still find it extraordinary, and very depressing, that the FA was so spineless as to allow Wimbledon to relocate. Whatever the particular problems were that beset Wimbledon FC, to permit this move, despite all the ‘special case’ assurances in the FA’s judgement, really is the thin end of the wedge. I don’t think that it will lead immediately to the introduction of a franchise system in English football, but the signs are there that this could occur and, as with the introduction of the Premiership and the Champions League, once these ventures have been considered then it’s usually only a matter of time before they occur.

Hopefully the new club will go from strength to strength and in a few years time it would be sweet to see them overtake the MK franchise club in the football pyramid. It was heartening to see over 4,000 spectators watch AFC’s first game and to see the amount of goodwill in the game given to the new club. It is also as fine an example as possible to demonstrate that, despite the Premier League, the Champions League and the threatened breakaway by Division One clubs, the real heart and soul of football still resides with the supporters.

The conditions that allowed for the creation of AFC Wimbledon were unique to that club, but that’s not to say that similar stories couldn’t happen elsewhere. Certainly the growth of the Supporters Trust movement indicates that football supporters do want a stake in their game and that they are prepared to act in order to get one. It is certainly worth remembering that football fans do have the brain and the brawn to be able to stand up to the moneymen intent on ruining our game should the necessity arise.

Similarly I don’t think that the collapse of the IT Digital deal is necessarily such a bad thing for football, despite the obvious concern that it could seriously threaten the existence of some of the more financially imprudent clubs. Football has long been a market that has been too strongly influenced by outside financial forces, such as TV rights and sponsorship, and it has been evident for some time that this was unsustainable and that the bubble was going to burst. It’s a shame, although somehow inevitable, that those taking the brunt of the collapse are the smaller clubs, but some of the bigger Division One outfits, who had the promise of more money to spend against, are also badly affected, which has caused consternation amongst their peers and, hopefully, a re-evaluation of their financial strategies.

One lesson that should be learned is for clubs not to spend today on the promise of income at a later date. This was a large part of the reason why Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday and other Division One clubs have been badly hit, as they used the windfall money from the TV deal to pay unsustainable wages in their efforts to escape the First Division. The most likely effect is that they will leave that division via the other exit which may have the possible benefit of stymieing the enthusiasm of the First Division clubs to create a Premiership II, at least until they resume their place in that league, should they go down. They should learn that, Mad Max excepted, sequels are never as successful as the original version.

Another lesson is that clubs ought to concentrate on traditional income streams, such as gate money. This will inevitably mean reduced incomes, but will in turn lead to budgetary constraints with a consequent knock-on effects on players wages as clubs realise that they can no longer afford to play keep-up with the higher spenders in the Premier League. Players will be forced to reduce their demands, much as Bobby Ford and Steve Basham would have done in order to sign for United, which will in turn lead to a greater stability within the game and a more level playing field across the lower three divisions.

However, the most important lesson that football can learn from the ITV Digital collapse is that for many of the fans that clubs are trying to attract into their new all-seater stadia – the corporate hospitality crowd and the comparatively wealthy football-as-a-hobby yuppies – football is a fashion, and like all fashions it will eventually become unfashionable, the signs of which are already there. When this happens let us hope that clubs will not rue the day that they alienated and out-priced their traditional support-base, because if the labourers and tradesmen and others from low-income employment who can’t afford ?17 for a Division Three fixture don’t return to the game then football as we know it truly will be stuffed. Of course the die-hards and fanatics will still go to watch the games, but clubs like Oxford couldn’t survive in their current form on crowds of 3,000 or less. There will be increased calls for regionalisation (generally welcomed by those who don’t appreciate the pleasures of being an away fan), for part-time players, for a reduction in the numbers of professional clubs, and then the Premier League and its apologists will have won, to the detriment of the rest of us.

Martin B

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