Sunday, 19 April 2009

Peace Prize

Sunday morning always starts early and in particular starts with  Sunday, Radio 4's weekly religious magazine. Today's programme picked up on the item that was doing the rounds before Easter about the funding of hospital chaplains by the NHS. The National Secular Society were protesting that such support was not a proper charge on the public purse. The costs, they argue,  should instead be borne by churches and individual patients exercising  personal choice. Costs UK wide are said to be around £31m although workings on the back of a few backs of fag packets have the figure as high as £44m. Thats quite a lot of  nurses, so the argument goes. And nurses are surely a better use of £30 - 40m than the chaplaincy. Enter the Taxpayers Alliance (Daily Mail with attitude) who, like the NSS,  believe this money could be better spent (or, I suspect, preferably not spent at all).
The work of hospital chaplains  is not an area that I know much about. It seems to me that when you are at a low ebb health wise (ie wondering whether you are actually going to get through this crisis)  some sort of spiritual support would be of great comfort. And I believe many are comforted this way.  But equally if I was say Richard Dawkins or Ricky Gervais, committed atheists both,   I might resent the intrusion. 
But this whole episode leaves a nasty taste. The NSS is being manipulative. If they believed their arguments stood up why come out with this research just before Easter?  I'd conclude that it was a spoiling tactic designed to catch the attention of the UK  media to the fact that they are still around at a time when we would otherwise forget about them .  Why get into bed with the Taxpayer's Alliance who have a very different agenda (and who frankly would be better advised to focus more attention on far worse examples of  taxpayer waste). And finally why try and persuade us that they are highly principled sweetness and reason itself, all about human rights  (everyone has the right to a religion or not to have one) and then focus on hospital chaplains as an example of religious privilege. The NSS agenda is dishonest. Like the BNP they would have us believe its about protecting the rights of all. They do not: the NSS want to eradicate religion.    

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Valley of Gloom

Tomorrow's Championship fixtures sees the now  doomed Charlton team visit the side    one place above them in the table, Southampton. Southampton still have a good chance of surviving the drop but the news for their fans this week of the decision to put the clubs parent company into adminstration will mean that there will be all round gloom and despondency at St Mary's.
Until recently both sides were in the top tier of English football. Charlton's collapse has been spectacular, Southampton's less so but with both clubs struggling financially the outcome for both is likely to be the same. Administration may also prompt the Football League to impose a 10-point penalty on the hapless Saints, a fact that would make an early return to the Championship all the more difficult.

The economics of football has been the subject of much media coverage,  even books. What is undoubtedly true is that the game seems at one level to be a huge success story. Our big 4 (Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal) do well in Europe and are able to flex financial muscle to attract stars from across the world to play in England. Premiership sides generally benefit from the rights money paid by Sky and others to compete for star names and more importantly to attract new owners to invest (or lend) significant money as a route to success. Just below the top 4 there is a clutch of 4-6 teams close to competing for the top prizes - notably Aston Villa, Manchester City , Everton and Tottenham.  Their natural place tends to be the UEFA cup and semi-finals/losing finalists of domestic competitions but the challenge is developing. 

The galaxy of star players on view combined with the frantic pace and  rather greater degree of unpredictability of English football  means that the Premiership's attractions are no longer confined to England. It is truly a mass global product, happily consumed in China and Malaysia  as well as it is in Europe. 

But beyond the glitz I believe the game is less healthy.   For years we have prided ourselves on our achievement of having 92 professional teams in 4 divisions; a game in which teams like little Wimbledon can have a tilt at the top; in which the smaller clubs could survive by supplementing match day income and other local fundraising initiatives through the sale of promising players to teams in the higher divisions. That model still exists but now takes it place alongside the market place that exists world wide for players to ply their trade in the Premiership. Europe and Africa now represent a wider catchment area for talent scouts and that shows in the starting line up of a number of Premiership teams, notably Arsenal. 

Alongside that is the issue of player power. This is not the sort of player power that simply dictates how Directors and Managers  run the club (although it can result in the unseating of a manager) but is more about the leverage they can exercise over contracts. The fact is that clubs either meet the asking price or lose the player to their rivals. This  has resulted in the phenomenon of players income becoming the predominantly major part of a club's outlay. Some have a wages policy which ensures that no more than a given percentage of income goes out in players wages. But it is not always the case and for some clubs upwards of 80%, even 90% is going straight from the Tv companies and turnstiles into players' pockets.  The well publicised saga of Kaka's transfer suggested his contract would have been worth £500k per week. That was exceptional although many of our top earners will be negotiating contracts worth up to £150k per week. This probably several times more than many of the fans who turn up to watch (and who thus help contribute to their wages) will earn in a year. 

Sky have undoubtedly done most to create this wage inflation. There is growing awareness of the phenomenon and even a website which challenges whether the trend is good for the game 
What is undoubtedly true is that to compete in this League everyone in the Premiership has to pay its players Premiership wages. That's Ok so long as the club is in the Premiership. Unfortunately each season 3 clubs are relegated into the Championship. That means that  significant losses of rights money take place and a club has to retrench financially. Many clubs like Charlton and Southampton find the adjustment difficult to make, they have to sell their best players and effectively rebuild a team from scratch. If that doesn't prove successful then the inevitable consequence is that the team struggles in what is a competitive 2nd tier of domestic football and risks further decline. So we then get into a vicious tailspin from which clubs find it difficult to recover. Two of them meet today at St Mary's, Southampton.
I have no instant solutions but I think at the very least we need those in the game to take stock of what is happening and decide whether something can be done to preserve our traditional structures. I would suggest its urgent: the gap between the top 4 and the lower ends of the professional game will continue to widen as TV rights deals get ever greater. And in an economic recession clubs at the wrong end may decide that survival is impossible and throw in the towel.  
Football survives on our money. We part with it at the turnstiles and pay over our subscriptions to Sky. I think the game owes it to all its fans to ensure greater stability at the lower levels.  Its not as if its short of money.