Forget all the hype, this doesn’t add up

Last updated at 21:59 10 May 2008

With the Premier League season heading towards a potentially dramatic last day, Sir Alex Ferguson launched an enthusiastic defence of the competition in his Press conference at Manchester United's Carrington training ground. He could see that some might consider it predictable, rather than the description of boring used by Kevin Keegan, but less predictable than in other countries and certainly more passionate and exciting. And

the quality? Well, three out of the last four in the Champions League tells a story.

Sky TV viewers were lucky to be

witnessing it all, he added, before adding —

to the horror of the satellite company's news

reporter who was scenting a good soundbite

for his paymasters — that they had got it too

cheaply. Why, more than 200 countries

wanted to see Sir Alex's Manchester United

side take on Arsenal recently, so Sky must

be raking it in.


Suffering the Blues: Sir Alex Ferguson watches his team crumble to defeat at Chelsea

Indeed these are golden years, have been

for a while. Yes, we can guess the top four

next season, but in which order? Might

Tottenham, Everton or

Aston Villa muscle in?

Or could Newcastle

United even get back

into the Champions

League under Keegan?

Please report to Mike

Ashley's office in

London with the right

answer, which is yes.

And while we might

suspect that Stoke City

will go straight back

down, it might all have

the fascination, top and bottom, of an

episode of Columbo — you know the

outcome but it is about the journey of


Today the world will see another large

dollop of multi-million pound, televised

glamour. What it will conceal, however, is

the huge amount of debt that lies beneath.

Figures released last week for 2007 show

that the Manchester United debt increased

to a staggering £764 million, when transfer

payments are taken into account. No matter,

their spokesman said, that the cost of

servicing the debt has now reached more

than £47m a season, there is still plenty of

money in the club given the revenue they

generate. Indeed, there is an operating

profit, if only £7m. Prices of season tickets

for next year are up by about 6.5 per cent

but it could have been worse.

By and large, the Glazers have been

perceived as good owners. They let

Ferguson get on with his job and released the money to sign Carlos Tevez, Owen

Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson — some

£70m. And the Americans have done it by

learning the wisdom of an old adage —

unlike their compatriots at the other end of

the East Lancs Road in Liverpool — that

whales only get harpooned when they spout.

But still, when you cut through all this

smoke-and-mirror economics, something

doesn't add up. Call me fiscally naive, but

how can it be healthy — as Mancunian

critics have always pointed out — that a club

can be purchased, then saddled with a debt

for that purchase, which means that

somebody owns a club without having

invested a cent or a penny? Something

similar has happened at Liverpool, where

once George Gillett and Tom Hicks were

hailed as saviours until fissures and figures

of £350m worth of debt emerged.

Across Manchester, meanwhile, Thaksin

Shinawatra has suffered a similar fate,

dubbed a villain for his probable dismissal

of Sven Goran Eriksson, despite having

furnished him with a sizeable fighting fund

last summer. We wait to see details of exactly what the Thai has invested and how

much the long-term cost.

This is not some anti-foreign owner rant.

English-owned Arsenal have a debt of

£360m, although they have got a new

revenue-raising stadium out of it. Chelsea

were bailed out by Roman Abramovich and

Newcastle needed no overseas help to run

up a massive debt.

Nor is this another plea for the Premier

League and the Football Association to come

up with a fit-and-proper-person ownership

test with teeth although, given the Amnesty

International report on Shinawatra, they

might like to reconsider.

Rather, it is to urge the game's authorities

to monitor the mounting debt that threatens

to send prices for fans through the roof and

damage the long-term health of clubs,

particularly in times of credit crunch. If the

golden goose is not be killed, they must

come up with enforceable guidelines for

future ownership.

At last, signs of some backbone

EARLY days, but it was a

hugely encouraging

statement. "Football is one

sport and it's one FA which

has to take responsibility

across the whole game for

the standards that are set,"

said the organisation's new

independent chairman, Lord


The FA looked to have

rolled over in the face of the

Premier League's potency.

Now they could be ready to

seize back some power,

helped by Premier League

open-mindedness enforced

by criticism of the Stevens

report into bungs, the 39th

game and the distaste at

some players' histrionics.

Led by the FA, the League

have agreed to talk about

measures to improve

behaviour for next season,

which may include only

captains speaking to

referees and players signing

up to codes of conduct.

They are among the ideas

being trialled at grass-roots

level as part of the FA's

'Respect' campaign and

there could even be a trial in

the lower echelons —

docking points for bad

behaviour. That is more like

it and might test Premier

League humility.

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