Nationwide in chaos

Published : Aug 31, 2002 00:00 IST

THE recent pathetic collapse of the Nationwide League's case against the television giants, Carlton and Granada, the failure to obtain the 178 million still owing on their subsidiary's, ITN Digital, contract means that numerous Nationwide clubs are seriously in danger of extinction and all must draw in their horns. As a consequence of the scathing verdict of Mr. Justice Langley in the High Court of London, even Charles Allen, the boss of Granada, risked the sack. This, though his case was won and somewhat surprisingly, neither he nor the boss of Carlton, Michael Green, was called to give evidence.

Judge Langley clearly wondered why the action was brought at all as did many of us. In bringing it, the Chief Executive of the League, David Burns, put his own head on the block. But what a chapter of imbecilities! In the first place, ITN digital, then curiously known as Ondigital, must have been out of its mind to offer a colossal 315 million for three seasons to show Nationwide soccer on Pay per View. Pay, for what at best could only be 2nd division stuff, the Premiership having creamed off all the best of the action!

It is doubtful if audiences would have been large, even if the Nationwide games were being shown for nothing on terrestrial television. But to demand money to see them, when the Premiership games were so often being screened on the all powerful rivals, B SKY B, on subscription, was a recipe for disaster. It was the Porter in Macbeth who spoke of those who "hanged themselves on the expectation of plenty" and Shakespeare was plainly far in advance of his time.

So what happened? ITN Digital duly collapsed, bankrupt, and went into so called administration, hopelessly unable to pay the 178 million which were still owing to the League. Next, obviously, the League was anxious to receive that money, and to get it from the owners of Digital, Carlton and Granada. The trouble was that Carlton and Granada said, "not us, chums; we are not responsible." And it soon grew clear that they had all too strong a get out.

What was crucial was a guarantee that Carlton and Granada stood behind Digital and that they would, in a case such as this, make up the money. But where was the guarantee? It transpired that it had existed in the original contract, but that when the final contract was signed, it was nowhere to be seen. The cunning lawyers of Digital had drawn out proceedings until, so far as we could judge, the lawyers for Nationwide had given up hope, tired of waiting and naively had the contract signed anyway.

No wonder that the Nationwide executive have spoken of suing their own lawyers. While in the meantime the infuriated chairmen of the Nationwide clubs, among them that of York City, have been threatening to sue the League's executives.

Burns and company point out that it was not they who signed the original document, since they were not then in office. But there is certainly a strong case against their ineptitude in bringing the action against Carlton and Granada, which has now cost the Nationwide another 1 million. Where I think they have been unjustly abused by their clubs is for in the meantime signing a contract with B sky B, 95 million over the next four seasons. The clubs howl that this is but a fraction of what they would have got had the Digital contract been implemented but what sort of an argument is that? It won't be implemented and the B Sky B deal seems to me immensely more rational than Digital's, even if, when the Digital contract such as it was signed, the clubs must have thought it was Christmas.

What now? The trouble is that the clubs have indeed hanged themselves on the expectation of plenty pouring out absurd sums of money in transfer fees and wages. Bradford City have been among the worst and silliest offenders so much so that even their arrogant millionaire Chairman and owner, Geoffrey Richmond, has most untypically and meekly admitted his errors, his cash overspending.

By the skin of their teeth, Bradford City have just about remained alive. Their colossal debts meant bankruptcy and extinction. They could not pay their players. They had to go cap in hand to their creditors, offering a mere and miserable 10% of their debts. Most luckily for them the creditors charitably accepted, but it still needed a generous gesture by that fine little Italian forward, Benito Carbone, to get Bradford City off the hook.

Carbone, who had played for Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough, was actually owed a massive 3 million on the remainder of his contract, but he decently settled for 800,000, and a free transfer to Como, just promoted to the Italian Serie A, where it briefly appears at long intervals.

Bradford City themselves had briefly and surprisingly appeared in the Premiership, but no one but a simpleton or a deluded millionaire would ever have believed that they could stay there. After all, in their whole long history, they'd never been there before. Still, in a world where the genius who conceived the Digital deal, one Stuart Prebble, can be paid off with 1 million, perhaps the arrogant and dictatorial Richmond, known to be the scourge of his managers, was entitled to perceive a pie in the sky.

The enduring problem for even those Nationwide clubs which attain the Premiership is that though they do get a generous two-season pay off if and when they are relegated, it is some 500,000 per season rather than the huge 17 million per annum they'd have got from the Premiership TV rights. And when they do go down they still have to pay the lucrative contracts of the players they had in the Premiership, out of exponentially smaller receipts.

Had the Digital deal been done, the Nationwide 1st Division clubs would have got 2.79 million a year. Now, they will get only 586,625. Desperate as many will be to sell players, the position has been complicated by the new FIFA rule that transfers will be permitted only till late August and will then be barred until the turn of the year. Nationwide are begging for an exemption but if they do not get it, clubs could collapse. Even such famous ones as Nottingham Forest, twice winners of the European Cup, and Sheffield Wednesday. Forest in fact put all their players up for sale. What next?

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