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Tuesday, 6 August, 2002, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Football on self-destruct
Former Football League chief executive David Burns and chairman Keith Harris
Heads rolled at the Football League on Tuesday

On the same day that Keith Harris and David Burns became the sacrificial lambs for Football League clubs, Exeter City entered into the race to sign Paul Gascoigne.

The two events are seemingly unconnected, but together they sum up the Alice in Wonderland world of English football.

How can a club like Exeter City offer Gazza 10,000 a week when it has just managed to keep its head above the dark waters of financial ruin on average crowds of 2,500?

Despite the smell of smoke in the air and the crackle of flames, football clubs continue to saw away Nero-like on the fiddle.

Taking the rap

Yet when the smoke and dust have cleared, will clubs be big enough to see that the only people they really have to blame are themselves?

Football League chairman Harris and chief executive Burns have taken the rap for a catalogue of foul-ups and calamity which has put so many clubs in jeopardy.

No matter who was in the Football League chair, or wearing the chief executive's hat, to a large extent they were only carrying out the bidding of the clubs.

That collective bidding was to set off in lumbering but zealous pursuit of the fatted calf of television money.

Exter City's St James' Park
Exeter City struggle to keep their heads above water

But as television money rolled in, it not only coccooned clubs from the harsh economic realities of the outside world, it made them lazy.

Football clubs became like some member of Bertie Wooster's Drones club, reliant on the allowance provided by a rich pater and no longer working at raising their own money.

Before television money, clubs cut their cloth according to their means.

Prudent housekeeping and innovative revenue-raising schemes kept clubs afloat.

They knew their place in the order of things, and budgeted accordingly. That did not include offering faded England internationals 10,000 a week.

As clubs prepare to divvy up the vastly reduced income produced from their new television deal, there is talk of the Football League crashing back in time to the days of 1950s austerity with the re-introduction of northern and southern divisions.

Exeter City have offered Paul Gascoigne 10,000 a week
Hands up if you would like 10,000 a week?

Nor can Premiership clubs look on with any degree of smugness.

Leeds' debts of 70m, and Chelsea's reported 60m shortfall, hint that the fall of any top club would be from a far greater height and therefore more painful.

The acid test for Premiership clubs will come in two years time, when their televison contract is due for renewal.

If they are sensible, they will look and learn from the experiences of the Football League on their own doorstep, and that of Serie A further afield.

The money that has swilled through the game, and prompted top-flight clubs to dip their trotters in the trough, is no longer on tap.

Football's bubble may not have burst, but the air is seeping out of it slowly.

BBC News' James Pearce
"It hasn't come as a surprise"
Brentford chairman Ron Noades
"We won't find anyone better than Harris"
Millwall chief Theo Paphitis
"We need to look forward"
York chaiman John Batchelor
"I'm particularly glad"

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Football feels pinch
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