Critical List: English football

Our national sport has enjoyed a decade of plenty. England's top clubs are among the richest in the world, paying vast sums to attract the world's best players and dominating Europe's top competitions - all financed by piles of TV cash.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But some clubs have been racking up huge debts in the desperate quest for success. Portsmouth, Cardiff and Southend have all been in court fighting winding-up orders, as HMRC signalled a harder line on non-payers. Even at the top of the game, the US owners of Manchester United and Liverpool have become hate figures to their own fans, after piling millions of pounds of debt onto their clubs. Football has never been a business in the traditional sense, but is the beautiful game now in danger of kicking the bucket?

Danger signs The problem of football clubs living beyond their means is not new. After the collapse of ITV Digital in 2003 left many clubs horribly short of funds, Man United CEO Peter Kenyon predicted that fewer than half the 92 league clubs would survive. It hasn't happened - yet - but Bournemouth, Rotherham, Luton and Crystal Palace have all had to call in the administrators. Perhaps the most spectacular fall from grace was that of Leeds United. Champions League semi-finalist in 2001, it paid a heavy price for over-spending on players: forced to offload its top stars, it went into administration in 2007 and was relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time.

Prognosis With their illustrious history and global fan base, the likes of Liverpool and Man U might seem too big to fail. But even the top clubs can suffer precipitous decline. And there's no sign of English football getting its financial house in order: most clubs still spend a dangerously high level of turnover on wages, seduced by the prospect of signing that brilliant new striker who can fire them to success on the pitch. If that all-important TV money suddenly dries up, many will be forced to take an early shower.

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