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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What if... ITV Digital hadn't gone bust?

Our series which looks back at pivotal moments which changed the course of football history continues as Turls asks how different could things have been had ITV Digital not gone bust in 2002.

Boom to bust - all smiles as ITV Digital is launched in 2001 - it lasted a year

Imagine the scene: the Premier League is becoming wealthier and wealthier with every passing season as the Football League continues to drift away from its big brother.

Sky were turning the top flight into a financial beast - a beast that the Football League could not tame. They need a hero. A knight in shining armour. A company willing to go toe-to-toe with the evil Murdoch.

In 2000, in stepped ITV Digital. Its name with dynamic - in a simple sort of way - and it was offering the paying public a chance to watch football outside of the top flight.

Finally, Preston fans could see their team bottle it without having to leave their home. Grimsby supporters could watch their team from the comfort of their fishing boat.

And let's not forget the glorious opportunity of watching Walsall look majestic in the West Midlands.

The turn of the decade was a wonderful time. The Millennium bug hadn't rendered all technology as a piece of crap, and the country was moving into a bright new era under the inspired leadership of Tony Blair.

However, we all know how it turned out. Today, it's time to imagine if ITV had been a success. What would have happened to the clubs who were pillaged by the false promises?

Would the Football League still find itself in a financial mess? And, most importantly, what would have happened to Andy Townsend's Tactics Truck?

ITV Digital signed a multi million pound deal with the Football League - which would be distributed between the 72 clubs. This meant that chairmen and managers up and down the country thought that more money would be coming into the coffers.

This money, as is usual in football, was spent before it was received and when ITV Digital went tits up - so did a lot of clubs.

The likes of Bradford, QPR, Crystal Palace, Barnsley, Lincoln, Nottingham Forest, Swindon, Notts County, Sheffield Wednesday, Watford, Bury, and Chesterfield were just some of the clubs to be deeply affected by the meltdown.

Now, some of these clubs had financial issues before the collapse of ITV Digital and to blame all of their problems on one event would be inaccurate and unfair.
However, it was a major player in a lot of the problems that followed.

Every club had factored into their accounts the TV money and, when it disappeared, it made the balance sheet look like a see-saw with Vanessa Feltz on one side and Russell Brand on the other.

Looking at the list of clubs above, it's interesting to see that every one of them has had a period of trouble over the last decade. Although Watford did have a season in the sun when they got promoted to the Premier League.

Bradford are tucked away in League Two now but, at the time of the ITV Digital collapse, they had just been relegated from the top flight.

The club was in financial difficulty anyway, what with them paying ridiculous wages on mediocre players, but the £3 million to them at the time could have gone a long way to helping them re-align their balance sheet.

As a result, they entered administration and have been on the slide ever since. Only now does it look like they're on their way back to where they once were.

And yes, you did read it right. Just £3 million. That's less than Yaya Toure will be earning at Manchester City. A lot less.

Bradford's Valley Parade ground is a reminder of their once loftier standing

Bradford weren't the only club in trouble before the collapse. Sheffield Wednesday were like the Titanic - big in size, but couldn't plug the gaps when the s*** hit the fan.

Again though, the ITV Digital money could have covered 20 per cent of their debts, and they might not have found themselves dropping in and out of League One.

Lincoln were close to living on the street after the ITV Digital fallout, too. By losing the £150,000 they were due, they found themselves in a situation which forced the staff to become gigolos and prostitutes just to stay afloat.

Of course, this isn't true, but the fans did dig deep into pockets to raise £12,000. It was a tough time for the Imps and it definitely rallied the support.

If it had taken a different route, the fans would all be a little bit better off and they might have been able to buy a new car or go on holiday - thus further improving the booming economy.

Although, given the recent state of affairs, I doubt Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would have made the most of their £12,000.

Another club deeply affected by the dead TV deal was Barnsley. A club who had a history of being well-ran soon found themselves staring at a mouldy Pret A Manager sandwich, having to fight Derek - the fattest hobo - to get the last Chicken Salad wrap.

It was such a dark period that the club knew exactly when they would run out of money and the fans knew when they could start to mourn their club's demise.

November 30 2002 was the date of destiny and, with two weeks remaining, the club looked dead. Fortunately, someone stepped up to the plate and, although they've not exactly covered themselves in glory ever since, they've not looked back.

It was Barnsley's mayor who bought the club and his way into the hearts of the townsfolk. Without ITV Digital, he would have probably been booed out of office.

I don't know why and I'll admit he probably wouldn't have, but what type of story would this be if I didn't bow down to hyperbole and sensationalism?

Oh, how it might have been different at the City Ground, too, home to former Anglo-Scottish Cup winners, Nottingham Forest.

After allowing David Platt to spunk approximately £12 million on Italian 'veterans,' Forest were in a hole well before ITV Digital ran into the middle of a busy motorway, but it didn't help.

The money was going to be used to pay off debts and would have accounted for a third of Forest's turnover the year it went pear shaped.

As a result, Forest were forced to become a selling club, seeing Michael Dawson, Jermaine Jenas, and Andy Reid leave for a hefty sum of money. It helped the finances but ruined the team.

However, the most tragic result of the ITV Digital collapse has to be Chesterfield. Having been saved by the fans not long ago, the Spireites found themselves in serious trouble when their TV money was pulled.

This angered the commercial director, who urged fans to boycott Blind Date in retaliation. The insolence of the man. Blind Date was an institution, ingrained into the fabric of the British public.

I can't help but thin that if ITV Digital had survived, I'd still have the pleasure of watching an unsuitably dressed Scouser running the world's most elaborate dating company.

Instead, I'm forced the watch the disgraceful shambles of television that ITV chooses to offer up on a Saturday night. God bless Cilla Black. We'll never forget you.

Another thing we'll never forget - not through lack of trying - is the infamous ITV Tactics Truck. This was quite possibly the most glorious aspect of ITV Digital and should have had every football fan reaching into their pockets to subscribe to the substandard network.

Now I understand that the Tactics Truck was associated with The Premiership, but it became a hit in the Football League.

Andy Townsend - on a rare excursion from the Tactics Truck he called home

Andy Townsend would park his Tactics Truck - and what would later become his home if the rumours are to be believed - outside the ground of the televised match and would sit in it from the start of programme until the end.

He would offer such valuable insight as drawing a circle around a man who scored a goal, telling us the goalscorer should be chuffed for scoring and joking about what crumbs he had spilt onto his keyboard.

It was magical. I touched it once. In a way it touched us all. A truly remarkable machine. What of it now? Sitting on Townsend's driveway, I think.

Had ITV Digital not duffed up, we could be enjoying the Truck ever week. Who knows, it might have branched out and created its own show. The Tactics Truck Takeover with Andy Townsend. Has football ever been as it brilliant as it was then?

The Tactics Truck and Blind Date aside, it's difficult to know what would have happened had the revolution taken shape. Murdoch might have killed himself at the thought of losing out to Townsend and Robbie Earle.

The Premier League might have choked and become a shadow of the Football League. Or, quite possibly, everything might have stayed the same.

One thing in for sure though: ITV Digital sparked a chain of events from which football is still reeling from. The saddest fact is that not many clubs appear to have learnt from their getting their fingers singed - and in some cases, completely fried.

Clubs have been spending beyond their means for too long, and the ITV Digital situation did nothing to hammer this point home.

As it stands, a hatful of Football League clubs are in financial peril, a shedload of Non League clubs are on the precipice of disaster, and non one seems to realise why this is happening.

In truth, it's like ITV Digital never existed at all.

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