Dunno about bungs, but the pies are a disgrace

A contest aimed at encouraging better food at soccer grounds has led to accusations of skulduggery, writes Jon Culley
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The Independent Online
AS SOCCER grapples with another murky scandal featuring alleged bungs and managers, it seems there is no part of the national game that is above the suspicion of dark deeds and mysterious brown envelopes.

Staff at Total Football magazine cried foul when their invitation to readers to nominate Britain's "King Pie" prompted the arrival of hundreds of entries for the same pastry snack, many in decidedly similar handwriting.

It was a particularly sensitive moment. The pie that appeared to enjoy such popularity is sold by Norwich City, where Britain's most successful cookery writer, Delia Smith, and her husband recently became majority shareholders.

Total Football's Alex Murphy said: "We understood that Norwich felt a bit humbled not to have reached the final last year and when we received more than 300 nominations from Norfolk something smelt decidedly fishy.

"We did consider disqualification, especially after a graphologist confirmed that several entries were in the same hand. It was only because there were a lot of bona fide nominations too that we allowed them to remain."

Norwich denied any wrong-doing and pointed out that Ms Smith has nothing to do with catering at Carrow Road. Their pies are supplied by South Norfolk Caterers whose proprietor, Mervyn Philpott, was furious at the slur.

"It is a total lie," he said. "My secretary did send some nominations in the same envelope - about 45, I think - but that was only because she had collected them up from people in the bars around the ground.

"And there were some lads who said they would sign if somebody else filled in the details, which would explain why the handwriting was the same."

In any event, Philpott added, his steak and kidney speciality has a proven track record. "We've already won a Sky News poll and came second on Radio 4," he said, proudly. "I don't know if Delia has tried it but I'm sure she would approve." There is certainly a good deal at stake. Last year's winner, Kilmarnock's Killie Pie - 100 per cent Scotch beef from hand-picked cattle - attracted plenty of new business for manufacturer Burns County Foods, which now supplies seven Scottish clubs, including Rangers and Celtic.

This year's five finalists - Macclesfield, Manchester City and non-League Yeovil are in the running, too - will be judged by a panel of tasters on the Richard and Judy Show on 6 February. That, by coincidence, is the same week as the scheduled launch of football's answer to the Egon Ronay guides.

The Colman's Football Food Guide sets out to examine the quality of refreshments at all of England's 92 full-time professional clubs, making awards for excellence and pointing out the shortcomings of a business that, the authors feel, fails to deliver standards in keeping the game's new prosperity.

As the guide's deputy editor, Eddie Blower has gathered the findings of about 40 assessors who were dispatched around the country. "They came back with some wonderful highlights, which will be reflected in our league table, but overall the standard was very mixed. To be frank, a lot of the stuff was poor and we have said so.

"And, with the odd notable exception, it was the Premier League clubs in particular who came out badly. Their football may have raced ahead, but in food they have a lot of catching up to do."

Feeding on a large scale, of course, is not without problems. While Nationwide League newcomers Macclesfield can tempt their 2,500 supporters with real chips - lovingly chopped by catering manager Carol Wood and her team - their neighbours Manchester United have to satisfy the appetites of 55,000 fans at every home match. United's catering turnover alone amounts to pounds 6m per year.

"It is the burgers and the pies that tend to attract a lot of stick," United's senior catering manager, Dominic McCormack, said. "But we do pay attention to that part of the business, which accounts for a substantial share of turnover."

A similar message comes from Chelsea, where supporters can feast on bagels as well as burgers. Peter Price, managing director of Chelsea Village Catering, said: "We aim to provide high street quality, although when you are trying to feed 20,000 people during one 15-minute half-time there has to be a compromise."

In any event, Chelsea are looking towards a clientele that is different from that of many of their rivals. Next month sees the launch of four new restaurants and Price has been signing up high-class sous chefs with the same zeal as Ruud Gullit hunts Italian strikers.

The Colman's guide promises to put at least one of the Premier League fat cats in their place. "I cannot give too much away," Blower said, coyly, "but of United and Chelsea I can tell you that one came out well and another very badly."