A share of the glory and a mug's game

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The Independent Online
THANKS to the miracle of modern football marketing, Newcastle United were able to announce proudly last week that mugs bearing the noble visage of Kenny Dalglish were on sale in the club shop within two days of his appointment. One is tempted to ask what is particularly clever about that when there are players who can put a glazed look on a manager's face inside 90 minutes.

That, however, is not the point. Sport has reached the stage at which such matters as rapid mug availability are important. If only the great unwashed and underfunded could bring ourselves to rejoice in it all and reject these spasms of irritation whenever commercial considerations stir the surface we would be much more contented customers.

Disquiet of a more serious depth was expressed about another aspect of Dalglish's return to the big-time. The strong impression is that the most urgent force behind the speed of Kevin Keegan's departure and the arrival of Dalglish has been Newcastle's forthcoming flotation on the stock market. The jittery City - the one in London not in Manchester - would not take heartily to investing in a club without a top-rate manager.

Bobby Robson's high profile made him an obvious target and once he failed to respond favourably the switch to Dalglish was immediate. There are very persuasive footballing reasons why Dalglish was an ideal choice but his immediate availability would not have been the least of his attractions. Under the imperatives that appeared to be at work at St James' Park last week, young and up-and-coming candidates, such as Keegan was five years ago, stood no chance. I am sure no pressure was applied from the money men but their peripheral presence would have been enough; overseen by the underwriters, you might say.

As for the principle of taking the club to market - I hope no one calls it the donkey market - it is already well established. From top clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham to West Brom and Preston, flotation has been generally a great success. On Thursday, Sheffield United made their debut and their shares earned a thumping first-day profit.

So many clubs are going to be involved eventually, the Footsie Index will take on a whole new meaning. As a rising star in the entertainment sector, and with the incalculable profits of pay-TV to come, football was bound to develop in this way. The game's past experience with some of Mammon's representatives may make us nervous but we ought to resign ourselves to the fact that the game's commercial innocence is lost for ever. Perhaps we should even take part.

Financial patronage in sport is by no means new. Last week it was revealed that archaeological work in Whitehall has uncovered a 450-year-old sports centre built by King Henry VIII. Not quite the British Academy of John Major's dreams, it contained a well-appointed cock-pit - we could have ruled the world at cock- fighting if we hadn't given it up - an indoor bowling alley, a jousting yard and four real tennis courts.

The betting in the spacious spectating area around the cock-pit was ferocious, but not more so than at the tennis where as much as the equivalent of pounds 5,000 could rest on a match. Accounts of the day reveal that a viewing gallery was set aside for Anne Boleyn who was a fanatical gambler as were her ladies-in-waiting and more than a few quid made its way to the pockets of their favourites.

She would have lost her head over Tim Henman and, no doubt, there are plenty of ladies today who are already studying the advance betting odds for Wimbledon. If Henman was to be launched on the stock market, shares in him would be in great demand; not as great as there would be for the US golfing prodigy Tiger Woods, maybe, but the idea of having such a stake in a potential hero is appealing.

It has long attracted many in golf where rising stars have their early progress sponsored by loans from wealthier members of their clubs, repayable if they ever make it. Before the Victorians introduced the Corin- thian spirit that succoured amateurism through most of this century, sports like racing and boxing owed everything to private patronage.

Racing has maintained that tradition. The growth of horse-owning syndicates means that there are more people owning horses in whole or part than there has ever been. As a part-owner of a horse myself, I can confirm that it heightens one's interest in the sport more than mere betting can do. Not that the three-year-old gelding, stationed at an Irish stable, has been in a race yet. We must wait until the spring for that pleasure and, for all I know, it is spending the winter moonlighting in front of a milk- cart in Dublin.

The attraction of getting involved in an investment that carries some genuine excitement ensures that football shares will carry a temptation and, perhaps, that new brand of fan will be created. The shame is that the real investors in a club, the long-term supporters, will not be able to afford this latest expression of faith. Newcastle are allocating 10 per cent of their shares to fans but the minimum stake is pounds 500. That will probably prevent the bulk of the Toon Army from taking part. There should be some way that fans can have a chance of a return on the money they pay through the turnstile grilles if the team is successful.

There will be other snags. Take-overs and mergers are all part of the City scene. And what about the extra pressure on players? At Plymouth Argyle last week, Bruce Grobbelaar T-shirts were marked down from pounds 10 to pounds 3 which raises the question of the new importance of a player's image to shareholders. The value of players and managers to shareholders is going to depend not only on how they do on the pitch but on how their goods are selling.

It is bad enough for a player when he's having a bad time on the pitch - imagine being called before the board to explain why your face has sold only three mugs, one duvet cover and four tea-towels.

IF Middlesbrough's offence of calling off their match against Blackburn without official permission is thought worthy of a three points deduction and a fine of pounds 50,000 then surely a similarly grave view should be taken of any match postponed under questionable circumstances. Judging by the complaints from players and fans last week, several matches that were postponed an hour or less before kick-off last week because of the weather came under that category.

Apart from the obvious need for the authorities to use some of the money swilling around the game to help clubs install undersoil heating, a more thorough system of assessing pitches is called for as well as a means of compensating away supporters who travel long distances on a hope that is forlorn even before they leave home.

IT WILL come as a shock to those who have formed a certain opinion of the Rugby Football Union over the past year to learn that the Union spent pounds 350,000 employing Sir Tim Bell to help their image. An RFU spokesman dismissed criticism saying: "Quality advice doesn't come cheap." To which pompous retort I can only ask; how much does bad advice cost and would they know the difference?

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