Are we giving to the needy or the greedy?

Chaos over the cancellation of Carling's big match means a testing time for the testimonial. By Iain Fletcher
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been some carry-on. First it was on, then it was off. Then it was on again and finally last week, in a blaze of publicity, the Will Carling testimonial match was cancelled, leaving the former England captain to struggle along on the already impressive sums of money that rugby had brought him.

Whatever the episode may say about the high-profile Carling, it has also raised a serious question which will affect many less well-off professionals: is there a place for the tax-free testimonial in these days of high-salaried sport?

There is, at least for the moment under the present legislation, say the Inland Revenue, who would need particular evidence to take a cut of any testimonial proceeds. "We would have to show the money was 'by reason of employment'," Wendy Brumfitt, a spokesperson for the Revenue, explained. "And we need evidence of this before taking it to court. The amount doesn't matter because it can still be considered a gift, so we have to prove a link between the money given and the employment. If it is written in a contract then that is proof and we could go to court, but if testimonials are promised verbally then it is difficult for us to prove."

So testimonials, an idea bred in amateur days, are, ironically, likely to become more prevalent in rugby as professionalism develops. Started so the public could register their appreciation of a player, they have developed from low-key affairs designed to help kick-start a player's post-sporting life into highly developed business machines capable of raising hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Nigel Redman, the Bath, England and Lions lock, is a long-serving servant of the West Country club and in the true spirit of testimonials, the Bath faithful were delighted to dip into their coffers to reward his loyalty and commitment. A long-standing Bath fan explained his reasons for supporting Redman: "When he has played you feel that he has been playing for you and for the club, not for himself. By donating money now you are rewarding him for all the sacrifices he has made over the years and all the enjoyment he has brought you."

Graham Rose, the Somerset cricketer, is a similar example. Consistent performances since being signed in 1987 coupled with a friendly demeanour and a willingness to talk with the supporters ensured his benefit last year was reasonably successful, but without it he feels that his desire to excel at cricket would have cost him money. "When I started playing, money wasn't an issue", he said. "And as your career progresses I think clubs abuse the system by underpaying you, knowing that in a few years you will be awarded a benefit.

"Seeing other players get much bigger sums doesn't worry me, nor really seeing some players like [Graham] Gooch or [Mike] Gatting get two benefits, but in an ideal world we would be paid a proper wage and testimonials would not be needed. Cricketers had been paid peanuts for such a long time that it was a necessary perk."

Redman and Rose are the type of athletes testimonials were supposed to benefit, but eyebrows are frequently raised when high-earning footballers receive them.

Paul Merson may have lived an expensive rock-star life but picking up pounds 500,000 from a testimonial when he still commands a salary of thousands of pounds a week might be seen as over-indulgent.

But Mick McGuire, the assistant chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, believes that testimonials are an important part of the game.

"Testimonials are for one of two reasons in football," he said. "Either for long service and help make up for lost signing-on fees from transfers, or for players whose careers have been cut short by injury. Each season 50 players are forced to leave the game from injury, and the majority of these are from the lower divisions and haven't earned the huge money.

"Of course people will focus on the big names but we mustn't forget all the players in lower leagues - they need and deserve the testimonials. Besides, the fans give the money by choice."

And that is the basis of any testimonial; the money is not coerced but willingly given. Anachronistic they may be but they are here to stay - unless abuse by the greedy prompts a change in the law, that is.

Peter Corrigan, page 8