Blair not without support

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The Independent Online
The views put forward by Tony Blair at a football writers' function in London on Sunday appear to have been received not as an awkward truth, but a predictable dig at elitism.

In reflecting on the possible outcome of escalating transfer fees, especially the long-term effects of market forces, the Labour leader was generally considered to be out of order. What does he know about our problems, is roughly what any number of people in football have since gone around saying.

This indicates loose thinking. From what Blair had to say, there exists in his mind, as in the minds of others, a sense of the national game being less healthy than its administrators enthusiastically imagine.

The other day I put that point of view to a leading manager in the Premiership. Suprisingly, you may think, he was not greatly opposed to it. If holding troubled references to the transfer market and wages to be naive, he could see a lot of sense in Blair's deliberations. "For obvious reasons I don't want to be associated with this publicly, but English football could be living in a fool's paradise," he said.

One thing that concerns him, and others of a similar persuasion, is the possible effect on attendances if the contract to screen Premiership games live was gained by terrestrial television. In that respect the deal with Sky was a masterstroke. Vast revenue and a limited armchair audience. It was not a bold risk. Make a glut of live games available at no extra cost and what have you got? To my mind, gradual disenchantment.

I defy anyone, trusting entirely to his instincts, to say that there is not something inherently dangerous in the current situation, which is that television controls English football rather than the other way around. In Italy, where the game thrives as in no other European country, this was addressed with considerable foresight. Consequently, only one game a week from Serie A is shown on Italian television.

What also counts at this critical point is the deep anxiety growing up over the team method forced upon managers and coaches by the threat of financial disablement resulting from the loss of Premiership status. When relegation looms, and it looms for a lot of them, little thought is given to technical advancement.

I may have seemed to be reacting so far in the veteran's standard fashion to evolution. And, of course, it is true that a number of the problems afflicting football today are historical. However, there is no guarantee that the game will continue to hold the public's attention and emerge unscathed from the greed that pervades it.

Today, fans come not only to see a game superlatively played, in itself an unusual experience. Influenced by television, they have learned to expect high jinks and low jinks as part of the show. Neither do they respond to values that existed in football's working-class origins.

This has created an atmosphere in which some important truths are overlooked. They include the fact that it is dangerous to assume that all the people can be fooled all of the time.

Doubtless, the most unrepentant hawks will maintain that progress can only be achieved at a price. Seeing things in a different light is not an unusual experience for those in authority, though they rarely own up to the affliction. They seldom sound likemen thinking out loud but men trying to sound impressive.

Unquestionably, a game in the grip of new money lacks leadership. The positions taken up aren't necessarily close to the truth because they have been over-simplified.

A worrying clue to the future lies, I believe, in the widespread conviction that football management will become an impossible task and that the public may eventually respond to the cultural betrayal Tony Blair was going on about.

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