Brian Viner's Column: Fans should be shown charity

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MAKE NO mistake about it, the rest of football should be grateful to Manchester United for turning up for yesterday's Charity Shield. It wasn't as though the players didn't have other commitments. David Beckham had a purple sarong to be measured for, Denis Irwin was invited to a neighbour's barbecue and I understand Gary Neville had some bills to catch up with. But, by taking the trouble, United have conferred genuine prestige on the Charity Shield.

For selflessly, nobly even, they have shown that they are not too big for one of football's showpiece occasions. And consider how encouraging that will be to the Carlisle Uniteds of this world. All they have to do is win the forthcoming season's FA Cup - which in the absence of Manchester United will be that teeny bit easier - and they could yet wind up locking boots with the likes of Ryan Giggs in next year's Charity Shield. That's assuming that United go all the way in the Premiership, and are not offered an exemption to play in an inter- galactic league against the champions of Jupiter and Pluto.

Even now, it remains scarcely believable that United were allowed, nay encouraged, not to defend the FA Cup, just so that they could take part in a contrived tournament that most of us neither know nor care about. The blame for this lies less with Sir Alex Ferguson than with those who turned the screw, among them influential figures at the FA, and movers and shakers on the board of the United plc, doubtless tempted by handsome remuneration. And among them, too, Tony Banks MP, who apparently felt that United's participation in the World Club Championship would boost England's chances of hosting the 2006 World Cup.

For Banks, the 2006 World Cup campaign appears to have turned into an all-consuming obsession. He resigned last week as Sports Minister and is to become a special envoy. You might have thought that special envoys were what the United Nations sent to Belgrade. But now Tony Banks is one too, charged with the task of sweet-talking Fifa into giving us what he believes all English football fans desire most, a chance to show the world that we have our hooligan problem sorted (ho, ho), that we have a reliable rail infrastructure (ho, ho, ho), and that on home turf we can again beat the Germans in the final (ho, ho, ho, ho). Actually, I'm not sure that most football fans care very much whether the 2006 World Cup comes here or goes to Inner Mongolia. Or even to Germany. In any case, the belittling of the FA Cup is too high a price for it.

Can the FA Cup be un-belittled? The new Sports Minister, the estimable Kate Hoey, had been in the job for barely five minutes before she expressed the hope that Manchester United could yet return to the fold. This annoyed the United chief executive, Martin Edwards, who said: "I suggest the Government get its act together because we did this in support of the last Sports Minister." Bold talk, although it seems that Edwards squats rather uneasily on the moral high ground.

Whatever, he has reaffirmed that United will not take part in the FA Cup and will not pull out of the World Club Championship. This would infuriate Fifa but delight the fans, which, despite what Tony Banks appears to think, is getting priorities right, not wrong. But it will not happen, says Edwards. Nor will the club consider fielding a reserve team in the third round of the FA Cup, which would devalue the competition a sight less than scratching altogether. To those of us on the sidelines, this has always seemed like the obvious solution. United fans like to boast that their reserves are better than most first teams. Let them have a chance to prove it.

In the meantime, I don't think it's too outlandish to compare United's withdrawal from the FA Cup with the poll tax, in the sense that it was ill-conceived, showed scant respect for the common fan, and has proved far more unpopular than the decision-makers anticipated. OK, it's hard to imagine "Bring Back United" protesters rioting in Trafalgar Square, but I'm sure there will be plenty of placards at Old Trafford. Nobody, least of all Martin Edwards, should underestimate the depth of feeling. My good friend Paul, a devoted United fan, confessed to me last week that, for the first time in his life, he wished he supported somebody else. That's like Warren Beatty saying he would prefer to be gay.

And one more thing. How come the Charity Shield took place on 1 August, before the third Test match, for God's sake? We're not nearly ready for football yet. And I write with feeling, as an Everton fan.