Comment: Catch 20 - football's new conundrum

JUST TWO weeks of the new Premiership campaign is not enough time to jump to any sort of conclusion about the narratives that may develop over the course of the next nine months, although that hasn't stopped the big bookmaking firms cutting the odds on all the pre-season favourites. Even Nostradamus, were he alive today, would hesitate to make football predictions, quite possibly because he'd already be installed in the Chelsea midfield. But, rather like this August's weather, I think I can feel a chill wind blowing.

We know some, if not all, of the details about the continuing discontent at Newcastle United. We also heard a large section of the Liverpool support applauding Watford and booing their own team after the match at Anfield last Saturday. Such disaffection so early in the season may well be ascribed to the frustration that both of these clubs are feeling as they try to recapture former glories, under pressure to achieve this quickly.

But after taking soundings in both cities last week, not a widespread or totally representative survey by any means, but from a few people who are steeped in their local football, I have a feeling there may be more than just a tetchy impatience in play.

What I picked up on was a sense that the two clubs in question had surrendered too much of their local identity by buying abroad at all costs, that the emotional reservoirs, filled by the waters of the Tyne and the Mersey, somehow had been cut off. Now in a week that has seen social tension in Dover between locals and asylum-seekers, this space is not about to develop Little Englander disease. But there is no denying that some supporters are finding the contrast between their own depths of passion and that of the many new faces in the club shirts a little difficult to handle. One frustrated Scouser told me last week that what bothered him about all the overseas signings was that "they don't show as much hurt as the fans when we lose".

I argued that this was an unreasonable expectation to be placed on players being drafted into an entrenched culture, that their sense of detachment was the price that had to be paid as the game moved on from a local to an international footing. I suggested that what the Premiership had sown at its creation had now grown to fruition, a football culture based almost entirely on money rather than tradition. Those who sought to keep more income for the few now find themselves in what might be called a "Catch 20" dilemma, 20 being the number of clubs caught up in this spiral.

Domestic expansion is impossible, as going back to the old 42-game season is almost as unthinkable as moving on to the much-desired 34-game campaign. The financial pressure just to survive, let alone succeed, means that all kinds of short-cuts, both financial and technical, have to be taken in terms of player development. The fans have to pay year-on-year increases on their season tickets, while the club's star players, encouraged to greed by example, come face to face with that ultimate free-market paradox, the concept of wage restraint. So the likes of Steve McManaman, Nicolas Anelka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink call the Premiership's bluff and then find themselves stigmatised for doing so.

In many ways, you have to have sympathy for the many foreign players who are pitched into this maelstrom, burdened with the expectations of instant success, not just at the personal level but also in terms of their effect on a team's performances. The fact that they are as fallible as any home-grown footballers shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, given the huge transition they make from the more cerebral cultures of Italy, France and Spain to the crash-bang-wallop of the Premiership.

The fans' response to Watford's win over Liverpool last week, and Leicester's Robbie Savage offering of a "they don't like it up 'em" summary of a multicultural Chelsea after their 2-2 draw, seemed implicitly to be paying homage to the days of the old-fashioned, local-based, battlers and bruisers. These were the players who would go out and die for their clubs, because they knew that they wouldn't be able to show their faces around town if the team lost. These were men who wouldn't dare ask for a pay rise, let alone a transfer, for fear of being bummed out to the reserves.

The brave new world of the Premiership has almost changed all that, but there are an increasing number of voices wondering if all the change was for the better. So is it more than a coincidence that the Premiership's attendance figures so far this season are markedly down? And is this more than just the fault of a premature start to proceedings during the summer holidays? Or is this the first sign of the fans looking at a soulless, alienated, cash-obsessed game and then voting with their feet?

THE CORRIDOR outside the room where the Football Association's disciplinary committee sits is beginning to fill up like a bad day at Bash Street. Already lined up are the Newcastle manager, Ruud Gullit, and Middlesbrough's Paul Ince, on the mat for speaking their minds about the referee Uriah Rennie and the Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, respectively. Whatever the merits of the FA's cases, these summonses look a little bit queasy after the apparent "gentleman's agreement" to lay aside the case against Manchester United's chairman, Martin Edwards.

You may remember that Mr Edwards made less than flattering remarks about the referee David Elleray after United's fractious 2-2 draw at Anfield towards the end of last season. Elleray awarded Liverpool a dubious penalty and also sent off Denis Irwin.

Edwards, in the heat of the moment, lashed out verbally, but then repeated the offence a few days later, after he had cooled down. But now we hear that the Football Association is not to proceed with charges after the equivalent of an "out-of-court settlement" between Edwards and Elleray. So that's all right then, isn't it?

Clearly, anyone who suggests that this outcome has been engineered because of Manchester United's bending over forwards to help the FA's 2006 World Cup campaign is going to be well wide of the mark. Equally, anyone who suggests that there now appears to be a feudal distinction between the offences committed by club chairmen, and those by mere managers and players, is taking a perverse and out-of-date view. So stand up straight, Gullit. Do up your tie, Ince.

THE GRIM REAPER has been a bit too busy for my liking in and around sport over the past few weeks, taking first Geoffrey Nicholson and then Helen Rollason. Last week he got a bit personal, cutting down my best friend and room-mate at college, Ed Robinson, at the age of 46.

Ed was a sportsman through and through, whether playing - he won a football Blue for Cambridge at Wembley in 1973 - or watching. Together, we travelled to Rome, Wembley and Paris to take in the first three of Liverpool's European Cup triumphs. This last occasion also doubled up as his honeymoon, with his wife Julie patiently accepting that it was perfectly normal for the Best Man to come along. Ed kept playing in local leagues around his native Retford, and coached endless youngsters without tiring or seeking reward. He was not the type to receive, or indeed want, big obituaries - so this little corner will have to do.

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