'Crazy' money ties the knot

Steve Tongue analyses the effects of a football marriage modelled in Molde
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The Independent Online
The "marriage" announced by Sam Hammam, speaking in his richly metaphorical style about the union of Wimbledon Football Club and two of the richest men in Scandinavia, represents the culmination of Norway's love affair with English football.

It will be closely scrutinised by other foreign suitors; by the owners of clubs vulnerable to a take-over; and by industry analysts, some of whom believe that further investment from overseas is inevitable.

When Sweden knocked England out of the 1992 European Championships, Graham Taylor said their football was "more English than England's". He could easily have repeated the comment 12 months later as their neighbours Norway took the even more direct route beloved of their Anglophile coach, Egil Olsen, in beating Taylor's team two-nil and hastening the England manager's resignation.

Four of that Norwegian squad were already with English clubs and before long they were joined by five more. Subsequently, others such as Henning Berg, Ronny Johnsen, Egil Ostenstad and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have all made their mark. Temperamentally stolid, good English- speakers, physically strong and encouraged to play at a high tempo, they were ideal imports for British coaches who knew they were buying maximum effort and minimum trouble, all at a reasonable price. Rocking boats has never been a characteristic of the fishing nation.

So the love affair has continued, with Norwegian fans increasingly besotted. "English football has really exploded here in Norway," says Frode Stang, a radio journalist. "Everyone is either Liverpool or Manchester United." A Premier League game is shown live on television every Saturday afternoon, and the average fan's knowledge of the English game puts the British to shame.

Norway, with its similar climate and playing styles, is a popular choice for pre-season tours and it was on such a trip that Hammam first made contact with Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten, two fans turned benefactors of Molde.

The upshot is a deal worth almost pounds 30m and a spectacular profit to Hammam, who according to his friend and former colleague Ron Noades paid Noades and Bernie Coleman no more than pounds 40,000 in 1981 for control of Wimbledon. The club is the first to fall into foreign hands, but, with all the present activity and interest in football investment, might not be the last.

Ian Barton, a football analyst with Deloitte and Touche, says: "There was talk of Juventus looking at Oxford United. There might also be smaller Premier League clubs like Southampton who would be relatively cheap for somebody to pick up. And with a couple of good seasons and maybe getting into Europe, they could be an attractive acquisition."

There is nothing in the Premier League's rule-book to prevent cross-ownership outside the United Kingdom, but a Uefa spokesman admitted yesterday that it might be necessary to examine the implications of, say, Wimbledon and Molde meeting in the Uefa Cup. The whole concept of nursery clubs, widespread in other European countries, is at present under discussion by the Premier League,the Football Association and the Nationwide League.

There are obvious advantages for Wimbledon in forging close links with the club that produced Oyvind Leonhardsen - whom they have just sold to Liverpool for more than six times the pounds 650,000 they paid for him - and Solskjaer. It is already being suggested, for instance, that Daniel Berg Hestad, Molde's leading young player, could be Leonhardsen's replacement.

A new contract for Wimbledon's highly esteemed manager, Joe Kinnear, and a larger transfer pot than he has ever enjoyed before are further benefits to the south London club, who will also be able to forget such notions as relocating to Dublin in favour of negotiating to build a stadium of their own rather closer to home.

The idea of Olsen joining the coaching staff may be a fanciful one halfway through a World Cup campaign (Norway are top of their group) but the very idea, mooted in one newspaper on Friday, shows what new horizons have suddenly opened up.

Not that anything would surprise Wimbledon supporters, who meet this week to celebrate the club's 20 astonishing years since leaving the Southern League. They will happily lift their glasses to the bride and groom - and await news of a bid for Ronaldo.

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