Danger signs on the glory road

There is much to savour from a Premier season of high drama but the shadow of sleaze means there is still much to fear; Ian Ridley looks back on what may later be seen as a golden age
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The Independent Online
Those were the great days of football, my son. We had new, full stadiums and the best players in the world over here wanting a piece of the action. Dribblers came back into the game and bad tacklers were driven out. Teams attacked and tried to win matches. And you could watch three live games a week on that old satellite TV thing and still have change out of four quid.

This may indeed come to be seen as a golden era for the English game, with the domestic season that ended yesterday - though these pages remain in strict training for the play-offs - one of the most vivid in memory. Premiership gates rose by 13.5 per cent, partly because building work is now being finished in most stadiums, with an average of 27,550 per game contributing to a colourful culture and opulent times.

So much is there now to savour and protect that its modern, moneyed Caesars will surely not ignore the signs that could lead to decline and fall. The game's governors have, over the past six months, addressed the failings of English clubs in Europe, where excitement is not the criterion for success. Over the next six months, some potentially damaging issues will surface - or rather resurface.

The most pressing is hooliganism, which is back high on the agenda as we go into Euro 96, with the worrying events of the past month from Rotterdam to Brussels via Coventry and Newcastle. The end of the season usually sees anger and disappointment vented but there has been something more worrying this time.

At Coventry last Sunday, for example, the confrontation with Leeds fans took place on the pitch in full view of police video cameras, which were thought to have eradicated the problem inside grounds. Then the same night in Newcastle, violence and looting followed the official ceding of the Premiership title to Manchester United. Sir John Hall's home was also daubed with offensive graffiti. This from passionate but sporting fans. Or was it? It is rumoured that a group intent on causing trouble at Euro 96 are at work.

The French will be in the city in June and, as Paris St Germain fans demonstrated in Brussels last week before the European Cup-Winners' Cup final, they too have a penchant for a punch-up. Then there are the Dutch and Germans, billeted in the Midlands and North-west respectively, who may wish to extend the excesses of the Feyenoord stadium last month.

Given their experience, the English police and FA are well-qualified to stage the tournament, said the president of Uefa, Lennart Johansson, quite accurately at Thursday's Footballer of the Year dinner, though his comments were somewhat lost during Eric Cantona's Rabelaisian acceptance speech about critics and toilets.

One part of the FA's strategy against hooliganism - and large-scale touting - at Euro 96 was the allocating of only four tickets per person to prevent large gatherings of potential trouble-makers. The plan to delay sending out tickets until the end of May was also designed to deny any black market, though fans' money was banked and interest accrued.

The departure of the FA's commercial manager Trevor Phillips as a row erupted between police and the FA over the distribution of tickets to corporate clients has illustrated, at the very least, the loopholes they created themselves in the system.

Money is the root of all. It has built the Empire, much of it coming from Sky TV and much of it beneficial, which is clearly why an Endsleigh League being cast adrift wanted a slice of the pie and will get it next season. With the gloss and glamour of a game on which the fortunes of big companies and huge television conglomerates depend comes greed, however. And with greed comes the potential for shysters and charlatans to profit.

Next season, when the full implications of the Jean-Marc Bosman cross- border transfer system also kick in, will see that potential. The Sky deal is up for renegotiation and already bullish stances are being taken. "They should show us their balance sheet and we'll tell them what they can keep," one Premier League chairman has been quoted as saying. Amounts exceeding pounds 150m a season, treble the current agreement, have been bandied about.

The League's chief executive Rick Parry is at present exploring deals and it may be that his organisation want a shared option, with ITV, BBC and Sky each getting packages. Sky will, though, fight for their exclusivity with their profits - up 71 per cent to pounds 178m according to nine-month figures last week - heavily dependent on football.

As well as pay-per-view, there is the digital revolution to come in the autumn of 1997, with the potential for each club to have its own channel and consequently charge fees to those who cannot get into grounds. "Some of the numbers may not be as high as people think and we are looking at long-term implications rather than short," Parry offers as consolation. But one subscription of four quid a week? And the rest.

There have been warning signs, too, that the saturation of the market has soaked fans. Even Alan Sugar, whose season tickets at Tottenham command the highest prices in England at an average of pounds 417, has voiced concern that the cost of ticket may be getting too steep. As someone who paid pounds 45 to sit himself and young son in average seats at White Hart Lane this season, amen to that. The market will decide, says Parry, but he adds: "It does seem the limit is not far away."

Parry also has on his plate the final report - "within weeks", he says - of the Premiership's bungs inquiry, whose lack of progress has been emphasised by George Graham's recent campaign to restore himself in the public eye and impending return after his one-year ban for accepting money from the Norwegian agent Rune Hauge. "Work has never stopped," Parry insists. "There is no question of anything being swept under the carpet."

Come the autumn, football will be back in the dock with Terry Venables involved in several cases. Then next January, the goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar et al will contest match-rigging charges. "But this is all old stuff," Parry says. "The great thing about this season is that we have had everybody thinking about football rather than sleaze. And we now have measures in place to ensure that things don't happen again."

Perhaps so, though events of the past week at his umbrella organisation, the FA - who also broke with its own rules and traditions in dealing with an agent in the recent appointment of Glenn Hoddle - do not offer encouragement.

That has come on the field, in the diverse rehabilitations of Eric Cantona and Paul Merson, the sophistication of Ruud Gullit, the skills of Georgi Kinkladze, the development of young English players. And the match between Liverpool and Newcastle United, as well as the more enlightened approaches of more teams who we hope will lead us less sheepishly into Europe next season.

To such wholesome elements there is a responsibility. The game having begun to slip its chains of hooliganism and sleaze, it would surely be to betray the progress of this uplifting season were fin-de-siecle greed and complacency now allowed to corrupt the climate of renaissance.