Delay to Euro-star journey

Norman Fox discusses potential perils of football's expansionist policy
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The Independent Online
"NO PROBLEM," said the fat-cat club directors as they sat back in Geneva and admired their proposal to extend various European cup competitions - a few more games for clubs lower down the Premiership who need the money anyway. But what about the workers? Back at the factory they were already on overtime trying to get the fourth round of the FA Cup over before next season's Charity Shield. Fixtures can get into enough chaos without anyone suggesting scheduling some more, especially when Britain is importing Siberian weather as well as players.

The Uefa announcement that the three European competitions may be expanded, perhaps leading to teams as low as 10th in the Premiership qualifying, was transparently an effort to derail alternative plans by some big clubs to form a European League. It was equally clearly another money-making plan linked to television demands. David Dein, Arsenal's vice-chairman, is convinced a European league has "got to come".

But Manchester United, who will gain from Uefa's plan because TV wants to involve the famous whether or not they are current champions, are firmly against. A United director, Maurice Watkins, who was in Geneva, said he welcomed the extensions. Sir Bobby Charlton cautioned that it could take magic away from the European Champions' League but said the alternative, a Super League, would badly damage the Premiership.

A typical reaction from a lower Premiership club that could be among the new qualifiers for Europe was that of Middlesbrough's chief executive, Keith Lamb, who said: "Expansion of competition is welcome but I find it ironic that Uefa want to reduce the number of teams in domestic competitions while increasing their own competitions. It smacks of wanting to take more control out of the leagues. Fans want to see more European football, but it's got to be done on merit and not past performance, unless it's immediate past performance. Once you destroy the merit you destroy the reason for football."

Any suggestion of more European involvement for clubs already complaining about the pressures, especially this winter with its near record-breaking fixture backlog, encourages calls for a winter break, which the Premiership clubs are expected to approve in principle at a meeting on Thursday. However, weather is not cited as a reason. Pressure on players is cited - a strange argument since the most demanding time of the year for most of them is the autumn.

Lamb favours the proposal. "The only problem is knowing when winter is in this country. It varies in different parts. I would like to gain more summer football - the public is ripe for this."

There was no doubting that winter was everywhere last week, adding to the fixture problems but also highlighting a trend among smaller clubs to exploit the existing pressures on the bigger ones. Of the seven re- arranged FA Cup ties played last Wednesday, five were drawn. West Ham, drifting in that dangerous area between qualification for Europe and life in the Endsleigh League, got panicky.

The threat of four important matches in 10 days, including an FA Cup replay against Grimsby on Wednesday, left Harry Redknapp complaining that the whole situation endangered his priority - Premiership survival.

Brian Laws, of Grimsby, sees West Ham's problem as his opportunity. A familiar situation perhaps, but one that increasing European involvement could exacerbate. The Endsleigh League clubs are getting ever more aware that the big boys are already over-stretched.

Laws confessed that although he scored an early goal at Upton Park, his attitude had always been "get them to our place unless we can sneak it". Dario Gradi, the long-serving Crewe manager, agreed. "Clubs in our position are looking to play on the fact that the big clubs have enough commitments without wanting replays.."

Oxford United, who went to the Premiership's most successful club in Europe this season, Nottingham Forest, also chiselled out a draw by thinking less of a famous victory than forcing another game. So they formed a midfield wall of five men. Their manager, Denis Smith, said his team's good home record was something always in his mind and that Premiership teams, with great pressure to remain in the big money division, were getting desperate about wanting to get ties over without replays. This, he said, offered smaller clubs better chances to "catch them coming forward when they shouldn't".

On the Continent, managers look at fixture congestion in Britain and can hardly conceal their pleasure. Guus Hiddink, Holland's manager, said: "Playing against any British team is difficult. The more we see them tiring themselves out with so many matches, the better it is for us. More European football will see more tired teams."

Redknapp is convinced that the only way clubs of moderate means can remain competitive amid fixture congestion is to keep buying the "bargain" foreign players. Otherwise, he says, the gap between his club and those discussing European expansion will widen while those in the Endsleigh League will become ever more pragmatic in outlook.

And, when it comes to cups, the smaller clubs will concentrate on stifling the first match and pick up the replay money. Seeing the fat cats embrace protectionism, who can blame them for becoming cynical?

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