England to wave the flag for £4m

On the basis that if it moves on a football field, someone, somewhere, ought to slap an advertising logo on it, the England team yesterday followed the path to Mammon by signing a £4m sponsorship deal.

Although virtually everything in the game has succumbed to the lure of cash in recent years, the national team - give or take an Admiral kit or two - had remained above such things.

Until yesterday that is, when at a slightly subdued and chaotic press conference at Old Trafford, it was announced that until 1998, the words England and the name of their new sponsors, Green Flag, are likely to become as synonymous as the team was with a white flag under Graham Taylor.

In return for their £4m investment, the company will have its logo emblazoned on England's training kit and track suits, it will sponsor internationals at Wembley and pay bonuses for the players in games during Euro '96 and through to the next World Cup.

All of which, of course, prompts the natural question: what is Green Flag and why did the Football Association sell the England team to a company very few had heard of?

It may be a vehicle, home, and medical assistance company on a broader front, but its most renowned component is National Breakdown, and even an international team boasting Paul Gascoigne would have been holding itself hostage to ridicule with that emblazoned on its training gear.

In accepting the deal, England's football team is following in the well-worn corporate footsteps of the national cricket (Tetley Bitter and Whittingdales) and rugby union (Scrumpy Jack and Courage) teams.

Since 1981, football's sponsorship bandwagon has seen the League Cup disappear under a multitude of monikers, the springing up of a long line of Auto Windscreens Shields, and other esoterically named cup competitions and even, last September, the FA Cup

lose its titular virginity in a deal with Littlewoods Pools.

"It is easy to say the FA and players should have gone with a better-known company," Trevor Phillips, the FA's commercial director, said of yesterday's deal, "but Green Flag's credentials and ambitions impressed everyone and they are a British company. Nobody had heard of Cornhill Insurance when they came into cricket."

So Green Flag it is, and there were Andy Cole, Paul Ince, John Barnes, Ian Wright and Gary Pallister standing sheepishly on the Manchester United pitch, holding an appropriately coloured standard for the photographers.

Perhaps someone should have pointed out the incongruity of Cole's appearance, as he has yet to win a full England cap, sponsored or otherwise, but when you have just been transferred for a British record fee of £7m, such trifles are probably irrelevant.

After all, money talks. The Football Association knows that better than anyone.