Football: A grim regard fanned by a grey regime

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The Independent Online
THIS Newcastle United story just works on so many levels. It has sex, money, the abuse of power and, above all, the ingredient that any good plot needs these days - football. And within that, it has, most contemptibly, a disdain towards the people who have made the club and its main administrators very rich.

Nothing new there then, cynics will say. Fans have always been treated with contempt. The new element in these plc days, however, appears to be just how much supporters are expected to contribute financially - no longer only to the club but also to the lavish lifestyles and pension plans of certain individuals who run clubs - and how little say they get or accountability towards them there is.

It was outrageous that Newcastle, as a public company with a long list of shareholders, could get away without issuing any statement for three days on the allegations - not denied - against the chairman Freddie Shepherd and, pardon the title, vice- chairman Douglas Hall. The apology then was feeble; talk about donations to charity was a cynical irrelevance.

What people do in their private lives is not the issue for this column. Nor is the literal truth of the statement that Newcastle's replica shirts cost pounds 5 to make in Asia. It is more the way in which supporters are seen as fair game for fleecing. One director, I am told by a reliable witness, wasoverheard calling fans "morons".

No one seems to have determined whether the money that Shepherd and Hall have been spending on their jollies is their own or the club's. If the latter, it is surely a case for the FA or the Premier League to see if financial rules have been breached and whether fans' money has been misused. The two havedone far more to bring the game into disrepute than a few comments about referees might.

By contrast with the sound of arrogant silence from St James' Park, there has been the clamour of scores being settled by the press. The club's public relations are appalling. Telephone calls are not returned, faxes requesting interviews are conveniently lost. Perhaps being almost a separate nation engenders a feeling of isolation from standards elsewhere. The club, so open and friendly in the Kevin Keegan-Sir John Hall days but so grim and unco-operative post-flotation, has been ripe for retaliation.

Who cares about the press, some will say? But for press read public. Off-handedness with one is disdain for the other. And, sad to say, the grey regime off the pitch is being reflected on it. Not many Premiership clubs seem to deserve their supporters these days; Newcastle less than most. The government- appointed Football Task Force which is looking at the state of the game should find copious material in Newcastle, the club supported by Tony Blair.

Has commercialisation in the game, with prices increasing beyond inflation, gone too far? Perhaps you might care to comment, Mr Shepherd. Is a compliance unit necessary, do you think Mr Hall? And, either of you, how do we get more supporter representation - morons or dogs - inside clubs, especially these plcs? Sometimes supporters expect too much but it may be because so much is expected of them and so little accorded in return.

But it is ironic that a club who last week deemed it unnecessary to provide answers may play some part in helping to find some. Step forward those fans' champions, Newcastle United.

IT WAS reported last week that the Newcastle board had decided against trying to bring back Paul Gascoigne because they believe he is a spent force. They may be right. But didn't this used to be the sort of decision a manager was hired to make?

AT Old Trafford on Wednesday night, Monaco's ineffective striker Viktor Ikpeba was substituted against Manchester United for the second time over the tie. "And he's African footballer of the year. Must be a case of mistaken identity," someone said. "Who was choosing it?" came the reply. "John Motson."

Incidentally, why was Arsene Wenger called a traitor in some English newspapers for giving his views on United to a French paper? He also gave an interview about Monaco to an English publication. Would the same papers not expect an insight from a Briton working abroad into opponents from that country? Double standards; and our press believes in free speech?

THE FA may have to consider having a viewing theatre built in the basement of Lancaster Gate, so much video evidence are they considering at the moment.

There is Jimmy Floyd Haisselbank's apparent butting of Keith Curle, as well as the exchange between Patrick Vieira and John Moncur at the end of the Arsenal v West Ham FA Cup tie. Now, I understand, they will be looking at Samassi Abou's butt on Martin Keown, who grabbed the Frenchman by the throat, as well as Vieira's kick at a West Ham player, even though the incidents were not in the referee's report of the replay.

Vieira cannot complain. Video exonerated him after he was booked for a tackle in the recent league game between West Ham and Arsenal. It can only be right that it is used to prove both guilt and innocence.