Football: A new ball game - except for Maidstone

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The Independent Online
EVEN if some of us would prefer to tolerate a brass band and that singing policeman who used to do his Caruso impression at Highbury in the days when Pavarotti was a mere 15-stone almost competent goalkeeper, presumably we should try to enter into the spirit of the 'all-new ball game' with its fireworks, dancing girls, parachute jumps and recorded crowd noise.

That pleasant Rick Parry, who seems to be the Premier League's sole administrator, spokesman and devotee, and the people from an American-founded promotions company are obviously trying awfully hard. And those bubbly enthusiasts at Sky are so convincing when they go into ecstasy over the quality of the grass. Surely they all have the game at heart, so what about Maidstone United? What about them? Well they've sort of died. Really? Well serves them right for not employing a proper public relations company. This is no time for melancholy.

Sorry to mention it but there was one glum face on television this week. Graham Kelly, not a Maidstone fan and always a tiny bit melancholic, was being interviewed with a chap from the Football Supporters' Association, and goodness he looked fed up. Why? Surely it was Kelly who got his own back for all those years of pen- pushing as the Fooball League's assistant secretary in boring Lytham St Annes by joining the Football Association in sophisticated Lancaster Gate and producing a blueprint for the future that led to the Premier League? Yes, but these days he has to appear at official functions and on television representing the FA while everyone knows that a few clubs and some promotions men now run the new League. The organisation with the unfortunate initials seems to be doing, well, putting it politely, not much.

You can understand Kelly being a bit taken aback by it all. In spite of that expensive haircut, he's old fashioned at heart. He stands up for propriety. When they wheel in the committee men at Lancaster Gate and they ask why Saddam Hussein can't sponsor the FA Cup, he puts in his quiet word of caution. A traditionalist, he is not the sort of man who would sit through several hours of television preamble in order to see a match between, say, Manchester City and QPR if it meant missing Coronation Street.

That was the match the QPR manager Gerry Francis said should not have been played because it meant his squad of sleek young men, and Ray Wilkins, had to play three games in five days. They wouldn't have to do that on the Continent would they? Well actually, sometimes they do. In the season before last, Milan played seven games in 26 days, complaining like mad, of course, and probably saying 'they wouldn't have to do this in England.'

What Francis and the rest of the complaining managers are really worried about is too much televised exposure of our highly trained footballers making utter fools of themselves as they try to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer belt the ball back to the goalkeeper whenever they get in trouble. Asked about the new rule, Howard Wilkinson, the perspicacious Leeds manager, said: 'I've already seen defenders forced into making wrong decisions.' Decisions, decisions, they really shouldn't expect so much of footballers who barely earn more than the Prime Minister.

And that was another thing about this eccentric first week of the season. Alan Shearer, who was transferred from that rather nasty team at Southampton, scored two cracking goals against Crystal Palace on the first Saturday and an in- off against Arsenal on Tuesday. Blackburn reportedly paid pounds 3.6m for him plus pounds 4,000 a week. Now if he couldn't score goals it would make the whole deal look ridiculous. But suddenly some of the tabloids, mainly those who happen to depend on the same paymaster as Sky, are telling us that Shearer will not only replace Gary Lineker but be better.

So what about Maidstone United? Be patient. There are much more important things to talk about. What about the Arsenal mural? Probably it was one of those earnest Islington social workers who noticed that the crowd scene currently obscuring the rebuilding of the North Bank at Highbury contained no black faces or women. How incredibly observant, but would it not have been more pertinent to ask why it was that if you looked at any of last season's 'Face in the Crowd' competition photographs in the Arsenal programme, an average section of some 15O youngsters usually contained only one or two black faces? And in an advertisement showing some 400 spectators only two were black. If the Arsenal artist paints in more than that he will be glossing over something that needs to be asked at a time when most clubs have several black players.

Obviously the recorded crowd noises at Highbury were not very convincing. Arsenal started their season much as they did a year before. But why have sympathy for them or any of the 'Big Five' who have taken over the running of the game at top level without concern for those at the bottom of the pile from where so many of their players emerge. Everyone laughed at John Waugh, the owner of Maidstone United, when he suggested taking his Stones to Newcastle, but at least he envisaged a scheme by which the big club would use the small one as a nursery, as was the case after the war.

Such worthiness no longer plays much part in the thoughts of the clubs who are busily working out their own television and sponsorship deals and ensuring that the Premier League eventually becomes truly undemocratic. So seeing Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal 'there or thereabouts' (the bottom that is) in the first published League table and Norwich and Coventry on top was wonderfully ironic.