Football: Charlton Athletic 1, Orient 0 (own goal)

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The Independent Online
We hate to bother the Football Association while their brains are wholly occupied with nominating the next volunteer to undertake the suicide mission that is codenamed "England Team" but isn't it about time they dispatched a squad of secret agents to the Far East to discover who the hell is trying to disrupt our game?

As if putting us through an agonisingly long court case in which three of our players were unsuccessfully accused of accepting large amounts of their money to influence the results of Premiership matches was not tiresome enough, our oriental friends are now said to be sending saboteurs to plunge matches into darkness in order to bring off cunning betting coups.

In the context of what's been happening in our national game recently, the incident at Charlton Athletic on Wednesday night seems just another bizarre occurrence. Local police nabbed one Londoner and three Easterners after they discovered equipment had been installed which was designed to tamper with the floodlights at the club.

I am reliably informed that the works were rigged so that a man in the stand would have only to press a button and the floodlights would fail. The Met police's organised crime squad alerted the FA that some dirty deed was afoot and since then we have been agog at the developments and the implication that some sinister organisation is attempting to manipulate the outcome of matches to win untold fortunes.

The Briton involved is supposed in hiding in a "safe" house and the other three, two from Malaysia and one from Hong Kong, are remanded in custody. I trust that before we warn them never to darken our Valley again we establish exactly who sent them and what they were up to.

This extremely odd affair gives rise to many questions such as why this fiendishly clever syndicate hidden deep in the rainforests of Malaya or some such place went to so much trouble to take control of the floodlights for an afternoon kick-off. It seems to have escaped attention that in the middle of February it is possible to enjoy a bright Saturday afternoon.

The Kuala Lumpur Express may neglect to publish the UK lighting-up times but the Charlton- Liverpool game they had targeted yesterday was due to end at 4.45; half an hour before it officially got dark. We all know how easy it is to come across a murky February afternoon but had the floodlights been zapped, say, at 4.10 pm yesterday it is quite possible there would have been enough daylight to finish the match. It's a brave, not to mention foolhardy, coup that depends on the vagaries of the British weather for its success.

The entire episode reeks of improbability yet the usual hysterics are turning it into a threat to the very core of the game instead of questioning the logic of these so-called scams. We can be sure that whatever is happening has no connection with British bookmakers because they are allowed to plunder millions from sport without needing to do anything crooked. And if any strange betting patterns emerge the sight of a suspicious sixpence will have our bookies screaming like banshees. In any case, they only pay on matches that last the full 90 minutes.

It is possible that oriental bookies are lagging behind in the wily department and are happy to fork out fortunes on the strength of a premature end to a game, however fishy it seems. Perhaps they think the same people operate our floodlights as run our trains and blackouts are part of our lives. But it must have dawned on them by now that paying out on the result of an abandoned match renders them vunerable to being seriously short-circuited by the phantom electricians.

On the other hand, it might be the bookies who are the authors of this mystery. Maybe they're the bright boys who have decided that English football is all about pliers and that there's a lot of punting money to be gained by stopping matches at the most fortuitous time. Either way, it would be a comfort to know the precise cause of all this extraordinary activity.

Even if it's difficult to take seriously, you must agree that yet another dimension has been added to this little old game of ours. We may not be the best at playing it but we remain the proud parents of a phenomenon that is still spreading its influence. Football has been on more front pages than Bill Clinton in recent months. It has engaged the attention of the Prime Minister, Parliament, the massed ranks of QCs now in combat in the Restrictive Practices Court, the Monopolies Commission, students of reincarnation, the millions of us who gape open-mouthed at every twist and turn... and, even as we speak, the inscrutable features of a perspiring group plotting their next move in a steamy Eastern hide-out.

Hobbling through Parliament is a Bill that will give police more powers to deal with the rising tide of football hooliganism and its progress ought to be accelerated. Anyone who thought that our hooligans were for export only would have been shocked at the scenes before and after the Manchester City-Millwall game at Maine Road last weekend when Millwall fans caused widespread mayhem.

Warned that a couple of thousand Millwall supporters were on their way by train, Manchester police were at the station in force to escort them to the ground. But a large number got off at the stop before, Stockport, to cause uninterrupted trouble in the town centre.

During the game, Manchester City's first goal caused Millwall fans to charge at their rivals. Seven policemen were injured trying to keep them apart and the rampage continued after the game when the fans returned to the city centre damaging cars and property as they went.

There were 11 arrests and, to add insult to injury, a Millwall supporter rang the BBC's Radio 5 live Six-O-Six phone-in (football moaners always welcome) to complain that the police had failed in their duty. As a police chief wearily explained, five times as many coppers would not have been enough to contain what he called "the bunches of mindless hooligans scurrying around".

Besides, the police are still hamstrung by the old definition of football- related offences which apply only from two hours before a game to one hour after it. The new Bill will extend that to 24 hours either side of a match and will contain many other measures to assist the police to combat the new and more sophisticated wave of thugs who use mobile phones and the Net and don't confine their crimes to the vicinity of football crowds.

Reading about last weekend's violence took me back to when, as a callow football reporter, I covered a similar sacking of Fulham by West Ham fans. That was in 1967 and still a fresh phenomenon. Now, 32 years and a couple of generations later, we still haven't equipped our police with the force of law to deal with it.

Strange that we didn't hear last week from our Minister for Sport or the Football Task Force on the subject. Perhaps hooliganism is not sexy enough to attract those brave and doughty crusaders who are sworn to solve football's problems - with particular emphasis on the easy ones.

Big question being asked in Chile these days is: what do General Pinochet and Everton have in common? Apparently, they are both responsible for dragging people into football stadiums and torturing them.

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