Football: Club or country dilemma

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IF IT is true, as it appears to be, that the Football Association did not seriously consider the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur when requesting Nick Barmby's release for the World Youth Championship in Australia next month, then it requires an eloquent advocate indeed to make a convincing defence for them. From here not much of a defence is discernible.

On the face of it, and taking into account that the clubs were unanimous in pledging support for the future well-being of the England team when the Premier League was formed, you might suppose that being without Barmby for an FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester City on 7 March, leaves Tottenham with very little cause for complaint.

Confused by recent constitutional changes, not many supporters know off-hand what the FA is about. They may know from newspapers and television that it is the body empowered to administer the game in England and to look into issues as disparate as discipline and advancement.

Doubtless with supporters in mind, one of the FA's best regulations calls upon clubs to send out the strongest possible team, and the penalty for not doing so is a stiff fine.

Nobody has ever denied the clubs a gift for melodrama, but in view of Barmby's potential and the substantial progress he has made this season, it doesn't take an exceptional football brain to work out that Tottenham would be weaker for his absence at Maine Road.

A supporter yesterday telephoned me to say that if England insist on Barmby's presence in the Antipodes, he will consider it to be an act of criminal negligence.

'My season ticket costs me pounds 400,' he said. 'With a young family it isn't something I can easily afford, and these days, because of the way television messes things around, you can never be sure that matches will take place at a convenient time.

'We lost Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker but in young Barmby there is real hope. Now, just when things are begining to look up, I'm expected to accept that he won't be playing for us in the Cup. In my mind that really would be a crime because it amounts to short-changing the Tottenham supporters.'

We are on the dangerous ground of subjective opinion. But, with the benefit of long experience, I hazard a guess that it is widespread.

Going back a bit in time, England were considerably weakened when Derby County withdrew their centre-half, Roy McFarland, from a match against West Germany at Wembley, claiming him to be unfit. Forty-eight hours after a 3-1 defeat effectively had put paid to England's hopes of qualifying for the 1972 European Championship finals, McFarland turned out for Derby, who completed that season as champions of the First Division. 'If Brian Clough told a fib about McFarland's fitness, it was justified,' I recall a fervent Derby supporter saying.

Far from being unequivocally committed to the national team, a great number of supporters become exceedingly disgruntled when its preparation results in rearranged fixtures. 'Without us the game is nothing, but arrogantly the FA never bother to canvas our point of view,' is a common complaint.

Club versus country remains one of football's most contentious issues, and sadly in this instance, it intrudes upon the development of an outstanding young footballer.

Because the timing of the World Youth Championships was always likely to raise serious problems, it is surprising that the Premier League clubs did not make a firm stand last August when the FA announced a provisional squad of 28 players. 'Not for the first time, they didn't consult with us,' one manager said.

Having spoken with Barmby's parents and sought the views of Gary Mabbutt, their representative on the Professional Footballers' Association, Tottenham sensibly have his welfare uppermost in mind.

In short, what we have here is a prime case of bureaucratic bungling that unavoidably raises the ludicrous notion of vested interest because Peter Swales, head of the FA's international committee, is also the Manchester City chairman.

The hard rule in these things, and very hard indeed for most of us, seems to be: trust to patience in the remote possibility that the Football Association eventually will come up with a policy acceptable to all followers of the game.