Football: Cure mad cash disease

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The Independent Online
A GLOSSY little package entitled "Premier Football Plan" arrived on Libero's desk the other day. Not some consultants' idea for a Premiership North and South, but "the chance to share in the financial success of our national game by investing in a portfolio of quoted football clubs, companies associated with football and our balanced fund". In other words, a classy way of saying "Got any spare change, guv?"

The theory, of course, is that supporters can benefit by saving with the company concerned. They invest your money in football shares and you watch your pile accumulate. It is worth remembering, however - especially at this time of year - that clubs can go down as well as up.

The "invitation" seemed a fitting little symbol of the season now closing, one that has had much to do with flotations and finance. How high was that transfer fee and how huge the wages? What will be the cost of that missed penalty, refereeing decision or relegation? How much is that Dugarry in the shop window? This newspaper probably has it right by twinning business with sport.

Libero is obviously not alone in tiring of everything in the game being related to money; sums supplanting sport. When he left Newcastle, Kevin Keegan was concerned about being free to manage in his own style once flotation considerations kicked in. It seems that Manchester United's "remuneration committee" could not go the whole hog to sign Alan Shearer. In future Newcastle too might not be able to make such a signing.

You also wonder about motives and agendas. Was it mere coincidence that Sheffield United announced they were interested in Paul Gascoigne shortly before their flotation was announced? How cautious do managers have to be, bearing in mind share prices, in assessing a team's performance post-match? Honest Keegan was probably beginning to feel the binding around his hands and the gag around his mouth.

It used to be that relegation could actually benefit a club in the long term. It gave managers a chance to rebuild and gates might even go up at the top of a lower division. Now the Premiership is seen as the only place to be. The Football League last week contemplated restructuring, almost in recognition of its waning status. Now, its dignity reducing, it is back to squabbling with the Premier League over what amounts to grant-aid.

Encouragingly, the stories of Leicester City, Barnsley, Chesterfield and Stockport County have shown that football remains about romance amid the finance; there have been many encouraging signs despite the pursuit of pounds. Manchester United and Liverpool have shown that the English game is not too far from European fulfilment, while the entertainment value of the Premiership, if not always its quality, has generally been high.

There are also signs of sounder housekeeping, with clubs beginning to think twice about spiralling transfer costs. The queues for Roberto Baggio, Paul Ince and Gazza are shorter than before as the Premiership ponders its reputation as the soft-touch market of Europe.

The ramifications of Bosman are still sinking in but it does seem that investment in English youth, with more clubs viewing academies and training facilities as worthwhile investments, is more sensible than signing fading superstars. It is surely the only way. There may come a time when expensive replica shirts are no longer fashion items. Digital TV may not be the money-spinner anticipated and pay-to-view too much for an audience sated and squeezed dry.

The new Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, may find his views tempered by the burdens of office rather than fuelled by the luxury of opposition but his early utterances on ticket prices and the domination of satellite television suggest that here is a man who feels for the fan. The rights holders Sky were wise to backtrack on excluding Radio 5 from England's tournament in France next month rather than offend him early on.

Most Premiership chairmen, if not necessarily those of plcs, seem aware of the pitfalls of the Premiership's mad cash disease when it comes to milking the cow. These are prosperous times but the danger - for television, for greedy clubs - is of too much short-term exposure rather than long- term strategy. In such an attractive environment, less should be more. Otherwise English football could end up knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.