Football: Divine madness in preachings of John

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The Independent Online
More like an avenging angel than a Christmas fairy, Sir Elton John appeared as if through a pantomime trap-door last week to deliver a seasonal message about football that carried all the goodwill of a cruise missile. And while you may have frowned at his frankness you couldn't doubt the legitimacy of the random targets he selected or question his right to attack them.

Indeed, there would have been many who welcomed this unexpected source of festive abuse, not least those of us who were busy compiling something for you to ponder while wallowing in this trough between the two peaks of yuletide excess. We search desperately at this time for a perspective on the fast- fading year and the task is not eased by the approach of a New Year likely to be full of old manure about the Millennium.

Suddenly, the Watford chairman cued himself in with a tirade that embraced such diverse subjects as Glenn Hoddle, Alan Shearer, Rupert Murdoch, Ruud Gullit, the standard of international football and a bunch of bone-idle and overpaid players. Then came into our minds the word we had been looking for to give us a fix on the year - screwball.

Not that anyone would rush to describe Sir Elton thus, even though traces of eccentricity can be found when studying his route to the top, but the word does sum up the state that sport has slipped into over the past 12 months.

He was talking specifically about football but it is not too harsh a generalisation to say that the mass desertion of the senses we have witnessed has not been confined to that game (it has not been confined to sport either but that's someone else's problem).

What prompted him to utter thoughts that have been storing up while he was on a demanding concert tour of 130 dates over 180 days was a press conference held by Watford on Tuesday in response to a quickening interest in the club's steady climb towards the Premiership. What the media wanted to discuss was the restoration of the chairman's partnership with the manager Graham Taylor, which was so successful in the early Eighties and which is the subject of Nick Townsend's study on page 26.

Sir Elton, however, had more than that on his chest and he was determined to unload it. Hoddle collected most of the outburst and whereas no review of 1998 would be complete without a frank assessment of the England coach's contribution he scarcely deserved to be accused of envy in regard to David Beckham.

We've seen several repeats recently of the incident in which Beckham was sent off at a critical stage of England's World Cup game against Argentina. Beckham's petulant back-kick from the ground after he had been floored by Diego Simeone might well have cost England a place in the last four. Simeone's over-reaction was criminal and Beckham hardly deserved to be sent off for such a weak retaliation, but the fact remains that Hoddle's chance of glory, which may never return, was considerably diminished as a result.

Even so, I doubt if Hoddle's attitude to the young man was governed by jealousy of his international potential and the fact that he has a famous pop star for a girl- friend. He certainly wouldn't be envious of Beckham's attempts at maturity. In the first half of this season he has been booked five times and as a result misses Manchester United's FA Cup-tie against Middlesbrough next Sunday.

Hoddle, undoubtedly, made errors in the World Cup - and after it with his notorious diary - but Sir Elton fails to credit him with the considerable patience he showed towards Paul Gascoigne in whose cause the star, himself a former drink victim, fervently believes. Had Gascoigne seen the light, even through half-closed eyes, early in the year he might well have been of crucial use to England in France. The prospect that he may yet win his way back into an England shirt is not the least intriguing of the New Year.

As for Watford; if they return to the top level they will have a multi- millionaire chairman who is far from content to pour his money into securing their place there. He allies himself with the careful husbandry of the Leicesters, Derbys and Wimbledons against the free-spending clubs whom he considers are paying money for old rope. In his previous spell as chairman he was not backward in delving into his own pocket but the ante has increased dramatically since then and he doesn't fancy playing the game.

He will certainly not be looking for the vast personal profits that have been the hallmark of some of the recent smears on the game's image but he will also decline to pump large sums into a transfer market he considers to be crazy and wage structures he feels are counter- productive. Some players, he said, deserve to be shot for their lack of effort. True as that may be, he draws strange parallels with the work required for success in the world of pop music. I'm sure it is a hard business in which to earn a crust but no one kicks you when you're singing or brings the lid of the piano down on your fingers just as you are about to execute a twiddly bit.

He is disdainful about foreign players but exempts Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola from his criticism, which is just as well considering Chelsea's blossoming claims on the championship. While we have had regrettable experiences with such as Paolo Di Canio and Pierre van Hooijdonk, our imports have added much to the colour and panache of our domestic game during the past 12 months. No one could complain about the admirable style with which Arsenal took the title, and while they may not yet have developed the capacity to labour long under the spotlight they will again mount a late challenge.

However much Sir Elton denigrates the quality of the Premiership, and he is not alone in that, the old competition still retains its frantic fascination and foreigners, be they players or coaches with a Houllier- than-thou attitude, can't take too many liberties. But I share his reservation about international football. Although I might be a touch more complimentary than to call it "dire and boring", I do agree that a brighter future, at least in this country, lies with the clubs.

Therein lie the seeds of football's struggle for power and the reasons why the Football Association have been taking desperate measures to gain the 2006 World Cup.

This battle is at a much more ferocious stage in rugby union and, here again, the long-term prosperity of the game depends on a successful club base and it is a coincidence that, under the leadership of Nigel Wray, Saracens, who share Watford's Vicarage Road ground, are providing the role model at that level.

International rugby will dominate 1999 but it is imperative that the clubs of the Five Nations emerge with a strong and competitive format and a measure of independence that resists the International Rugby Board's attempts to enforce a dictatorial rule, which will not so much control the game as strangle it. Would that cricket could develop a strength at county level... but this is not the time to discuss that because even as this paper hits the doormat England could be steaming ahead in the Fourth Test.

As for Sir Elton: if his outburst signals the start of a higher profile in football, his voice will be a welcome addition to the clamour. If the FA had any sense they would sign him right now to do free concerts in any country that might support England's 2006 bid. No one could object to gigs for votes, could they?