Football: Flushing out football's real fortune hunters

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The Independent Online
FINANCIAL diarrhoea is not a pleasant phrase but as a description of the way money is sluicing through football at the moment it has an aroma appropriate to the times. What makes it a touch more pungent is that it should be uttered by the chairman of a Premier League club.

Coventry City's Bryan Richardson employed the words to register his disgust with the club's striker Dion Dublin who rejected a new pay deal worth pounds 16,000 a week. It is not an amount that would cause gasps of amazement in the game - Liverpool's Robbie Fowler is reportedly seeking pounds 50,000 a week - but is more than twice his previous wage and far more than Coventry could envisage paying.

"We're getting very close to blackmail," said Richardson who then accompanied his reference to over-prompt bowel movements with the words: "Money which is coming in at the top from television, gates and commercial activities is going straight through the system to the players."

Richardson's frustration is easier to understand than his logic. In the first place, who else but the various club controllers have created the situation of which he complains? The players' hands weren't first to the flush handle. In recent years, top league football has been little more than an exercise in pocket-lining for most of those concerned.

And in what other business does a chairman complain about having to put so much investment into the product? The team is everything and if you can't afford to keep it staffed to a high enough level then there are market forces to be feared that were in place long before footballers became aware of them.

Perhaps, it's the diarrhoea by-pass we should be more worried about; money going to people whose value to a team is a sight more difficult to assess than that of a centre- forward. This includes the ranks of chief executives, chairmen and directors with a large share of the action, among whom Richardson is not necessarily numbered, and other supernumeraries.

On Friday, we had another example of the problems that can arise from all these administrative tiers. The appointment by Tottenham of David Pleat as technical director was warmly welcomed because we are all glad to see him in gainful employment again so soon after his dismissal by Sheffield Wednesday. But Pleat's job, for which he is allegedly paid pounds 250,000 a year, has already encountered a snag a week after he started at White Hart Lane.

The Spurs manager, Christian Gross, has been quick to make it clear that he will tolerate no input from Pleat into team or tactics. Since Pleat's tactical nous is an important part of his appeal, this creates the awkward situation of a lavishly paid technical director whose main role is not to get too technical. Admittedly, Pleat's wages would only keep Dublin going for 16 weeks and Fowler for five but it does illustrate that the tendency is to splash out in the hope that any extravagance will be redeemed by future earnings. Hence, Dublin is now in talks with Middlesbrough who are desperate for promotion to the Premiership and have agreed to pay Coventry pounds 5m and, no doubt, will stump up the required wages.

Middlesbrough have cash to spare following the departure of Emerson Moses Costa to Tenerife and can't be blamed for keeping their strength up. We are locked in a time when prudent husbandry is a dangerous watchword and what would help is a measure of control that would ease the anguish of chairmen such as Richardson and lessen the gravitational pull of the richer clubs.

Why such control is not already in place was revealed in a timely report on the Football Association produced last week by Sir John Smith, former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The report, entitled Football - Its Values, Finances and Reputation, was commissioned by the FA themselves but that meant merely that the kick up the arse they received was self-financed.

The essence of Sir John's recommendations was that the FA should get a firmer grip on the game and provide more leadership from the front. He was particularly concerned that they show a more rapid reaction to alleged irregularities such as the "bungs" inquiry their response has dawdled on but which will produce a result next week.

Tightening up on discipline and the imposition of firmer guidelines are urged and, no doubt, the recommendations will give the FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, the support he needs to shake his rusty old organisation into a more efficient unit. Since the break-up of their old adversary, the Football League, the FA have tended to lumber along in the wake of the Premier League.

One of the Smith report's least likely suggestions is that curbs should be introduced to prevent fortune-seekers gaining controlling interests in clubs. He suggests that no person should own more than 10 per cent of the stock in a club. Too late for that, alas, desirable as it might be. But it is not too late for the FA to establish some ceiling on club expenditure that might slow down the migration of the best players to an elite clutch of wealthy clubs. In the club v country argument, particularly in rugby union, I am generally on the side of the clubs but the governing body do have a duty to set a few ground rules for the good of all. To do so requires some idea of the ground, its bumps and hollows, and the FA Council - a massive, unploughed field, if there ever was one - have never been renowned for their worldliness in these matters.

We can only hope that the Smith report will prompt an overhaul. They could do worse than emulate the National Football League in America which is the very peak of professional efficiency but does not allow the richer clubs to dominate. The system of draft choices they use would not apply here but some form of ensuring a measure of equality seems to be necessary.

Indeed, we could say that the only cure for the diarrhoea that Richardson finds so debilitating is a dose of the old-fashioned constipation for which the FA has long been famed.

TWO rays of sunshine have abandoned our January gloom to find solace in warmer climes. Emerson has gone from Middlesbrough to Tenerife and Newcastle United's Faustino Asprilla has re-joined Parma. It is not the first flight they've taken since they ventured into the impenetrable reaches of the North-east where few of their ilk have ventured before.

They would not have won any points for stickability because they rarely resisted the temptation to fly back to South America on some whim or other. On the field they added enough magical touches to make their brief stays a pleasure for the aficionados, and off it they registered enough air miles to circumnavigate the globe several times.

But they didn't leave many dull moments behind. The memories of Asprilla, especially, will warm many a Geordie heart for winters to come. I shall leave to others the job of calculating how effective they were. At worse, they were part of an interesting experiment into how various footballing cultures blend with ours. And they can always boast about having been to the game's cradle.

Will we ever see their like again? I'm sure someone will be daft enough to try.