Football: Game must follow examples on offer: With the new football season beginning on Saturday, Norman Fox finds there are grounds for optimism

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The Independent Online
WAS THERE a recent season when football was not going over the brink to bankruptcy; when playing standards were not going from bad to worse and television about to empty every stadium? This time last year we were condemning the Premier League for losing control to television - no idle rebuke. Now we have to balance some progress in bringing grounds up to date and hints of a more skilful game against the summer's most sweeping but chilling headline: 'Rotten to the core'. It was bad enough to come back from England's defeats by Norway and the United States, but corruption as well?

The wrongdoing under investigation is 'bung money', cash going into the back pockets of managers when they agree to sell valuable players. No doubt the problem is insignificant by comparison with match-fixing in Italy and, allegedly, in France, but when added to England's imminent danger of failing to qualify for the World Cup finals, it adds another impediment to welcoming the new season.

To England's much predicted, though far from certain, demise in the World Cup, has to be added Scotland's distress. Even if Wales perform more heroics and qualify, the British game would suffer badly if neither England nor Scotland went to the United States next summer. Only victory in the European Cup by Manchester United or Rangers would mollify such an embarrassment.

So the temptation is to embark on another doom-laden overture, again predicting declining standards of play, a worsening financial situation for the small clubs, even less consideration for genuine fans and the further selling of the soul of the game to television and sponsors. These are the perennial complaints. Professional football has never lived under cloudless skies and there was pessimism and probably corruption even when cigarette-card 'heroes' went home on the bus.

For sure, England were lousy in Norway, Poland and against the United States. Certainly many clubs are still at the mercy of their banks. Indisputably, the skills of the tennis- ball-kicking generation of back- street kids has largely been replaced by the strength of too many clones of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the gloom is not unmitigated.

Debates over the causes of England's inarticulate performances generally conclude that the FA coaching badge is the identifying mark of every ogre in the game. The coaches who have come through the system and are now prepared to say it is misguided are growing in number and make out convincing cases. Thanks to some of these younger influences, as well as last season's most successful club manager, Alex Ferguson, perhaps the tide is turning against the aimless long ball and overemphasis on pace and strength.

England's refreshingly enterprising Under-18s, who won the European championship for the first time since 1980, offered hope, but we must wait and see what happens to them if they get aboard the interminable Premier League treadmill which is demanding enough without greedy clubs contradicting their complaints about the length of the season by making ludicrously long journeys for money-spinning friendlies. No wonder some of the more promising young players return from their short summer breaks having overenjoyed their quick orgy of self-indulgence.

While the new season's most pressing business on the field concerns England, the FA not only has the task of deciding whether Taylor stays or goes but has to look further into those allegations of corruption. Unfortunately, strong leadership seems in short supply. Will anyone have the courage to be ruthless with those who have bled the game of funds which ought to have gone towards improving the lot of the spectators? It would be naive to think that professional football could get on without agents, but some are simply leeches.

Although released from the wheeling and dealing of the agent- controlled transfer market, Graham Taylor is now fully into that period of an England manager's career when he is hit by the insufferable burdens of the job. His cool relationship with the fans bears witness to the fact that they are more interested in seeing England succeed when it matters than having them maintain long unbeaten runs when it does not. Perhaps hoping to win them over, he fostered good relations with the tabloid press. It was like handing a gun to your own would-be assassin. Nevertheless, any straw poll would come to the conclusion that, like John Major, Taylor is a decent chap who has come dangerously close to the

precipice and has only a few more months to show he can survive.

Although England's pragmatism against Brazil and Germany was welcome, it also emphasised the gulf in basic ability available to Taylor. Yet a properly organised England playing in an understandable formation and with spirit, as they did against Brazil, should still qualify for the World Cup finals. The most serious doubt still concerns the lack of a reliable goalscorer. The losses of Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer were huge blows. What

cruel irony if, as has been suggested in Japan this week, Lineker decides to return well before the end of his contract. He could be sitting at home while lesser Englishmen struggle for goals and the manager again prays that Paul Gascoigne halts a slide into self-destruction.

A modicum of dazzling footwork by Gascoigne for Lazio at Tottenham last weekend failed to conceal his slowness. He seems to have gone beyond the point of fully recoverable fitness, which is an indictment not so much of an easily led young man with a wonderful talent but of those who milk the game's few 'stars' and drive them to harmful solace.

On the domestic stage, the focus of interest will of course be on Manchester United, who have at last crossed the psychological moat that for so long kept them from the title. The pressure of having people suggest that they can now dominate the Premiership for the next decade is onerous. Their reserve strength is perhaps over-praised and while they could not afford to lose out in the bartering for Roy Keane, it could be that Ron Atkinson bought the better midfield player in Andy Townsend. Keane is strong and gifted but he has already shown the early signs of being dazzled by the bright lights of stardom.

Nevertheless, United must start as favourites, especially if Eric Cantona can control his Romany instincts and stay until the end of the season. His arrival at Old Trafford was the most important influence on last season's title chase. Whether United can also be successful in the European Cup, with its tough restrictions on 'foreign' players, is more of a quandary.

The fact that United won the Cup-Winners' Cup two years ago would have helped as a rehearsal for the bigger competition this season, but they will have in mind another fact, that Arsenal and Leeds failed in the European Cup and were unable to live with talk of their dominating domestically. Indeed, if United do fail to maintain their momentum this season, Arsenal should again be among the likely successors. Another close season has again seen George Graham merely fine- tune his squad. The strength at Highbury is familiarity.

Apart from the prospect of seeing United bring some style to the turmoil, the new season also offers expectancy with the arrival of Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Osvaldo Ardiles in the ranks of Premiership management. That Hoddle at 35 was the outstanding footballer when Lazio, Ajax, Spurs and his Chelsea played at White Hart Lane last weekend was only in part the result of the easy pace. It was a condemnation of present-day levels of ball skills at home and increasingly abroad. Yet it was also a moment of hope that he and a few kindred spirits can inspire a new generation.

(Photograph omitted)