Football: Greed threatens game's golden age

Premiership kick-off: A title race which may be the last as we know it has potential to be the most exciting for years
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IT WAS once widely believed that increasing televised football from the weekly diet of Match of the Day, The Big Match and occasional midweek highlights would lead to a wholesale desertion of the terraces and the end of the game as we knew it.

This season Sky will show 180 matches, the Beeb and ITV will chip in with a few dozen of their own while Channel 5 is so desperate to join in they have been showing live pre-season friendlies. Meanwhile, an empty seat at a Premiership match has become as rare, expensive and coveted a commodity as a promising young Englishman emerging from the lower divisions.

All of which underlines the inherent risk in predicting future developments in an industry which remains an often uncomfortable mix of sport and business. But one prediction has to come to pass: the game as we knew it has been changing so fast that this is likely to be one of the last seasons in which the Premiership has a pre-eminent status in the English game. Such are the perceived financial rewards that a European super league, either authorised or outlawed, is inevitable. As this will have enormous ramifications for the domestic game, the issue is likely to provide a rumbling backdrop to events on the pitch during the next 10 months.

All of which is a pity, as this season promises to be a memorable one. The World Cup attracted more people to the game than ever before and the sport has responded by bringing in yet more of the tournament's stars. More than a dozen players, from 11 countries - including six of the quarter- finalist nations - have been lured by the Premiership's growing reputation for big crowds and bigger salaries.

The title is likely to be contested by four teams which, if all survive to the final reckoning, would make it one of the most open for years. Manchester United are perhaps the most likely champions if they are not sidetracked by Europe but Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea should run them close. The remaining pre-super league European places will be jostled for by the usual suspects, such as Leeds, Aston Villa and a polyglot Newcastle, but also a cluster of teams, like Southampton, West Ham and Coventry, who are demonstrating that with good coaching and judicious spending the game's new wealth can favour the Jacks as well as the giants. One of these teams could well take the FA Cup.

At the other end it is important that the promoted trio do not again go straight back down, though it is hard to be optimistic about either Charlton or Nottingham Forest. The former will carry the good wishes of many but will need to adjust much quicker than Barnsley did if they are to survive. The latter's problems with Pierre van Hooijdonk have, along with the farcical David Unsworth situation and the De Boer brothers' attempt to walk out on Ajax, provided a worrying prelude.

But, when they look at the example of their elders and supposed betters, why should players not put money before loyalty? It starts at the top with Keith Wiseman, the Football Association chairman, becoming a paper millionaire on the back of Southampton's business dealings. Then there is Arsenal's deputy chairman, David Dein, a respected and influential figure in the game, who was this week revealed to have earned close to pounds 4m last year from pay and sales of his club shares. Most reprehensibly of all, even the England coach has been at it, revealing, in his small- minded, self-justifying, occasionally bizarre and highly lucrative book, tales which should have been told at the time or left unsaid for good.

If he retains his sanity and survives the present storm, Glenn Hoddle is likely to have a good year. England's opposition in the Euro 2000 qualifiers ought not to present much of a hurdle to a talented and determined squad, whoever manages them.

That none of those players are gaining experience abroad - unlike the bulk of France's World Cup winners - is the national team's loss and Premiership spectators' gain. It is another reason why, for all the grubby and selfish side-plots, the sport is likely to save itself once more. You can watch Darren Huckerby against Marcel Desailly today, compare Mark Hughes and Michael Owen tomorrow and see Dennis Bergkamp and Nicholas Anelka on fire in the Forest on Monday. Not a bad triple header to start the season, and next Saturday promises Liverpool v Arsenal, Chelsea v Newcastle and West Ham United v Manchester United simultaneously.

The latter match will doubtless see the vilification of David Beckham. While Hoddle's scapegoating of him was callous and - one hopes - thoughtless, the ferocity of reaction is as much the unhappy consequence of Manchester United's overweening commercial presence as of envy. It also underlines, as Marseilles did, that the game is not clear of casual louts and organised malcontents yet.

A return to the days of the Stanley knife would hasten the backlash that is bound to come at some point; football is just too popular to remain the darling of the chattering classes and trendies for ever. When it happens, will the game's bedrock be alienated; driven away by high ticket prices and pay-per-view? It is not just the top clubs who exploit their public: Gillingham, in the Second Division, have just unveiled their fourth home kit in as many seasons. This lack of respect for the supporter - as exemplified by the Gallowgate tapes affair - needs to be driven out, but there is a shortage of able administrators, with too few even of the calibre of Gordon Taylor and the much- maligned but essentially decent Graham Kelly.

Yet while we should be vigilant in protecting the future we must not forget to enjoy the present. This is a golden age, get some memories in the bank while you still can.

FIVE YOUNG TALENTS READY TO MAKE AN IMPACT

Steve McPhail (18), Leeds United

George Graham inherited a glittering legacy of youth talent from Howard Wilkinson and McPhail is, with Harry Kewell, the jewel in the crown. Spoken of as the best young Irish midfielder since Liam Brady, he has already shown in four substitute appearances that he may live up to that billing. A raking long pass, which set up a goal for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink against Derby last spring, has already illustrated his quality.

Jimmy Corbett (18), Blackburn

Less than a year ago he was still on YTS forms with Gillingham in the Second Division. His direct and pacy wing play allied with an eye for goal has since persuaded Blackburn to pay pounds 525,000 after just 16 appearances, of which only four lasted 90 minutes. The fee, depending on his progress could rise to pounds 1m - Gillingham are no doubt already pondering how they might spend the money.

Joe Cole (17), West Ham United

An attacking midfielder who is regarded with awe by youth coaches all over the capital. Cole is still to make a first-team appearance, but has already been the subject of a tabloid back-page splash. He is expected to make his debut in the Premiership at some stage before the end of the season. Trevor Brooking has publicly described him as the best young player he has seen.

Philip Mulryne (20), Man Utd

To date has played in six senior games - five for his country, and one for his club, which is a testament to the differing strengths of Manchester United and Northern Ireland. But, despite the competition for places, this could be the season he makes his breakthrough at Old Trafford. Cannot have harmed his chances by scoring a pre-season hat-trick against Birmingham City.

Adi Akinbiyi (23), Bristol City

A late developer who was plucked from Norwich reserves by Gillingham and, 28 goals in 63 League games later, turned into a pounds 1m profit. Quick, powerful and a good finisher, he still needs to improve on his first touch - but then, they said that about Andy Cole when he first moved to Bristol City. Confirmed his potential with two of City's goals in their 4-0 midweek Worthington Cup win over Shrewsbury.

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