Football: Keegan's posturing amounts to provocation

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The Independent Online
GOING BACK more years than it is comfortable to remember, the tenant in this space had the merry experience of taking an indignant telephone call from a cantankerous football administrator who attached no great importance to international activity.

It was shortly after England's victory in the 1966 World Cup final and the publication of an article I wrote for the Daily Mirror suggesting that the performance of Alf Ramsey's team would do wonders for the game in this country.

Far from being in agreement, the Football League's autocratic secretary, Alan Hardaker, was furious. He came on the line from the League's headquarters, snapping that England's achievement was unlikely to have much effect on club attendances.

It was fun listening to Hardaker's splenetic spiel and trying to placate him with a soft response: "What are you getting so worked up about? I was only stating the obvious."

Even though Hardaker was proved to be correct - there was no tidal wave of interest - things have reached a pretty pass when this space is devoted to a defence of the position he took up 33 years ago. Yet an issue has arisen this week which brings the old conflict into sharper focus and strips the country-before-club argument of validity.

What I'm thinking about is the spat that developed between England's coach, Kevin Keegan, and the Tottenham Hotspur manager, George Graham, when Darren Anderton and Sol Campbell were required to report for a fitness assessment at Bisham Abbey despite Graham's understandable concern about their progress.

Keegan's assertion that he had every right to speak with Anderton and Campbell without Graham's permission showed scant regard for Tottenham and is bound to raise further disquiet in Premiership circles. Lord knows, the clubs as employers have grounds for complaint when decisions arrived at by management can be overruled by the Football Association.

History is no help in this. Before Fifa standardised the international programme and made the release of players an obligation, some countries, including Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic, could never be sure that their best men would be available.

It was only a few days before the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden that Juventus finally agreed to let John Charles turn out for Wales. Scotland's last chance of qualifying for the 1966 finals disappeared when they were forced to take the field against Italy in Naples without players from Liverpool and Manchester United, who were held back by two Scottish managers, Bill Shankly and Matt Busby.

England's claim was automatic but the injury Brian Clough claimed was responsible for Roy McFarland's absence from a European Championship qualifier, against West Germany at Wembley in 1972, did not prevent his appearance for Derby County three days later.

The way things are today, nobody can be sure what the future holds for international football. I'm not alone in thinking there is far too much of it and that it will eventually be overwhelmed by the global growth of the club game.

Fifa's recent suggestion that the World Cup should be a biennial event was as daft as it is impractical, probably no more than a vain attempt to resist the escalating power of Europe's leading clubs.

Franz Beckenbauer's forecast that the World Cup will one day be contested by clubs, and sooner rather than later he thinks, makes more sense, certainly to managers like Arsene Wenger of Arsenal, who argues that a commitment to national teams is often unnecessarily burdensome and not in the best interests of his club's supporters.

Going back for a moment to the event that provoked all this meditation, it has to be said Keegan would have done better to cultivate Graham rather than get uppity at a time when Anderton and Campbell are seeking improved deals at Tottenham.

The idea that Keegan was right to flex his muscles is a shocking proposal to put to any club owner. What do people think they are in this game for - sport?