Football: Libero: The priceless Chelsea fan's ticket to deride

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The Independent Online
SOME weeks you just want to throw up your hands in despair at a game which seems to be forever groping for ethics, a game which has almost become a law unto itself, which courts hypocrisy in cavalier fashion and treats its customers similarly.

Take Chelsea. Please. A few days after sacking Ruud Gullit, accusing him of being too expensive, it emerges that season ticket prices at Stamford Bridge are to rise by up to 40 per cent. A seat in the Matthew Harding Stand will set you back pounds 545, up from pounds 370, and elsewhere it can apparently cost up to pounds 1,250. It has not yet been disclosed whether these are gross or netto figures.

In fact it has not yet been disclosed officially. None of this was deemed worthy of explanation in the match programme for Chelsea's Coca-Cola Cup tie against Arsenal last Wednesday, although the Gullit affair was discussed at great length. (And, incidentally, it is fortunate that not everyone mentioned in the proprietor Ken Bates's programme notes is as litigious as he, otherwise the civil courts would have time for little else).

Chelsea will probably argue that if you want such stars as Brian Laudrup at a reported pounds 50,000 a week - which Gullit would certainly have accepted - you must be prepared to pay for them, through commensurate ticket, food and wine prices at all the various Bridge outlets.

You can be sure they will also point out that there will be no shortage of demand. If you don't like the merchandise don't buy it. It does rather ignore the fact - though clubs are only too well aware of it - that the audience is intensely loyal. Fans simply do not switch allegiance, even if they have been known when pushed too far to boycott and stay away. Winning may avert criticism but then, unlike the club you support, winning is not for ever.

The previous week, as he refused the Gullit wage demands, Bates was being lauded for bravely standing in front of the runaway gravy train with his red flag. What now, then, as he waves the Laudrup express through with the green? Still Bates probably didn't get where he is today without being flexible with the weekly timetable.

What, too, of the message that will now go through the Chelsea club? Surely it is human nature that other players will want wages that are proportionate to Laudrup's. And, with Didier Deschamps also said to be a transfer target, how close will such as Jody Morris and Mark Nicholls get to the first team? In fact, is it worth signing for Chelsea if you are a promising young player? Better, perhaps, to go somewhere like Charlton Athletic where the first-team opportunities will be better.

It will be interesting to see what the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, a Chelsea supporter, makes of all this when he returns from the Winter Olympics in Nagano. The Task Force he set up (chairman: D Mellor, Chelsea supporter) is due to report this very week on commercialism in the game - a subject on which the Prime Minister himself, Tony Blair, has waxed, both angrily and wistfully, in the past.

Actually, once the throwing of arms aloft is complete, it occurs that the idea floated a few weeks ago of a football watchdog - Offside or some such - to monitor prices and practices in what may be a private industry but is also the national sport, is beginning to look a pretty good one.

KEVIN KEEGAN of the nearby and now almost as rich Fulham offered a constructive idea during Carlton TV's new Thursday night discussion programme The Sports Show. These days when it seems more than ever that only money brings success, Keegan said, why not impose a limit of the amount a club is allowed to spend each season?

It was brave of Keegan to make the suggestion, given that in his time at Newcastle United and now with Fulham he has done more than his fair of spending. Coming on top of Libero mooting whether an American-style salary cap might be one move to slow the growing costs, a transfer ceiling is also certainly worth considering.

In that way, we would ensure that the best coaches, and not just the richest, stood a chance of achieving something more lasting with a club than just a one-off underdog cup win. It might also undo the leagues within leagues that have formed due to the resources of clubs, with two thirds of the Premiership having little or no chance of winning the title.

Unfortunately, the thoughtful Keegan did not get the chance to develop his theory, as the next subject was swiftly introduced. But then that's attention-span-of-a-goldfish ITV for you.

THE Uefa newsletter arrived bearing glad tidings concerning coaching in Europe. "Reciprosity does not mean uniformity," insisted one of its lead headlines. What a relief. You can't be too careful when it comes to reciprosity and uniformity.

THE modulations in the voice of the Tottenham coach, Christian Gross, can seem intimidating to the uninitiated and - worse, it seems - he has also been accused of lacking a sense of humour. Perhaps not, though.

A colleague was interviewing Herr Gross recently. "We have something in common," said the interviewer. "And what is that?" enquired the interviewee. "We are both exiles in England. You are Swiss, I am Scottish," came the reply. "In that case," said a smiling Gross, "I will speak slowly for you."