Football: Libero: Wrinkled game behind the wealthy face-pack

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SO HOW was it for you then? It depends who you support, of course; reactions in north London will inevitably differ from those in south Manchester. The sense here is that these are golden days that should be savoured; English football may not be this attractive, or accessible, for too much longer. The fear here is the price of it all.

There have been encouraging signs this season that the gap between excitement and quality has narrowed, mainly in the Premiership naturally enough, though the Nationwide League has contributed greatly to a vibrant, colourful culture. There is, too, a depth of support even in non-League that few countries can match.

What, though, is the cost of it all in human and financial terms? As you look beyond the supposedly better conduct among fans within stadiums, you witness boorishness and bad behaviour without - as the police around Highbury could testify last week. So beneath the expensive make-up, you find a game with wrinkles.

Manchester United may be mega-business, but 80 professional clubs remain in debt and the gap between big and small widens; the concentration of wealth narrows. It is shown in the relegated of last season being promoted this - Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough; Crystal Palace, Barnsley - with money supposedly equalling success.

It has become more expensive to follow the game, especially the Premiership, and is about to get more expensive. The old Liverpool days when they decreased prices if they had had a good season are gone and season tickets everywhere can be expected to rise. The electronic season ticket, which enables you to watch your club on digital TV, will add to the burden in the future. Those who think Sky is pricey now will have to think again.

One would not feel quite so apprehensive were some soft-touch clubs not wasting so much of the money on importing so much mediocrity and so many one-season wonders; one reason for high prices and low returns on our money. Hands up those who remember Itzak Zohar (Royal Antwerp to Crystal Palace, pounds 1.2m)? Will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Gianfranco Zola be the same again?

It means that the development of young English talent is stunted; no wonder the Under-21 team is made up predominantly of Nationwide players. Has the example of Manchester United last season, and the lasting excellence of the Arsenal back four this season, not shown what still exists in Britain, if properly nurtured and coached?

Arsene Wenger admits as much and he is a prime example of the value of proper foreign coaching expertise. Too often in this country men without qualification beyond playing achievements, such as Gianluca Vialli and Attilio Lombardo, are placedin charge of clubs. It all smacks of costly short-termism.

Were there more acumen, tactical and business, then perhaps the money pouring in might be more wisely invested, and prices might accordingly be less steep; something for the Football Task Force to consider in its impending deliberations on commercialism. This column hopes that its faith in the FTF and the Government to act on recommendations is not misplaced.

Saturday's FA Cup final will rightly be a time to celebrate the enduring appeal of the English game. Then it should be back to the job of ensuring that the wealth such spectacle generates is not squandered. If it is, clubs had better not bank on believing that fleeced fans will be vulnerable to the gloss forever.

ONE annoying aspect of the season in this quarter has been the growing number of phone lines at football clubs that keep you hanging on. This is quite apart from receptionists, demanding, "Can I tell him what it's about?" before putting you through to whoever. Er, no, you can't actually, that's for me to discuss with him. For those who do get fed up with hanging about on ticket lines, here is a bit of fun. When a voice finally interrupts the piped muzak, simply say: "Excuse me, I was listening to that."

SO that's it, then. Alan Shearer is innocent. He says so, the England coach says so. Let's all get off his back. Hold on, though, I could have sworn I saw him kick someone in the face. And shouldn't that be the crux of the matter? There is clearly a case to answer and that would be so no matter who the miscreant.

Much drivel surrounds that fact, a lot of it from Shearer himself, who thinks he should have a chance to counter the charge in advance of any disciplinary commission. Well, he has done that already in a statement, and unconvincing it was too. It only lacked the idea that Neil Lennon had provocatively aimed his head at Shearer's boot. Drivel, too, that Lennon is reported to believe Shearer to be innocent but he has already said that he thought a red card should have been shown. More drivel: the FA are damaging England's World Cup chances. Did they do the kicking?

The hearing should be held - and soon. If Shearer is declared innocent of misconduct, so be it. But let us not sweep it under the carpet because of the person involved and the timing.

ON A PROMISE of a bonus for giving up any ideas of promotion, Libero has managed to avoid the play-offs again and will be taking a break for the next month. He remains in a strict pasta, vitamins and faith-healing routine, though, ready to burst on to the World Cup scene. A bientot.