Football: Loyalty becomes a foreign word in football

FOOTBALL NEWS rumbled on throughout the increasingly sultry summer, like a distant thunderstorm. Manchester United did the unthinkable, tearing up their F.A. Cup entry application; referees and their assistants went shopping for walkie-talkies; West Bromwich Albion sacked Denis Smith before a ball was kicked. The game took the shortest of holidays - Monday and Tuesday of the first week of the Wimbledon tennis fortnight.

Last week the massive thunderclap came: twin blasts as the action returned to the field and Des Lynam left Match of the Day to transfer to ITV. Whatever will Sally, the Radio Two Friday traffic girl do without his presence? Lynam's supreme professionalism and presence in front of the cameras did not re-translate back to radio where his charm needed a lighter and less treacly touch.

United's abstention from the Cup began to look a little forlorn. It is clear that they need to devote maximum resources towards the Premiership campaign and the increasingly lucrative (and overblown) European Champions League.

The news of Barcelona's new television contract worth pounds 254m over five years puts a different slant on United's aborted takeover by BSkyB. Top Italian and Spanish clubs will be grossing forty and fifty million pounds per year. In England, where the Premier League's television revenue is shared out much more equitably, clubs earning `only' about pounds 10m will begin to find it difficult to compete financially with the foreign giants who negotiate their own deals.

The next English television negotiations in 2001 will exercise club chairmen's minds as never before, as the richer clubs seek to maintain the status of the Premier League as the most entertaining in the world. Opportunities for additional growth and new revenue streams will be sought assiduously.

Although, if the lack of loyalty shown by the likes of Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Nicolas Anelka is the price we have to pay for competing on a world stage, maybe we should become little Englanders again and go back to the Fifties, when League regulations prohibited the signing of foreign players.

I welcomed David Dein's announcement that he was to seek action across Europe on the predations of greedy players and opportunistic agents. Since League football began club owners have failed to stamp out irregular approaches to contracted players. The sad fact is that the clubs, as employers, seek to operate cartels which protect their interests, but there is always someone to take on a renegade player. Premier League chairmen operate among themselves a code of conduct which is largely unsung and breached less and less often. But until higher standards and effective regulations are introduced throughout the game, frustrated chairmen will find it increasingly difficult to hold players to contracts and fans will become more and more disillusioned.

It would be simple to rule that an agent's remuneration or commission must be spread across the length of the player's contract in order to make it less tempting to manufacture a lucrative transfer situation. Even though it was surprising that the money sat in the Old Trafford safe for 12 months, Sir Alex Ferguson's revelation about the pounds 40,000 attempted bung shows how easily football can be manipulated if effective regulation is not in place.

Talking of regulation, I expect new Minister for Sport Kate Hoey to press the Football Association to consider new financial controls on errant clubs and rapacious owners. The Football Task Force's report on money in football, is still awaited many months after David Mellor was supposed to wind it up. Football lovers will find it easier to avoid Mellor now he has been moved from Saturday to Wednesday by BBC Radio Five Live.

Is it becoming more difficult to be a manager? Where are the pressures most acute, in the Premier League or down in Division Three? A scroll through the First Division Managers reveals that with the exception of the remarkable Dario Gradi at Crewe, whose continuing ability to make silk purses out of sows' ears commenced in 1983, no manager has been at his present club longer than Alan Curbishley of Charlton Athletic who was appointed in 1991.

Good luck to them all. Good fortune also to the newly wired for sound referees (whatever did happen over Martin Edwards' comments about David Elleray?) And happy scoring to the players, who were warned last week in the New Scientist that an overactive sex life can cause sexually acquired reactive arthritis.

I paid a visit to Highbury last Thursday. The pitch looked absolutely fantastic. What I would have given to have stroked a 40 yard pass across the welcoming turf. Unfortunately, it was being mown and re-mown by two loving groundsmen, who gave a baleful stare at anyone who ventured within 10 yards of the boundary lines. Roll on football indeed. Let's all enjoy the new influx of foreign players.

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