Football: Mellor stars in the football task farce

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The Independent Online
You wouldn't have to be a student of the novels of DH Lawrence to appreciate the irony of a man called Mellor being turned from gamekeeper to poacher. That's how it seemed last week when the former Tory minister and MP, David Mellor, was appointed by the Labour Government's Minister of Sport, Tony Banks, to chair a so-called "football task force".

I must admit that my first reaction to the news was that it was a pre- August silly-season spoof. Then came the evidence of a carefully stage- managed launch of the idea, without a formal announcement, just in case there was too much of a backlash, in which event Mr Banks's department could have denied the story and stood Mellor down.

First, the Labour-friendly Mirror had the story as a front-page exclusive on Monday morning. I congratulate their reporters on such investigative diligence and clearly abhor any notion that their information might have come in a private briefing with government officials.

Equally, when Mr Mellor was "discovered" on his holiday - and it looked more like the South Wales coast than, say, a sun-drenched Mediterranean freebie - by a News At Ten reporter, it was obviously a pure stroke of luck that they should have found him there. Anyone who thinks that this was news managed by the Government or Mellor's own private office is clearly not of sound mind.

Meanwhile, Radio 5 Live were also breaking the news, tagging the factual details of his imminent appointment with a plug for Mellor's new season behind the microphone on their Saturday-evening football show, Six-O-Six, which was an interesting breakthrough in news values. What next - a report on Pol Pot's trial with a trailer for his appearance on a Brian Hayes phone-in?

When news is managed like this, its main function is to deaden the shock, to allow an idea to be assimilated over a few days before it is officially confirmed. The appointment of Mellor as chairman to head an advisory committee on the rights of football fans certainly needed all the media management it could get. The distribution of emergency oxygen supplies would also have helped since it was one of those decisions that simply took the breath away.

Quite apart from the bizarre crossing of political party lines and the instant suspicion of an act of cronyism by Banks for his fellow guest in the Chelsea VIP box, the overriding question was simply, "Why Mellor?" Are we really meant to believe that, because he hosts a populist radio programme, Mellor has the right credentials for this particular public office? Cilla Black may as well be made Home Secretary on the same basis.

But then, if we leave Mellor's phone-in to one side - and personally speaking, on the occasions I've heard it he seems never to leave any caller under-patronised - not to mention his inadvertent role in boosting the sales of Chelsea replica shirts as items in the Ann Summers chain of shops, there are serious points to be made about his time in office for the Thatcher government, which was certainly no friend of football and its fans.

Mr Mellor was Under-Secretary of State for Energy between 1981-83, so I wonder how he felt about those football fans of the time, particularly in South Yorkshire, who just happened to be miners and whose centres of employment the Government was already planning to close?

Between 1983 and 1987, Mellor worked at the Home Office, becoming a Minister of State in 1986. I believe this would have been at the time of Mrs Thatcher's greatest assault on football fans, after the Luton-Millwall riot and the Heysel Stadium disaster, when they were demonised to such an extent that an identity card scheme and a ban on travelling support was proposed by the Government. There was also the fatal pressure the Thatcher administration placed on football clubs to start enclosing fans behind fences, randomly punishing the innocent majority as one of the guilty few. The Home Office was in the thick of this reactionary stream of thinking, so I wonder what Mr Mellor recalls of his days there with regard to the rights of football supporters?

He might even want to look back on the time when he was Minister of State for the Arts, and later Heritage Secretary, in the John Major administration. I wonder what Mr Mellor's views were on the Broadcasting Act which ultimately allowed BSkyB to invest huge sums in acquiring the rights to live football, thereby denying the elderly, the disabled, the young and the house-bound football fans what was previously free entertainment?

Clearly Mr Mellor is a former minister of great experience and influence inside Whitehall, but he is not necessarily one who might be instantly classed a "man of the people".

While the intentions of Tony Banks in setting up a football task force are undoubtedly good, could he really not have found somebody who was less compromised for his period in office and more obviously at ease with the football world upon which he now seeks to pass judgement? If he simply wanted to give a job to an ex-MP, wouldn't Roy Hattersley, a stalwart of the terraces, have been a more appropriate choice?

Frankly, any of those who have been invited to take part in the task force and to help deliver a report to the Government before Christmas would seem to be more qualified than Mellor. But despite internal Labour Party mutterings, the appointment has been made, so now we will have to wait to judge Mr Mellor's committee on how successful it is in achieving such fine intentions.

Since regulating ticket pricing and eliminating racism are two of the task force's prime concerns, Mr Banks and Mr Mellor might like to start close to home by asking the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, about the pounds 800 hospitality packages he was marketing for last season's FA Cup final. They could also have a look at the role of certain Chelsea fans in the long running saga of Combat 18, the neo-Nazi spin-off from the British National Party, which dislikes the idea of black people being in Britain, let alone playing, watching or managing football. With his Chelsea contacts, perhaps the blue-shirted Mr Mellor can show himself to be a man for all seasons after all.

The changes that British football is going through can be quite giddying at times. A friend of mine who is a Chelsea supporter was still coming to terms with the welter of exotic new names he will be able to see at Stamford Bridge this season when he looked at the fixture list and mouthed off a complaint. Chelsea's first three games of the season are all away from home, which he deemed to be grossly unfair. I pointed out to him that since a high proportion of the new Chelsea team have never played at the Bridge, then they couldn't possibly know yet whether this was unfair or not.

As the Arsenal players come to terms with the lean cuisine advocated by Arsene Wenger, Liverpool's goalkeeping coach, Joe Corrigan, was last week remembering a match at Anfield in his days with Manchester City. Barely slimmer then than he is now, Corrigan recalled diving fruitlessly to save a penalty and then having to pick the ball out of the net in front of a gloating Kop. A voice drifted down the heaving terrace: "Hey, Joe, I bet if that had been a pie you'd have saved it!"

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