Football: Pick partners for boardroom dancing

THOSE WHO have been bewailing the lack of schemers in English football have probably been confining their attention to the pitches. The boardrooms are packed with them. They may lack the panache and charisma of the playing variety but when it comes to the stealthy interventions and the ability to leave opponents sprawling in their wake the crafty coves in the suits can get up to international class, no trouble.

I wouldn't dream of describing what has been happening at Leicester City FC over the past week or so in terms that would normally be reserved for the wily and artful slyboots who have occasionally graced the English game, but at a time when the country is crying out for homespun heroes who can conjure up the openings it is ironic that we can be mesmerised only by the nifty footwork being traced on the boardroom carpets.

My reluctance to describe Leicester's boardroom battles is also governed by a complete mystification about what is tearing that immensely likeable club apart. Rumour has it that a long- simmering power struggle between the playing and commercial sides of the club has boiled over. The bits we've seen rising to the surface are fascinating but alarming.

There have been boardroom walk-outs, fake resignations notified to the Stock Exchange and the club's stockbrokers have resigned in protest. The manager, Martin O'Neill, has been considering his position and on Friday announced that he would stay on in the hope that the club will regain its equilibrium, which probably means that the side that favours him has a good chance of ending up in control.

If there are members of the Leicester board who feel they could benefit from his departure then the club really is in danger. He is without doubt the most exciting manager yet to be given access to a big wallet and would not be short of more fertile opportunities.

It would be less worrying if this was an isolated incident, but internal club battles have become all too frequent since the Premier Division was formed and the bigger clubs headed for the financial stratosphere. The situation at Everton has been fermenting for so long we tend to forget the limbo into which the club has drifted while the former chairman Peter Johnson dithers about selling his controlling shareholding. Two weeks ago the manager and players threatened to go on strike unless the club's future was placed on a more secure footing.

Factionalism is no stranger to football boardrooms but its basis back in the old days used to be far more mundane; clashes of personalities or priorities, old money versus new or any little thing that set one self- deemed football genius against another. Since they were severely restricted as to the dividends they could draw and were prevented from awarding each other lavish salaries, the prospect of fortunes was not the direct cause of conflict.

Back in the Seventies, Brian Clough once said that directors should be charged pounds 5,000 a year for the privileges they enjoyed. Best seats, free scotch in comfy confines, free travel to partake of free scotch in some other club's comfy confines, free business entertaining, fistfuls of Cup final and international tickets... Clough was right, apart from underestimating the value of these perks and the enviable delight of being part of the action.

Neither has there been any central control of the fitness of some to serve on boards. It wasn't a problem when directors were local worthies whose reputations and livelihoods depended on sound husbandry of the town's pride and joy. But when the vulgarians with loud suits and even louder opinions started to muscle in, the League unwisely refused to set a standard; although they did insist that former players like Jimmy Hill should not become directors. Crooks yes, players no.

They managed to enforce a rule that kept the buffoon Robert Maxwell from buying a string of clubs, but others who should never have been allowed near a football boardroom were given free rein and some clubs have never recovered.

Although the clubs were the prime and irresistible movers behind the Premier breakaway, it is a shame that the Football Association did not attempt to instal some safeguards against clubs falling into undesirable hands. At the moment the Stock Exchange seems to have more control over them than the game's highest authority.

For too many, football at the top level has been a juicy prospect to compare with the Klondike gold-rush or the privatisation of British Rail. And while there is nothing in place to dictate that some element of the altruism of old should help drive the game into the future, that situation can only get worse.

I'm convinced that, sooner or later, a system of franchising, similar to that operated by America's NFL, will be introduced to ensure that those running the clubs answer to high standards of substance and probity and have a strict and sensibly costed plan for development.

The idea carries the risk that we might see franchises moving around the country to take advantage of better catchment areas. If a Premiership club doesn't end up in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium within five years I'll be very surprised. It may not be entrancing to the traditionalist, but tell me what is about the present set-up.

I TRUST that at the Ryder Cup in Boston this week the European team will not cave in as docilely as their officials did in their battle against BSkyB on Thursday. The Ryder Cup had instituted legal proceedings against the satellite channel when it switched coverage of the event from Sky Sports 1 to Sky Box Office. The move meant that the Ryder Cup would be denied to ONdigital subscribers who can receive Sky Sports 1 but not the Box Office.

The golf men were adamant that their deal involved Sky Sports 1 and that the change would cause confusion, alienate public and sponsors alike and damage the Ryder Cup. But before the dispute got within range of a judge, sweetness and light suddenly bathed the contestants and "an amicable settlement" was announced.

The ball-by-ball coverage will remain on Box Office, but a daily minimum of three hours will also be shown on Sky Sports 2. No doubt there were handshakes, backslaps and trebles all round, but ONdigital viewers could be forgiven for feeling that the compromise fell a little short of brilliance because they don't get Sky Sports 2, either. BSkyB's generous offer to show the opening ceremony on Sky Sports 1 is tantamount to taking the piss.

I have to declare an interest here because I am an ONdigitalarian myself. Not through choice but because I have a large Canadian Redwood tree blocking the signal from the Sky satellite. I'm not touting for sympathy because, on balance, I would rather watch the tree. But when ONdigital came along, bringing with it Sky Sports 1, I jumped at the chance to catch up with all the top sport. There must be many like me, deprived of access to satellite or cable, who are hoping for an early end to these cut-throat battles. But the sports themselves hold the key.

I have long been in favour of a free market in televised sport and believe that all's fair in the battle for viewers as it is in the rivalry for readers between newspapers. But whose sports are they, anyhow? It's up to the governing bodies to protect the interests of their followers. Until they are brave enough to do that we'll remain at the mercy of the Murdochs.

As Arthur Daley would say, we're just prawns in the game.

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