Football: Red devils and the deep seated envy

Murdoch Utd: Every win over Fergie's men will be considered a blow for democracy as well as football
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The Independent Online
TO LISTEN to some of the commentaries, the woes and epitaphs to decency, it would seem the British Museum was about to be sold to Saddam Hussein, not a football club, albeit one with a significant history, flipped like a coin from one rich pocket to another. Logical thinking is not one of the strong points of football fans as even the briefest exposure to Radio Five's 606 phone-in on Saturday evening proves. But the reaction of United fans - and a hatful of "the end is nigh" experts - is hypocrisy of the highest order. Whenever football starts talking about its soul, it is time to round up the refugees.

The Manchester United bandwagon has been hurtling into the arms of Rupert Murdoch for the past five years, its running boards crammed with cheering chairmen, directors, players and fans like a car chase in the Keystone Cops. Now that Murdoch is involved, do we then rewind the clock, retract the City flotation, tear down the twin Megastores which now stand guard over the once sacred territory of Old Trafford and bequeath the soul of Manchester United plc back to the chanting hordes who used to populate the Stretford End? Perhaps the Ryan Giggs duvet (1998) will become a collector's item. It is too late. United is no longer a football club, it is "a futuristic business of the 21st century", christened so by Mark Booth, chief executive of BSkyB, last week.

United forsook its history long ago, sold it off to make way for its own television station. And the fans have loved every minute of it because the dawn of the Premier League has brought an unprecedented era of success to the club. It hardly behoves the supporters to turn round at rainbow's end and complain about the lack of a brolly. Why is Murdoch acceptable at the breakfast table in the form of the Sun or the Times, or at the end of a Sky satellite cable, but not on a Saturday afternoon through a football club?

The rules have changed. Manchester United is a business, a futuristic business indeed; Murdoch, whatever other sins are being laid at his door, is a pretty good businessman, rather better probably than many on the United board. (So acute was Martin Edwards' vision, he tried to sell the club off 10 years ago for pounds 613m less than the BSkyB offer.)

So what's the problem? Certainly those in the corridors of power at the Premier League are not expecting the earth to move. United's unpopularity has not been confined to the terraces of opposition clubs. Their arrogance has long acted like pepper up the noses of other Premier League chairmen. But there is no guarantee that a sneeze for United ensures a cold for everyone else. Though United are, in the words of Martin Edwards, "moving on to another planet", in the absence of the Little Green Men XI or a round robin against their own Pontins League team, they still have to find someone to play and that someone, be it a club from the Premier League, European League or Inter-planetary space league, has rights to a slice of the action. Other Premier League clubs might well be delighted with the spin-offs. If United are heading for Mars, the rest would surely settle for a flit over the moon.

Ironically, the Office of Fair Trading, which will be investigating the deal anyway, is taking BSkyB, the BBC and the Premier League to the Restrictive Practices Court early next year for operating a cartel in the selling of television rights collectively. No one, I imagine, would be more delighted if the decision went against them than BSkyB United, which would then be at liberty to tout its wares across the globe in anticipation of vast revenues from pay-per-view, advertising and merchandising. In the United States, the alliance of media conglomerate and sporting product is considered quite natural. You have the network, you buy the sport. English football has no divine right to protection from the inevitability of market forces.

Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves to fill time on his own television network, Turner Broadcasting Systems, a national cable channel. In doing so, he turned them from no-hopers into the best team in baseball and enticed a whole new generation of subscribers to TBS. It is widely presumed that Murdoch's purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team with a similarly nostalgic history to United, will have the same effect. The Dodgers began life in Brooklyn.

The more impish of us would pay good money for the fly's seat on the wall when the boss rings up Alex Ferguson, the former trade union leader from Govan, with a suggestion for team selection on the Saturday. "Now, Alex, about those two Chinese players we bought last week. Good idea to play them, don't you think. Think of the three billion shirt sales down Beijing way and the pay-per-view."

Just as a reminder of the potential for crossed wires, last week saw the launch of Chris Patten's book on the last days of Hong Kong, rejected by the initial publishers, Harper Collins, a Murdoch subsidiary, on the grounds that it might upset Murdoch's delicately balanced media interests in China. One man's censorship is another's good business practice. Differing interpretations on the pounds 623m deal were already apparent in the tabloids on Wednesday morning. "It's a deal" roared the Murdoch-owned Sun: "Sold to the red devil" countered the rival Mirror. Perhaps Murdoch will move United to Miami as flagbearers for a new soccer revolution in the States. Perhaps only Murdoch papers will be able to report Murdoch United matches in future.

The real local difficulty for United fans is that the new deal will deepen prejudices. Murdoch is the mother of all sugar daddies; envy will be rife among the street urchins. It must be uncomfortable to know that every victory over United will be considered a blow for democracy as well as football. "Come on, you futuristic business of the 21st century" is not much of a chant, is it? City fans will doubtless point out that it is all an expensive ruse to keep up with the Joneses. Manchester now has sky blues and sky reds.

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