Football: Rich moments to savour for poor relations

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The Independent Online
MY CLOSE season in 1998 was not very long. Three short weeks after I departed the Stade de France and France's World Cup semi-final victory over Croatia, I was back not in France but very close to the French border in Esch, Luxembourg. Jeunesse d'Esch were beginning their Champions' League campaign against Grasshopper Zurich before 612 spectators.

It was, in fact, a short campaign, shorter even than my close season had been, for Jeunesse lost 8-0 on aggregate. Nevertheless, just like the little teams who enter the FA Cup in August, the poor relations of European football can enjoy their dreams for a short while.

Nationwide League referee Mike Halsey arrived at his local club, Welwyn Garden City, on his bicycle to see Ford Sports secure a replay with a scrambled last-minute equaliser. That proved to be the most dramatic moment of all the matches I attended this last season, for Ford's eventual reward was a tie with Preston North End at Deepdale. The Ford goalkeeper was the club chairman.

That conjures up some bizarre thoughts. Imagine some of our more colourful Premier League chairmen turning out between the sticks in an injury crisis. Perhaps the notion is not as daft as it might seem. After all, Doug Ellis reckons he was quite a handy player. And, with the money they earn nowadays, what's to stop a player buying a club? I must scroll through the rules and see if there is anything against this.

Probably the most fateful moment of my season (excluding the day I resigned from the Football Association - Tuesday, 15 December at 11.42 and 15 seconds) was last month when lowly Crewe Alexandra hauled themselves out of the First Division's relegation zone by outpassing Ipswich on a waterlogged Portman Road surface. How Dario Gradi's team found themselves imperilled I will never know, but Ipswich were unable to recover fully. Wolves hit Bradford City's post at Molineux and then the away goals rule which Bolton took advantage of in the play-off semi- final condemned George Burley's team to another season in the First Division.

What of the controversy surrounding the play-off system? It was Ron Noades and his predecessor at Brentford, Martin Lange, who pushed through the proposal to introduce them into the Football League during one of the many re-structuring crises of the Eighties.

There is no doubt that the system maintains interest in the League for more clubs throughout the season. More to play for equals more interest equals higher gates. And the well attended play-off matches themselves produce much needed revenue for the clubs and, for the sponsors, three finals upon which all eyes are focused. Who will ever forget Charlton Athletic v Sunderland or Bolton Wanderers v Reading?

But how fair is it to the very concept of League tables to allow a sixth- placed or seventh-placed team to achieve promotion at the expense of a third or fourth-placed side which may have finished the programme several points ahead? Maybe a compromise floated by a caller to Richard Littlejohn's Radio Five phone-in is the answer: reduce the number of play-off teams by giving the highest placed a bye to the final. This would retain the successful aspects of the play-offs while reducing the inherent element of unfairness.

I saw Nigel Clough starting down the management road with Burton Albion in the Dr Marten's League. Steve Wignall, after experiencing success with Aldershot Town and then leading Colchester to promotion, like many other managers hit the buffers and left Layer Road. His prospects had not been helped when United lost 4-1 to Bedlington Terriers in the FA Cup's shock of the season.

Bedlington won the Arnott Insurance Northern League by a mile, only to be beaten by Tiverton Town in the final of the FA Carlsberg Vase. I saw Bedlington lose bravely at Scunthorpe United after their success over Colchester.

I have seen Premier League teams Manchester United, Arsenal, West Ham, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United and Liverpool. Blackburn proved that money cannot always overcome a devastating injury list; Liverpool that not even the most illustrious of traditions is immune against the inconsistencies of a transition period. I saw Manchester City take six points from Blackpool and Colchester, thus rewarding their loyal supporters.

After another short break the smaller clubs will start out again in July on the road to European glory. Brighton will be looking forward to a welcome return home, albeit to a temporary abode whilst plans are finalised for their new stadium. Nostalgia will rule OK as Wembley prepares to admit the demolition men. And Kevin Keegan will have a clearer idea as to whether he will be wearing his coach's tracksuit or his pundit's casual wear in the finals of Euro 2000.