Football: Soft targets and the men off the hook

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The Independent Online
SOME Nottingham Forest fans clearly feel betrayed by Brian Clough after the revelations of the "bungs" report and the FA's decision last week to charge him with misconduct. What of the rest, though? Does the average fan care about financial probity in the game?

"Clough stole from the club," said the editor of a Forest fanzine. "What he has been doing is taking money out of supporters' pockets, people who have been paying hard-earned cash to watch their team." Contrast that passionate, angry attitude with a fans' forum at Filbert Street during the week. In two hours before a Football Task Force panel that included the chief executive of the body who had delivered the verdict, the FA's Graham Kelly, just one fan raised the issue and then only obliquely.

Libero remembers the night at Highbury two years ago when it emerged that George Graham had left Arsenal in advance of the "bungs" inquiry announcing they believed he had accepted money from an agent. Many fans turned to the press box and blamed its occupants, as if they had trousered pounds 425,000. Graham was also accorded a warm welcome on his return with Leeds United.

His achievements undoubtedly merited as much, and Clough, too, deserves to be remembered with respect for his towering successes. But had the Arsenal fans overlooked that Graham had received the equivalent of pounds 15 per person in the ground that night? How many would voluntarily have paid that levy? And how many at the City Ground would have financed Clough's extra- curricular demands? Not many, judging by the Forest fans complaining about excessive ticket prices there these days.

How now are Forest's achievements to be viewed? "You wonder what to make of events and how much is tarnished," one Forest fan told me. "Would the Stan Collymore transfer have gone through under Clough if a bung had been paid and then it saved us from relegation? Would we have won even more if bungs had not been asked for and refused and signings not slipped away?" How ironic now looks Forest's outrage over a bribed referee in one of their European semi-finals.

It is said that the club should not be punished as any misdemeanours occurred under a previous regime. The secretary Paul White, however, a man criticised by the bungs inquiry for "deliberately misleading" them, is still at the club. While a points deduction may be unfair, financial penalties might be in order.

It is said, too, that only soft targets have been found in the aged and infirm Clough, his assistant Ronnie Fenton and Arsenal's former chief scout Steve Burtenshaw. It is indeed unfortunate that there may be others who have settled with the Inland Revenue and are therefore long since off the hook. Unfortunate too that others named in the report cannot be charged. "The bungs report is a good read but it is not a judicial document," Kelly says. Is it any reason not to charge where possible, though?

What can be said is that the four-year saga is likely to be brought to a conclusion within a month. "It only took us four weeks to deal with the Eric Cantona case," Kelly points out.

However unsatisfactory theoutcome, if the reasons for the game's need for financial integrity have been re-established, then it will all have been worthwhile. This is not just the obsession of journalists, a few politicians such as Kate Hoey and some administrators in the face of hostility from some sections within the game. It is also to restate that if sporting achievement is to be valid it needs to be achieved through fair means alone.

And without its most enduring sponsors - the fans - being treated with disdain, even if many of them, along with the apologists for a tainted game, sometimes lose sight of how central that is.

TWENTY Sunderland supporters apparently ordered those hideous stick- of-rock Stevenage Borough shirts by phone with credit cards and were wearing them last week on the streets of Newcastle. Brave boys.

SOME Manchester United fans, who would like to see a return to limited terracing, have been in conflict verbally with their club and with stewards physically over their refusal to sit down during matches. United say they are breaking the law and are insisting they sit, not least for safety reasons.

Why, then, are other clubs turning a blind eye to the practice? At Southampton last Monday, it was clear Saints' fans at one end were standing throughout the match against United. At Chelsea, away fans are allowed to get away with it while at Leicester there is even an unofficially recognised standing area in one corner for home fans.

Whatever the merits of all-seater stadiums, it is clear that there is an inconsistency and while the law is as it is and terracing outlawed, the seating that is enforced at Old Trafford should be mirrored elsewhere.

It is an act of selfishness to inflict standing on the unwilling, not least small children who cannot then see the match. As the Minister for Sport Tony Banks put it at the Leicester fans' forum last week: "You don't insist on a right to stand up at the theatre or the cinema, do you?"

ONE newspaper noted in its TV listings that Match of the Day would be showing "two of the Premiership's most exciting matches, as well as Coventry against Arsenal". Old attitudes die hard. Coventry are actually quite entertaining nowadays.