Football: There will be a price for victory

While plenty celebrate Murdoch's rebuff, Ferguson's expansionist dreams are at risk
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The Independent Online
A HOME DRAW and a government defeat. It doesn't add up to much of a week for the suits of Manchester United. When Juventus's Zinedine Zidane was perceived to be the main danger man to the Red Devils, it turned out to be a little known left-to-central midfielder who most impeded progress at Old Trafford. Or dealt Roy Keane-like with the predatory Rupert Murdoch. It depends upon your point of view.

While there is enough evidence to suggest that Alex Ferguson's men can retrieve matters in Turin on Wednesday week, the ramifications of the Trade Secretary Stephen Byers' decision to prohibit the proposed pounds 623m merger between the club and BSkyB will be experienced for years to come.

The irony was that it should arrive on the day the United manager revealed his personal wish list, containing the pounds 20m Zidane himself, Gabriel Batistuta (pounds 15m), Marcelo Salas (pounds 15m), Lilian Thuram (pounds 10m), Juan Veron (pounds 15m), and the pounds 8m goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. The likelihood is that this ruling will seriously inhibit any such investment, unless an interest benign enough to satisfy the Government makes a similarly enticing offer.

In that sense, it could be a Pyrrhic victory for those who rejoiced on Friday at United's continued "independence", when that concept actually went walkabout on the day that the club was floated.

It brought to mind the Charlton manager Alan Curbishley's words in the week that the proposed merger was announced, having just seen his side defeated 4-1 at Old Trafford. "You've got where you are by raising money through the City and if someone comes along and gobbles you up, that's the way it is. I think it will enhance the club and benefit the players." But then, the football industry itself has always tended towards pragmatism, not romanticism. Hence Ron Atkinson's "gut feeling that this is better news for the rest of the Premiership".

Once the rejoicing has subsided, Manchester United will continue to be Britain's dominant force; and as Paul Richards, of Shareholders Against Murdoch, said: "The club already has the money to buy players and the commercial arm and brand is one of the most successful in the world." What Mr Richards and his euphoric comrades must now consider - and there appears no doubt that the more rational submissions to the commission influenced their verdict - is whether their club can seriously, and consistently, compete with the elite of Europe in a market in which United's extravagant- looking acquisitions have actually been quite limited when compared to the purchasing power of Italian and Spanish clubs.

While the commission regarded comparisons with the media-magnate controlled Milan and the TV-owned Paris Saint Germain somewhat dismissively, it remains a pertinent issue. Money may not guarantee success per se, but while English clubs' rivals in the crucial European theatre of football conflict remain relatively unfettered by such prohibition of controlling interests, they will continue to hold an advantage.

It is said that Alex Ferguson, who has his own contract negotiations to complete in the summer, will still have pounds 30m available in the close season. But the more vexed issue concerns wage settlements. It is only when United's existing players - Keane, determined to procure a pounds 2m deal, leaps particularly to mind - renegotiate their terms, and Ferguson attempts to lure the world's most sumptuously gifted individuals, that the true context of this judgement can be considered.

Those who opposed the merger have been transparent in their desire to a emasculate a media hate-figure, a man who has revolutionised broadcasting, and particularly that of sports coverage, yet who has emerged more Herod than hero.

Just as the Tonys, Blair and Banks, made their own contri-bution to Glenn Hoddle's demise, some will suspect that this issue has become yet another populist gesture from the Government, in the safe knowledge that Murdoch will never take retaliatory action by endorsing William Hague. It has been said that Byers had no alternative. Whether his predecessor, Peter Mandelson, would have rejected the report, we can only speculate.

One sentence in Byers' speech stands out like the Juventus midfield at Old Trafford: "The merger would damage the quality of British football" - the suggestion being that the differential between rich and poor would grow.

There is a football utopia in which the game would run on a democratic basis, under which every club's aspirations were treated fairly and equally.

One in which Macclesfield could, purely by dint of shrewd management and investment in players, become a Manchester United. The onset of global TV broadcasting and the fabulous income from that source, flotations, mega-wealthy owners and commercial spin-offs, have rendered that a vista for misty-eyed sentimentalists. The introduction of the Premiership and the BSkyB TV deal - and let us not forget that the decision of the Restrictive Practices Court on the case at present being brought by the Office of Fair Trading against the Premier League could have a further radical impact - have merely exacerbated the problems and highlighted the advantages.

Regrettable as it may be for many, TV money and accompanying exposure from the false idol towards which the world increasingly genuflects will remain the power that controls the national game, whether in Murdoch's hands or a multiplicity of entrepreneurs. In a sense, armchair fans rule; not the season-ticket holder.

By all the evidence on Wednesday night, the last thing United need now is an artificial ceiling on their expenditure. Against a Juventus team, who, as Ferguson suspected beforehand, would be far more attuned with each other than Internazionale had been, his team have rarely appeared more bereft of ideas at Old Trafford in recent years. Perhaps there's a case for Juve to be in front of the Restrictive Practices Court, too, accused of severely limiting David Beckham's crossing, and largely negating the normally incisive edge of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

It was provident for the hosts that Ryan Giggs played with an abandon that on his night makes him the best left-sided attacker in Europe, and that the resourceful Teddy Sheringham should have seen a rare piece of action. Otherwise, old ZZ balding top himself, Zinedine Zidane, would have returned to Turin, his status of world footballer or the year even more embellished, despite wearing a disabled badge. The Frenchman has that rare gift of possessing a consummate delicacy of touch allied with a power and presence that allows him to retain the ball even when apparently beaten. As Orwell might have put it: Two legs good. One leg, bloody marvellous. The England coach Kevin Keegan observed as he left Old Trafford: "Even at 70 per cent fit, he was frightening. It was a wonderful display, he'd get in my team 50 per cent fit."

He added: "He's the sort of guy you'd like to man-to-man mark, but you don't know if you could find anyone to stop him. He's got a bandage on and has hardly played since Wembley but he's come out and you keep thinking: `How's he got that space?' His feet are so good. Even from throw-ins with a man on him, he still came out with the ball." Keegan paused, before adding: "Eh, but the great news for United is that they're still in the game. Sheringham's introduction turned it for them. It was a fantastic substitution. The way it was you couldn't see how United were going to find a way back in. Alex will know they're still in with a chance because he always fancies them to score a goal away from home."

Giggs' added-time equaliser may yet secure United's passage to the final. As Edgar Davids explained, Juve left Manchester disappointed. "Normally when Italian teams go a goal up they lock the door and throw away the key," he said. "But it was different tonight. English teams never give up."

That quality is also a warning to Arsenal that if they believe United will be unusually vulnerable, given the week's events, in today's FA Cup semi-final they do so at their peril. "The fact that we are 90 minutes from Wembley will concentrate our minds," reflected Ferguson, who insisted that no one should underestimate the "endurance factor of my team". He added: "The only problem I have is whether to bring in fresh faces and fresh legs. I have players champing at the bit to get in."

Against the advice of most prophets of doom, this observer still expects United to prevail in Turin, and that their preparations for the European Cup final in Barcelona will be simplified by not appearing against Tottenham at Wembley. But then, as has been vividly illustrated this week, forecasting results can be a decidedly precarious business.

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