Football: Tremors suggest a football earthquake lies ahead

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The Independent Online
WITH A cigar in one hand and a Scotch in the other, a man who has my affection and respect was going on about how it feels personally to be around in a sporting era when every week seems to bring fresh evidence of instability. "This may be carrying things a bit far," he said, "but I imagine it's like living in an earthquake zone, feeling a tremor beneath your feet and fearing that a disaster is about to happen."

The tremors felt in English football this week, and nobody should take them lightly, spread from the sale of two Premier League players, Andy Impey from West Ham to Leicester and Duncan Ferguson from Everton to Newcastle, against the wishes of the team managers.

In Ferguson's case, it appears that a pounds 7m deal was put through without prior consultation with Everton's manager, Walter Smith, raising the thought that his position is now untenable. Harry Redknapp knew about West Ham's decision to sell Impey but there was nothing he could do to prevent it happening.

These deals have told us something about the financial situation in English football to which the majority of supporters are oblivious and give no second thought when calling belligerently for changes in personnel.

The truth, and a hard truth it is for their supporters to swallow, is that the majority of clubs in the Premier League are facing up to the difficulties caused by salary escalation, exaggerated transfer values and contractual obligations to players who are no longer serving any useful purpose.

By way of relief from the screaming meemies induced by television hyperbole, I spend some time talking to people in sport who can be relied on for objective appraisal. All agree that sport, especially football, is on dangerous ground and that there may be a day up ahead when the tremors we are feeling now develop into a financial catastrophe. "It's often said these days that football has never been more fashionable, and I suppose that's a fact," one of them said, "but the one sure thing about fashion is that it changes."

It's anybody's guess how close we are to upheaval but the time cannot be far off when sport falls completely into the hands of entrepreneurs who hold no respect for its traditions and ancient values.

Earlier this week I spoke with a former rugby union international of much standing who views with trepidation the very real possibility that BBC television will next year lose the Five Nations' Championship to Rupert Murdoch. "If that happens there are bound to be changes in the way rugby is played," he said. "High-scoring games, perhaps unlimited substitutions, players selected solely as place kickers. Instead of two halves, four quarters to accommodate television commercials."

There are, no doubt, plenty of people who regard any change as change for the better. They can point to how things were and argue that nobody can clearly remember the extent of opposition to live football on television or how long it is (37 years) since footballers in England had no say in their personal futures and were restricted to a maximum wage of pounds 20 per week. They can ridicule the old Football League's refusal to allow their champions into Europe on the archaic grounds that it would be detrimental to domestic competition.

What they can't argue, however, is that football, and sport generally, has lost nothing through modernisation. In moments of idleness, when I'm trying to work up some creative thought, I sometimes think about football as it was before agents came along to devalue loyalty.

A question recently put is how many footballers wake up grateful for being paid, in many cases more than the heads of corporations, to play a game. A pretty safe bet is that not many allow that consideration to intrude upon their musings.

In the light of events at West Ham and Everton, it's probably just beginning to occur to followers of football that the prime consideration of most clubs is now financial stability.

From Redknapp's remarks in newspapers and television he feels that West Ham's decision to accept Leicester's offer for Impey was a blow to his authority over the team. Sympathy can be held out for Redknapp. But the way things are going his experience is something football managers will have to live with. Either that or seek alternative employment.

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