Football: Wanted: a zeal of approval

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MORE years ago than I care to remember, a hazard of this dubious trade was to deal with a splenetic former naval man from Hull who brought a helmsman's firm hand to bear when appointed secretary of the old Football League.

From somewhere the late Alan Hardaker got hold of the idea that he was beyond contradiction. Club chairmen quaked in his presence. When called to account, novice sportswriters averted their eyes.

You only have to ponder this for an instant to infer what it implies; rule so authoritarian, a dictatorship with a grip so vice-like that even ordinary curiosity, let alone criticism, was effectively suppressed.

Hardaker on a renewal of hostilities between the League and the Professional Footballers' Association: 'I wouldn't hang a dog on the word of a professional footballer.'

Hardaker about television: 'The game will be screened 'live' over my dead body.'

Hardaker when told that an outrageous manager of the time was always good copy: 'So are the Krays.'

Hardaker stubbornly after England defeated West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final: 'It will not influence the future of football in this country.'

With such provocative statements, Hardaker inevitably made enemies, but if he had permitted false modesty to keep him silent, people might never have appreciated his contribution to the national game.

No doubt it's corny, but it is also probably true that with the benefit of Hardaker's inflexible zeal things would be looking up rather than down for the Premier League.

This is not to belittle the administration but what it patently lacks is leadership, a voice that rises above the pathetic internecine strife that has raised the threat of a dangerous split resulting from an allegedly elitist vote which put paid to a pounds 10 million sponsorship arrangement with Bass Breweries.

In case you are not familiar with the facts, the Premier League's constitution is based on one club, one vote. With the enlistment of Queen's Park Rangers, seven clubs - Arsenal, Aston Villa, Everton, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest - who opposed the controversial television deal with the satellite channel BSkyB, have defeated the two-thirds majority required for the Bass offer to go through.

Doubtless there are plenty who think this issue to be immensely boring, but it helps to explain why football in England has never been in such a mess.

Where it goes from here is anybody's guess. On returning hurriedly from Spain this week Graham Kelly, the chief executive of the Football Association, began critical talks with Rick Parry, his counterpart at the Premier League, and Sir John Quinton, chairman of the Premier.

Later, Kelly spoke earnestly about cutting the Premier to 18 clubs, a cornerstone of the FA blueprint that embraced a Premier League on the basis that it would improve playing standards and create opportunities to build a more successful England team. 'We will work together to improve a situation which is obviously causing considerable concern to members of the FA Council. They are unhappy about the wrangling,' Kelly said.

Thinking of what Hardaker would have made of all this evokes an image of steely-eyed disgust. In the first place he would not have given a second thought to what the FA councillors thought. In the second it cannot be imagined he would have allowed the situation to get so ludicrously out of hand.

Of course, times have changed, but if the game's fragile economy justifies a proliferation of sponsorship deals, and television coverage now beyond the point of overkill, it cannot excuse the self-serving philosophy that is now raging through English football.

It is the exception today when people in positions of authority and influence appear to be speaking wisely about the game.

A house divided is a disorderly house in any sport, which is what the the much-lauded Premier League has already become. And it seems to me naive to suppose that we are not moving steadily closer to the idea of a lucrative set-up that will embrace all the great clubs of Europe.

My own feeling, which nobody is required to share, is that some smart movers in all this are simply playing for time. It would not have taken Hardaker a moment to nail them.