Football: Who watches the watchdogs?

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The Independent Online
DAVID MELLOR, the Football Task Force chairman, was off the mark last week when, on the publication of the report into commercial issues in the game, he said that the Football Association, as a non-professional body, was always going to have difficulty in regulating a highly professional industry.

The FA has many competent professionals experienced in football administration, but their proposals for financial compliance and monitoring have always foundered because of the very nature of the association. It is, under its constitution, precisely what the name implies, an organisation of football clubs. Neither players, managers, referees nor supporters are represented.

Premier League clubs have traditionally resisted recommendations for closer financial scrutiny on the grounds that, as they are incorporated bodies, the regulatory framework of company law renders any new "expensive bureaucracy" unnecessary. It is this reluctance to countenance outside interference which points up the dilemma now facing ministers: whether to legislate, or allow football itself to set up an independent scrutiny body which would merely monitor codes of practice. The issues which concern supporters' organisations are mer- chandising rip-offs, asset-stripping, profiteering and the rampant escalation in ticket prices.

The catalyst for the commercial revolution was the explosion in television rights fees after satellite blew open the BBC/ITV cartel 10 years ago. Twenty-five years or so ago the game was commercially innocent, off the field if not on it.

England's World Cup success of 1966 was achieved against the backdrop only of the low perimeter fencing at Wembley. Ground advertising hoardings appeared for the first time in an FA Cup final only in 1972. Yet by 1985, the Football League found itself in contractual difficulties with its first league championship sponsor, Canon, because the clubs could not, or would not, find space for their boards.

Shirt advertising came in only 20 years ago. At first BBC and ITV refused to allow the sponsored shirts in televised matches. Before the FA's relaxation of the rules, Jimmy Hill put a large T, depicting car manufacturer Talbot, on Coventry City's shirt front. Sharp have sponsored Manchester United ever since.

Trawling through the 1989 Rothmans Year Book I found that Walkers Crisps (Leicester City) have stayed the course. Greenall's sponsored three clubs in 1989: Newcastle United, Chester and Huddersfield Town. Carlsberg, then with Wimbledon, have transferred to Liverpool. Oxford United had Wang; I'm sure I once heard opposition fans chanting this name at the Manor Ground. Derby County had the word Maxwell, as did some, but strangely not all the Oldham Athletic shirts. Bradford City's team photograph included the Lord Mayor on the front row, but as far as I could ascertain they were not sponsored by the city council. Derby County's Championship-winning team photograph in 1975 has no commercial accoutrements - no boards, no logos, nothing except the magnificent old League trophy.

Before the England kit contract moved from Umbro to Admiral in 1974, the manufacturer's trademark did not appear alongside the three lions badge. There exists a wonderful photograph of Bobby Moore playing for West Ham United in 1969. He had one arm on a goalpost, eyes closed, waiting for play to re-start. His kit had no commercial marks on it whatsoever, not even the club badge.

George Best is pictured at Highbury around the same time; hard though it may be to believe now, Manchester United's away kit of blue shirts, blue shorts and blue stockings, in which they won the European Cup for the first time, at Wembley in 1968, is similarly unadorned.

Now the shirts are fashion items and carry club badge, maker's trademark and shirt advertisement. The League logo is on the sleeve and name accompanies number on the back. This latter aid to identification is not much use, however, if, like on Birmingham City's shirts, the lettering is white over a fussy white pattern anyway.

It was Admiral who briefly featured numbered tags round the top of the players' socks. This never really caught on, but picture editors would have found it useful in the days before players' shorts carried their number.

Ministers considering the Task Force report have significant issues to resolve. Football clubs do indeed exercise monopolistic control over their supporters. It is unthinkable, for example, for a true Fulham supporter to transfer his allegiance to Chelsea, so he has to pay Fulham's prices or stop going. And clubs need other clubs to play against.

But, at the highest level, they have to compete in a global economy against wealthy continental clubs. How can affairs be regulated to reconcile the interests of investors with those of supporters?

The Task Force says that only fit and proper persons should be allowed to take over football clubs. But even Robert Maxwell was welcomed with open arms by Oxford United fans when he saved their club from going bust.