A crazy week in an increasingly mad world

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The Independent Football

Even by football's zany standards, this has been a bizarre week. Let us take a sample of the sports pages of a tabloid newspaper, dated Thursday 25 October, which report that Jim Jefferies at Bradford City is battling hard to avoid becoming the 20th manager of the season to lose his job, that two ITV companies are losing £20m a month on their new digital channel, that all of 2,000 viewers – sadly, readers, I was one of them – tuned in to watch Celtic v Rosenborg live on ITV digital, that Birmingham City's owner David Sullivan has been caricatured as Osama bin Laden in a fanzine and put the club up for sale, that West Bromwich Albion's chairman Paul Thompson has been targeted by fans in a hate-mail campaign over the non-purchase of a rather average centre-forward, Daniele Dichio, and that Andy Todd has whacked his own goalkeeper in training and been put on the transfer list by Charlton Athletic. At least, the last item has the smell of old-fashioned boot leather about it.

On Monday came the news that Stuart Gray, a decent man trying to do a decent job in impossible circumstances, had been dismissed at Southampton, to be replaced by someone with "a proven track record", according to the chairman, Rupert Lowe. This is Gordon Strachan, whose proven track record consists of taking Coventry from 17th to 19th place in the Premiership in his five years at Highfield Road. When Strachan left, after a home defeat by Grimsby, the team won five out of the next six matches under Roland Nilsson, which was an eloquent parting gift from his playing staff. But Saints, like Leicester, who swapped Peter Taylor for Dave Bassett, are desperate, so anxious to keep their hands in the Premiership till to pay for their spanking new St Mary's Stadium that they have lost all their traditional sense of decorum, style and identity.

Lowe also thought it entirely acceptable that he should be tapping up the Scot before disposing of Gray. Strachan shouts a lot, looks passionate and is recognisable, decent enough credentials for a seat aboard the carousel. From 1955 to 1985, Southampton had two managers, Ted Bates and Lawrie McMenemy. Since the advent of the Premiership in 1992, they have had seven. Strachan is the eighth.

But there is more. In midweek, Nigel Spackman lost his job at Barnsley, who are second bottom of the First Division. "Expectations are very high at Barnsley" said the outgoing manager with a shake of his head. Sorry? Expectations of what? Beating Manchester United, qualifying for the Champions' League, being quoted on the FTSE index, opening a shop in Bangkok airport. But, no, Barnsley have tasted the big time and, in this customised footballing madhouse, reality is what you want it to be and everyone wants to be someone else.

Manchester United want to be Real Madrid, Liverpool and Leeds want to be United, Southampton want to be Leeds, Barnsley want to be Southampton and when I once spoke to Rob Bradley, a fan turned chairman at Lincoln City, he wanted his club to be like Grimsby. Being average, middle-of-the-roaders is no longer acceptable when next door's machine washes whiter and the next street has fancy gables. In football's version of Home and Away, you are upwardly mobile or in the bankruptcy court. There can be no in between.

So 19 managers are out of a job, which means that 19 football club boards chose the wrong man and the fans of 19 clubs will, one way or another, have to fork out for the compensation claims, while an exclusive little posse of managers flit from one failure to the next and bright young ones are given five games to prove their worth. "If you are going to panic, panic early" is the motto of the modern board-room.

When, for example, did a chairman last come out and tell the real truth about his club. "Look, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking Barnsley FC here and you know as well as I do that we will never be able to compete with Leeds United, let alone Manchester United, and that, occasionally, our travels might take us as far afield as the Premiership or even down to the Second Division. That has been our history. That is the club we are and always have been. Good players will have to be sold, great ones will not be bought. We will choose a manager carefully and stick with him (or her) and we will try, at all times, to play entertaining football, though we will not always succeed. If you don't like it, push off and support Bradford City. Amen."

Strangely, television, the source of football's distortion, could yet be the saviour. There is every sign that the money is starting to run out. Certainly, the £1.6bn deal concluded for the Premier League's broadcasting rights for the next three years would be halved if it was renegotiated today. Advertising revenues are down, viewership is down, Pay TV has failed and United are looking to go back to the private sector. By the time the next round of negotiations begin, it will be a buyers' market and football will rejoice, not suffer. ITV executives should be proud of themselves for rescheduling their flagship Premiership programme because, unwittingly, they have mapped the extremities of the nation's devotion to football. They have tinkered with a tradition and, glory be, the punters won't have it – 1-0 to the armchair majority.

The cracks are also starting to show in the Premiership, a league held together by Manchester United and in desperate need of an injection of colour from north of the border. Under pressure from the Champions' League, the whole package is starting to look jaded. Rangers and Celtic cannot join too soon, and Hearts and Hibs, if necessary, and Livingston. Imagine the desperation in the boardrooms then. Chairmen might have to accept, like shareholders, that stocks can go down as well as up and stop finding scapegoats for their own failures. Also featured on the pages of Thursday's tabloid was an advertisement: "Applications are invited for the post of Sheffield Wednesday team manager, offers in writing to the chairman, Hillsborough, Sheffield S6 1SW." You must be joking.

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