Beautiful game lurches towards brink of chaos

By James Lawton
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The Independent Online

If it is true that those who live by the sword tend to die by it, the plight of Aston Villa and their famously ruthless chairman, Doug Ellis, is becoming more than just another passing crisis in football's fast lane. It is emerging as a full blown morality tale, one that players' chief, Gordon Taylor, sees as dramatic evidence of fast approaching "meltdown" at all levels of the game, at home and abroad.

If it is true that those who live by the sword tend to die by it, the plight of Aston Villa and their famously ruthless chairman, Doug Ellis, is becoming more than just another passing crisis in football's fast lane. It is emerging as a full blown morality tale, one that players' chief, Gordon Taylor, sees as dramatic evidence of fast approaching "meltdown" at all levels of the game, at home and abroad.

Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, says: "In all theviolent upheavals the game has gone through in recent years, there has been one priority which football has needed to latch on to above all others. It is the retaining of the trust of the fans. Now we see one of England's top clubs, whose fans have always been passionate in their support, booing key players who have made it clear they want to get away just a few weeks before the start of a new season. It makes you want to hold your head in your hands."

Intensifying the concern is that Villa are merely the tip of the iceberg, though a particularly jagged one with the disaffected Gang of Three, central defenders Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Southgate and striker Julian Joachim, drawing jeers every time they touch the ball. While their desire to leave Villa Park has inflamed the terraces, Ellis publicly negotiates for the cut-price signing of Tottenham folk hero David Ginola and the Villa manager, John Gregory, says his stars can "bugger off."

It is a sentiment echoed at Goodison Park as Nick Barmby rushes off across Stanley Park to join Liverpool, whose interest in the Middlesbrough defender Christian Ziege has deeply undermined the approach of their manager, Bryan Robson, to the new season. At Arsenal, the fans will be missing the influential duo of Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars, and young Robbie Keane flies off to Internazionale scarcely before proper introductions have been made at Highfield Road.

So it goes, and goes. "All my life in football, which stretches to 40 years now, I've believed in the sanctity of contracts," says Taylor, "but now we are all operating on shifting sand. We are in the age of the quick fix and nobody seems to be able to lift their head up and take any kind of look into the future."

Taylor, who is also president of FIFPro, the international professional footballers' federation, repeats a small joke, "I can hear the sands of time ticking down," but he insists the noise of confusion will be deafening come September 22, when the international football authorities are due to present their ideas for a new "transfer protocol," which would recognise the special circumstances of the game, to the European Commission. Taylor is disappointed that of all the European countries, only Britain and Denmark have held out against the principle of making special rules for football.

"We've had sympathetic hearings at lower levels of the Government," says Taylor, "but apparently Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry secretary, is against it. It's so frustrating, especially when you look across the Atlantic at the most capitalist-orientated society in the world. The Americans understand that sport is different, that it cannot operate on the ordinary rules of business."

Taylor's point is timely as the National Hockey League club Ottawa Senators win a test a case against their Russian star Alexei Yashin which requires him to play out the last year of his contract and the mega-rich players of the National Baseball Association - average wage in excess of $2m (£1.34m) - are contractually obliged to pay back nearly $200m because salaries exceeded revenues by some 10 per cent.

Yet, in Europe, Real Madrid, whose neighbours Atletico failed to meet wage bills last season, lash out £37.2m for Luis Figo despite club accounts running deeply into the red. "It's amazing," says Taylor, "that the Spanish football federation haven't stepped in and demanded to see the books."

The Villa maelstrom is particularly depressing in a week which saw the Football Association and the PFA combine brilliantly in producing a new code of conduct for players aimed at stopping dead the anarchy which last season saw appalling intimidation of referees and a general lurch into random indiscipline, highlighted by rioting players in the Leeds-Spurs and Chelsea-Wimbledon games.

"That was a case where a problem was clearly identified and all sides of football got together and did something about it," said Taylor. "It would be nice to think that we could reproduce that kind of effort on an issue which affects the very future of the game. But you can't be too optimistic the ways things are going, which are I suppose symptomatic of the times we live in, when some internet company which hasn't issued a dividend and seems to have no assets, can be valued in millions.

"At Villa there are several sides to the story. They had Dwight Yorke, their great player, taken away from them and they couldn't do much about it. And then the players who have expressed dissatisfaction now, can say, 'well, look around, everybody is doing it, so why should we miss out?' It's not right, maybe, but we are talking about an increasingly imperfect world. The pressure will be on Manchester United now to make big signings, but they can quote the Figo transfer price and say we just can't compete unless we have are own television deals. Where is it leading? To about four clubs making a profit and the end of the game as we have always known it."

And, of course at the heart of it all is the man who in many eyes is public enemy number one, the agent - the man for whom movement of players, any movement, represents instant profit.

"The agent stands to gain most from the current instability," says Taylor. "He has a vested interest in making the biggest deals and helping to fuel the inflation. He is the catalyst."

But then, as Jon Holmes, managing director of SFX Sports Group, Europe, points out, it is idle to ignore certain historical realities, the chief of which is that the greed of so many clubs first expressed in its treatment of players has now largely wiped away any thought of a common interest. Says Holmes, "It is a serious situation at Villa, of course, but you have to look a little below the surface for a proper explanation; you have to see that even before the Bosman ruling on freedom of contract, a lot more power was coming to the players - and this had to be set against a long history of medieval attitudes by a lot of club chairmen. There are probably lessons to be learned from what is happening at Villa Park by everyone in the game.

What is safe to say is that clubs with the best record in dealing with their employees are almost certainly going to have the least problems. Of course when you see Real Madrid lashing out £37.2m for Figo you have to wonder where it will all end. As long as football is seen as such a powerful engine for the development of television and internet interests the big clubs will obviously get by, but if that changes at all there will be a very big problem indeed."

Taylor has a nightmarish vision of that problem. It is of a game of an ever reducing, violently shifting player population where the idea of loyalty to a club and a set of fans is guaranteed to provoke only the most hollow of mirth. It is a picture which mocks all of the old values of a game built on pride of community and dreams of football empire. For so long the nightmare was cast into the future. Now it is happening. At Villa Park.

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