Graham Kelly: Big clubs engage in misplaced campaign for better FA Cup deal

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The Independent Online

The eve of the FA Cup Final which saw BBC Television's viewing figures fall to an all-time low of 6.3 million was not the best timing for the Premier League chairmen to be firing their latest salvo at the Football Association in what is becoming an increasingly tiresome saga.

The clubs, already aggrieved at the failure of the FA to contribute to the wages of players whom they take on England duty, have now taken offence at what they regard as the infringement of their rights by the FA's growing commercialisation of the Cup. They have mandated their representatives on the FA board, David Dein, Peter Ridsdale, Ken Bates, and the chairman of the Premier League, Dave Richards, to negotiate on the matter.

Presently, the governing body takes a 10 per-cent royalty on all club merchandise bearing FA Cup marks. Bates has threatened FA chief executive Adam Crozier with the Premier League clubs boycotting next season's FA Cup competition if the FA refuses their terms, but I can tell him that the clubs already sent in their entry forms before the 1 April deadline.

In any case, the obligatory participation of Premier League clubs in the FA Cup competition was one of the cardinal founding principles of the FA Premier League and is enshrined in the League's constitution. Presumably Bates and Dein will call at the bank to deposit their respective shares of this season's prize money on the way to the meeting with the FA. Arsenal picked up a tidy £2m from the FA for landing the trophy.

While the FA redistributes its surplus income across the many different levels of the game, it is still the professional clubs which take the lion's share.

Certainly, the culmination of the Premiership was compelling, if not dramatic. When Arsène Wenger was defending the indefensible and so failing to see the patently obvious during the season, he argued that professional referees were contributing to the disciplinary problems Arsenal had encountered. He felt that, by isolating the élite group of referees, the game was thereby encouraging too narrow an approach, too much reliance on the rules and therefore producing too many red and yellow cards.

It was a good point made by the wrong man at the wrong time and, equally, one which Wenger would struggle to make from the position of authority which his second Double triumph affords him. For, when some Manchester United players threatened to lose their heads in the first half at Old Trafford last week, referee Paul Durkin superbly kept his.

Not only did he keep control of an emotionally charged match, but, throughout, he remained entirely in tune with the spirit of that particular occasion, thereby allowing the players to regain the composure that at one stage many seemed in danger of losing. He ensured that players guilty of excessive foul play were cautioned without resorting to the over-officiousness that can inflame some.

One match and one referee can never prove an argument, but it would be illuminating to hear Durkin talk through the video of that match with the Premier League chairmen when next they are reviewing the remuneration of the referees and compare his fitness levels pre- and post-professional. Knowing them, they would probably complain at him missing the ball that David Seaman cleared from over the goal-line.

After Arsenal lost to Newcastle at Highbury in December and Thierry Henry lost his cool, Bobby Robson observed tartly: "They need to learn how to lose here." They have certainly perfected the art of winning since.

As Wenger contemplates the shift in power to North London which may become reality if the Gunners can make the transition from domestic to European force next season, the Highbury board will view the championship success as a launch pad for the club's new era at Ashburton Grove. In the fluctuating economic circumstances football finds itself in, to be a nearly club is no longer good enough.

They will make renewed efforts to keep Patrick Vieira, who spoke about how much the club meant to him in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Was his gesture in kissing the badge one of loyalty or an invitation to open negotiations for a new deal? He is said to be on £50,000 a week at Arsenal before tax, and Real Madrid would happily double his wages and take care of his tax bill.

To play a whole Premiership season undefeated away is a magnificent feat. Sitting at the Reebok Stadium the previous week, northern pride induced me to believe for a few brief moments that an upset might just be possible. Then, after half an hour, Fredrik Ljungberg and co started to sweep forward fluidly and everything that Wenger has put together simply swept Bolton aside.

Congratulations.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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