Graham Kelly: FA should stand firm against proposed new rules on imports

They used to be held under the crystal chandeliers of the Café Royal in London's West End. These days, I'm sorry, but the Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham, does not have the same ring.

The annual general meeting of the Football League was formerly a ceremonial occasion, when campaigning for a place in the League or on the ruling committee came to a head. In the modern era it is much more a low-key affair, with the accent on serious business matters without the trappings.

The Premier League is similar, the movers and shakers preferring to take themselves off to a country retreat to conduct their affairs of state.

A couple of decades ago, when the collective debt of the clubs rose to about £15m and the clubs' bankers began to nag the chairmen to do something about it, the arch-opportunist Jimmy Hill, then at Coventry City, managed to get all the chairmen bar one or two round the same table for a chin wag. Burnley's Bob Lord, then the League's vice-president, said: "I'm not going. It'll be a waste of time. They'll all turn turtle anyway come the annual general meeting."

Well, Lord made many correct decisions about football from his Lancashire lair, but that was not one of them, for Hill's seminar not only instigated three points for a win, but it also established the idea of paying transfer fees within twelve months: 50 per cent down and 50 per cent within a year.

It was entirely unsurprising to learn that, just as the clubs were anticipating a downturn in the revenue from the next television contract, it was agreed at last Friday's Premier League annual meeting to allow transfer fees to be spread over the length of players' contracts.

No restrictions have encumbered dealings with foreign clubs, and so, it has been argued, there has been a disincentive to buy on the domestic market.

I prefer to remember the original reasons why the rules came in. Look back at virtually every point in football's history. As far as I can see, there has always been a collective tendency to overspend, to build a shaky edifice on foundations of sand.

The leaders of the League 20 years ago scratched their heads and said: "We are a beleaguered garrison and we are not sure what the answer is" before finally heeding the bankers who threatened dire retribution if something was not done.

I cannot accept the validity of the argument for reinstating loan transfers between Premier League clubs. It is a system that will be wide open to allegations of abuse and favouritism. There were excellent reasons for doing away with it in the first place and they related to credibility.

The Premier League chairmen are also pushing for the quick fix by banging on doors in Whitehall attempting to have the rules on foreign players relaxed. They want a quota system of three non-European Union players per club instead of work permits.

No wonder Sven Goran Eriksson watches so many matches - he has to travel the length and breadth of the Premiership to stumble across an English goalkeeper, for example. Historically, the English game had an embarrassment of riches in this position and many fine keepers struggled to gain international recognition.

Currently, work permits are only granted to players who have appeared in over 75 per cent of their country's international matches over the previous two years against top-ranked opposition. This stipulation prevents clubs from bringing in young, undeveloped talent, but the fear is that any relaxation will be exploited by clubs and unscrupulous agents plundering markets in less-developed countries at the expense of their own development systems or at the expense of home-grown players.

Why should the Football Association, which is supposed to oversee the best interests of the English game as a whole, countenance such a proposal? At the very least, quota signings should be allowed for over 21-year-olds only.

Back in the dramatic days of the Café Royal there were real moments of high tension - and low farce too. After the first season of the new Alliance League (now the Conference) champions Altrincham went on to the ballot paper with Darlington, Crewe, Hereford, and Rochdale in 1980. When the count revealed that two clubs had omitted to cast their vote, Altrincham had missed out, losing to Rochdale by a single vote.

The story had it that the errant chairmen had promised their votes to Altrincham. One, from Grimsby, sat in the wrong part of the hall because the club had just been promoted. The other, from Luton, returned late from lunch either because he was unaware of the time of the meeting or because of the London traffic.

It seems that the Luton chairman, whoever he may be, is still out to lunch.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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