Ian Herbert: Beautiful game turns into a political football when election time comes

MPs are catching the wave (or is it bandwagon?) of interest generated by fans' protests
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The Independent Football

It started with Peter Mandelson at a windswept Hartlepool marina nine years ago. He was back in constituency action after the second of his Cabinet resignations and latched on to the then Hartlepool United manager Chris Turner's manager of the month award ceremony to win back some grass-roots goodwill.

Turner was expecting to receive the customary plaque and champagne from Mandelson but was instead bequeathed something he described as "very special" to him. It was the politician's blue-and-white Hartlepool FC scarf, which Mandelson draped rather unconvincingly around Turner's shoulders. "Who plays left-back for Hartlepool, Mr Mandelson?" I asked the then MP, who had been Hartlepool's honorary president for the previous decade but hadn't been seen at Victoria Park in three years. "We don't pick the team until tomorrow," Turner intervened. He was a fast learner in a new-found world of the political joust.

So, as I say, it started back then – three months before the 2001 general election: an appreciation of how the politicians turn to football for popularity at election time and just how excruciating they can be. Astounding though it may seem in hindsight, Margaret Thatcher made an official visit to Anfield in 1976, wearing a red chiffon scarf. Harold Wilson often invited George Best to Downing Street in the 1970s and regularly wrote to him, though Best – being Best – was too preoccupied to reply. And of course, Tony Blair played keepie-ups with Kevin Keegan and turned up in the "Football Focus" studio in another election year, 2005. The folk tale about Blair claiming he started watching Newcastle United "just after Jackie Milburn" – who actually retired when Blair was four – is based on a misquote, incidentally. Mark Lawrenson, with Blair in the "Football Focus" studio that day, attests to his knowledge of Steed Malbranque, playing for Fulham at the time, and Arjan de Zeeuw, a pillar of Wigan Athletic's defence.

Gordon Brown has been kept away from the FF sofa – there are suggestions he rather fancied the idea – but don't dismiss some more imminent talk of Raith Rovers in the next few days because the Prime Minister may call the election this week and we are already in receipt of evidence that the Labour news machine has our sport in its sights.

Reforms to the governance of football are "due to be included in the Labour manifesto", we were told last week – which will certainly be a first, since manifestos are always reserved for the broad brush of the nation's future. No 10, Labour said, intended to tackle issues of debt in football by handing a 25 per cent stake in clubs to fans and giving them a window of time to take over their club if it were to be put up for sale or enter administration. Downing Street would, for good measure, also remove "vested interests" from the FA board.

All laudable stuff, you might think, if only it weren't for the foul stench of suspicion that the politicians are at it again – catching the wave (or is it the bandwagon?) of interest generated by fans' protests at Old Trafford and Anfield, and fans' despair at Fratton Park. Supporters' takeovers – wasn't that the subject of the Share Liverpool FC group meeting attended a full 18 months ago by Andy Burnham (Everton fan and a seriously decent player) who was then Culture Secretary? "Take the club back from within," Burnham urged the fans that day, but we've heard precious little from the politicians about that idea since Burnham moved on to the Department of Health last June and Ben Bradshaw moved in.

And come to think of it, wasn't removing the "vested interests" from the FA board, by establishing independent directors, precisely what the Government-commissioned Burns report recommended five years ago?

There are more questions than answers about the new "policies". Some corporate recovery analysts believe that fans' legal right to a share of clubs might affect deals with credible new proprietors who want total control. There might be implications for receivership law.

We seem to be back at square one in our search for political answers; wondering where, if those manifesto pledges are looking as woolly as Mandelson's old scarf, we might go for evidence of which is the best political party for football. In the national interest, this column has done some wrestling with Who's Who to discover which parties wear the colours. Labour leads this particular table, with 60 MPs who declare an interest in the game, as compared to the Tories' 13 and the Liberal Democrats' eight. Not much to base your vote on here, since a declared football allegiance is de rigueur among Labour MPs. Every member must have a scarf.

There are a couple of convincing Lib Dems on our list, manfully following sides outside of their constituencies. Taunton's Jeremy Browne has stuck with QPR, while Tim Farron – an "average goalkeeper" his entry reveals – won't be dragged away from Ewood Park to Carlisle's Brunton Park, regardless of what his Westmorland and Lonsdale constituents say.

And talking of the Lib Dems, their shadow sports minister, Don Foster, answered his telephone from a noisy Twerton Park on Friday and said he couldn't talk football politics until Bath City had finished with Dorchester Town (a 2-0 win, it transpires, with winger Lewis Hogg playing a key part in the play-off push).

Meanwhile, the Tories' shadow minister for sport and the Olympics, Hugh Robertson, a Chelsea season-ticket holder when he worked in the City is the one to watch if it's a dust-up with the FA you're looking for. Robertson appears to be ready – should the Conservatives come to power – to make the FA's life very unpleasant by removing political goodwill if it does not take on independent directors.

Nothing to base a vote on there, though, so perhaps it's time to forget the politicians and consider whether players as politicians might be the real vote-winner. David Beckham only has to wear a green-and-gold scarf to start a stampede, after all. The first ever Old Trafford match programme, republished recently by Manchester United, revealed the ground was equipped a century ago with "a reading room, because we may have our chaps preparing [to become] barristers or MPs". Rooney for Parliament: now there's a thought. And he does have a little bit of time to kill, after all.

Moyes produces better value than rivals in the wages league table

Martin O'Neill did not banish the idea yesterday that last week's hint that he will quit this summer was a nudge to his chairman, Randy Lerner, that he wants more money to move Aston Villa on. "I didn't say [I was going]. I actually said I would like to stay on, but I will have to evaluate things at the end of the season," O'Neill said. It is another of those stories which is becoming tied up in nuance but would resolve itself with some plain talking. Villa's direction of travel under O'Neill's has taken them far from the land they occupied under David O'Leary and Doug Ellis in 2006, but what kind of claim for more investment from Lerner does O'Neill have?

It's a misconception that success depends on the amount of money spent on transfers. It doesn't. Wages are the all-important factor. The most recent accounts from Villa's parent company, Reform Acquisitions Limited, show that Lerner is investing particularly heavily in the wage bill. The total staff costs have leapt a mighty £20m in one year, from £50.447m to £70.577m.

Only one Premier League club continues to defy all the "logic" of football economics when it comes to the key factor of wages – Everton. David Moyes has many of the same challenges as O'Neill – a relatively small squad and limited options to rotate. He has also had fans booing his side off the pitch this season. In that matter, too, he is one who has viewed his position with the greater equanimity.

Lampard tackles anti-semitic chanting

Another detestable bias which football is preparing to tackle. This column can reveal that Frank Lampard has been signed up by David Baddiel for a two-minute film, The Y Word, which seeks to highlight the abhorrence of anti-semitic chanting and consign it to the past. The film by Baddiel and his writer brother, Ivor, both Chelsea fans, will highlight the use of the word "Yid" in chants. Securing the support of players to deal with homophobia in football is a more challenging task but it must be the next.

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