James Lawton: Football in desperate need of transparent honesty as the 'whitewash' starts to peel

Tough questions are going to be asked. Interview dates can no longer be ignored
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The Independent Football

The whitewash Lord Stevens was accused of daubing over football graft is already beginning to peel, a fact which should be uplifting to all those who groaned when they heard his hurried-up, anticlimactic report this week. As the City of London fraud squad, the outfit which has put jockey Kieren Fallon in the dock, yesterday confirmed its now active interest in the football bung culture, the widely assailed old cop was maybe due a little credit.

Given that his role was never that of an independent, judicially empowered investigator but an employee of the Premiership, honest men in football may fairly conclude that in the long run one answer he gave this week might just be worth the near £1m it cost.

Lord Stevens was asked: "Is there corruption in football?" His answer was brief but unequivocal. "Yes," he said.

Stevens may have been kept away from the core of that corruption - and the fact that eight agents refused to have dealings with him will for many tell its own story - but in refusing to sign off 17 transfer deals he considered dodgy, and, at least by implication, inviting police and income tax officials to inspect the evidence he has produced, he did not exactly deliver a ringing endorsement of football morality.

The Premiership may believe it can now draw a line under the allegations made by the Luton manager, Mike Newell, and former England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, but they are deluding themselves. When the City's Old Bill announced they were investigating two agents, the issue was taken into another realm.

It is not one where agents can refuse to co-operate. It is one where they can be investigated thoroughly and where their failure to talk would lead directly to an assumption of their guilt - and lead to a rigorous application of the law in the matter of gathering evidence.

George Graham, the only leading football man to be punished for accepting a bung, was not trapped by the force of football's self-policing which, as Stevens has also helpfully pointed out, scarcely exists. He was hunted down by a Danish journalist and British income tax men.

Now, suddenly, the game has widened in the wake of the Stevens report. Under the new terms of reference, dictated by the legally backed investigators, Premiership chairmen can no longer talk airily of statutes of limitation set by themselves or have their chief prosecutor soften the outline of his report; now the piper will be paid not by vested interests but the man in the street.

Some are sceptical about the degree of public support that would gather at the back of a sustained police probe. At least one high-profile commentator has asserted this week that Joe Bloggs doesn't give a damn about the issue. He wants to see his team triumph, and how they do it is utterly beside the point. But then the law is the law, however arbitrarily, or ham-fistedly, applied, and those who do believe that clean sport is rather a good idea will surely be happy that the police appear to have recovered their nerve after a previously disastrous foray into race-fixing allegations.

Fallon, a jockey of consummate brilliance, has had his career severely disrupted by the City of London's fraud squad, the biggest, best-resourced unit of its kind in this country.

Football can only shudder at the idea that agents who have most aroused suspicion will now be invited to help this aggressively proactive unit in its enquiries.

We all know a little of how this works - and how those under investigation can best help both the police and themselves. They can provide hard evidence, something that Lord Stevens and his men plainly found elusive at best. The exceedingly good news for all but the men of graft is that a trail of real investigation has now been laid down. Tough questions are going to be asked. Interview dates can no longer be ignored.

Joe Bloggs may not be thrilled, but maybe the football lover who struggles to meet the costs levied by the modern game will feel a little more enthusiasm. He may just be able to begin to believe that his interests are at last coming under a degree of protection.

At the time of the Graham affair, foreign observers, particularly in North America, were aghast at the lack of official supervision of transfer dealing. They wondered how on earth English football had managed to operate without the kind of checks and balances which underpin any legitimate business in most parts of the developed world. They assumed there would be an automatic tightening of control, at the very least a central clearing office where all transfers were carefully inspected by trained lawyers and accountants. More than a decade on, Stevens is insisting on such reform.

Now the fraud squad is on the job, who knows, the mind of football might just be concentrated on the need for transparent honesty. The hope may still be a little fanciful, but no doubt much less so than when a football bung-buster lacked the ability even to feel a collar.

Maybe, just maybe, this time the whitewash has been spread a little too thinly.

The no man's land between fact and fiction

David Peace is a fine writer and his latest book, The Damned Utd, has been enthusiastically reviewed.

Not, however, by one of its principal characters, the former Leeds United and Ireland field general John Giles.

Indeed, Giles was both alarmed and appalled to see himself quoted extensively in this study of Brian Clough's brief and catastrophic reign at Elland Road. He wasn't thrilled about being depicted as a shady, shifty character when he attended an interview at Tottenham Hotspur, officially approved by his club, around the time Clough was telling his new players that as far as he was concerned all their medals could be thrown into the nearest dustbin.

However, what particularly concerned Giles was to see on his own lips phrases he believes he might not have uttered under extreme torture, partly because he wouldn't have known what they meant.

He was particularly offended to be quoted as saying to Clough, "Never shit a shitter." In fact, even the heaviest critics of Giles' sometimes ruthless tackling have never disputed the fact that what you saw was absolutely what you got, whether it was an assassin's kiss of a tackle or a magnificent piece of football judgement.

Peace said his book was a fiction based on fact. Perhaps that is how he saw it. Giles, perhaps understandably, feels rather differently. He thinks that fiction is fiction and fact is fact, that you write from your imagination, which he feels Peace does rather well, or from the facts. Interestingly, the judges of the William Hill Sports Book of the year award felt pretty much the same way. The Damned Utd didn't make their long list of candidates. It was adjudged to be a novel.

Fatal mistake of complacency at The Valley

Charlton Athletic's chairman Richard Murray gave a classic chairman's review of his club's desperate plight this week.

After the latest catastrophe, defeat by Wycombe Wanderers, Murray was heaping most of the blame on the former manager Iain Dowie, with a little attaching itself to the struggling incumbent, Les Reed. Both were, of course, Murray's appointments.

Some thought the chairman would have been wise to have made more strenuous efforts to keep the brilliant Alan Curbishley when he walked away last summer. Regretting a bout of spending by Dowie, which he approved, Murray says: "Like Birmingham last season, we tried to go to the next level. It was so tempting to go that way. People were fed up of finishing 12th each year. You push the boat out and maybe you lose a bit of what you have." What they lost in Curbishley, it may have dawned on those down in The Valley as he opened his account with West Ham United by delivering that stunning defeat of Manchester United, was a manager who knew exactly how to survive in the top flight despite the toughest of odds. What would Charlton give for 12th place now? Presumably the £20m they will lose from the expanding gravy boat of the Premiership when, as seems virtually certain, they are duly relegated. Charlton grew to take that largesse, and the competence that created it, for granted. Not for the first time in football, it is proving a fatal mistake.