James Lawton: How to stop Pompey, or any other clubs, going the same way as Leeds
Saturday 12 December 2009
How odd, now, that there really was that quite recent time when the Premier League, the flagship of world club football, the place where all the great players, except Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Franck Ribéry wanted to be, was so pleased with itself it couldn't wait to plant the little flags of the 39th fixtures all over the globe?
It certainly seems rather quaint, does it not, as Portsmouth teeter towards the tragi-comic fate of becoming the first serving member of the League, that was supposed to be the envy of the world, to go into administration.
Being part of the Premier League was, we were being constantly told, to inherit the best of the world's football possibilities.
Upholstered by vast amounts of TV money, invested in by two or three of the world's richest men, with players like Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and Fernando Torres flocking to the banner, what could go wrong? Well, take your pick from over-reaching greed, a business plan from hell and the insane belief that it was feasible to maintain even the most mediocre of players on incomes in excess of a million pounds a year.
So far the most conspicuous victims of the privilege of Premier League membership have been Leeds United and Southampton, clubs forced into administration when they were separated from the golden umbilical cord of the TV largesse.
Yet with each new bulletin from Portsmouth, we are reminded that what is happening to one of the nation's dearest-loved clubs is merely the most obvious symptom of a malady that is tugging away at the peace of mind of all but a few of our top-flight clubs.
Take away Arsenal and Tottenham, who maintain, to varying degrees, the touching old custom of being responsible to their shareholders, and Aston Villa, run by an American who doesn't have to go into vast debt to fuel adequately the ambitions of Martin O'Neill, and what we are looking at is surely a bad case of economic madness.
Uefa and their president Michel Platini are said to be activated by extremes of envy and malice when they cite Premier League clubs as in most need of the sanity that might come with some form of salary capping. Yet take a glance at the balance sheet of almost every leading English club and Platini's case is spelled out not in some Anglophobic bile but great splodges of red ink.
The most recent one issued by Bolton Wanderers is a mind-boggling document which explains most graphically why the club chairman Phil Gartside might have proposed a relegation-proof two-tier Premiership which would carry the financial incentive of including Celtic and Rangers – and damn the Scottish Premier League – and preserve, at least a little way down the road, an exclusive club unburdened by any excessive competitive pressures.
Most surreal is Bolton's annual wage bill. It's £41m – or more of less precisely four-fifths of the club's football related income, which includes £37m from television and £5m through the gate. Bolton made a loss of £13m.
Most astounding is the apparent equanimity of the Premier League in the face of the financial arrangements of three of the four clubs who have for so long formed what was seen as an immutable elite. Manchester United have a debt that would have been cause for concern in a much easier financial climate, Liverpool have owners who appear to have gone to the limit of their credit and Chelsea live on the whim of an owner who may not always be deemed unaccountable to the Russian people for the vast profits he has turned on the nation's mineral resources.
Manchester City? Their modus operandi is to dig into the oil riches of their owner in a way that, if done with acumen and patience, takes them inevitably in a class beyond the aspirations of all but two or three of their rivals.
Such imbalances of competition, and wildness of expenditure, would have made moribund long ago three of the most successful, money generating leagues in the history of sport: America's National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.
In North America more than lip service is paid to the concept of a league as defined in the dictionary, an organisation which never loses sight of the fact that it will always be only as strong as its weakest member. The idea of transfer windows, when the rich get stronger and weaker get ever more desperate, when the more powerful clubs can compensate for such variables as disappointing form and injuries and their inferiors accept that they are liable to lose their best players, would be considered nothing less than bizarre in a sports society where a basic right is for the least successful club of one season to pick the best available player for the next.
This is the acceptance that without some attempt to make a level playing field, the first casualty of a new season is always going to be the idea that success is a possibility beyond a few of the most advantaged.
When you look at the plight of Portsmouth, for one thing, you see the harsh reality of that last theory. Of course you see other problems. You see the fallacy that the Premier League operates an effective screening of prospective owners, that their fit and proper persons rule is nothing more than window dressing. You see what happens when the operating principle of the League has always been a crude, unforgiving form of the devil taking the hindmost.
Export the Premier League? No, it should be kept at home and taught a few valuable lessons before the whole ungodly exercise falls into small pieces.
Schumacher can bring edge back to F1
Michael Schumacher's now likely return to the cockpit is bound to provoke a wide range of emotion, including the strange one expressed by a BBC radio talkshow hostess. She said she was distinctly underwhelmed.
Schumacher would be as boring this time as he was the last, she said. He should leave the stage to new and thrilling young stars like Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
It was just another reminder that if you didn't understand what was happening yesterday you probably haven't a clue about today.
Hamilton and Button have their qualities, of course, but we will need several years to even begin the assessment of whether they are remotely in the class of the old "Iceman".
In the meantime it is surely time to celebrate again the sheer presence of a calculating, relentless and often far from chivalrous winner. Lovable, he is perhaps not. But then for some of us masterful will do. He will bring back an edge, a standard that went missing the moment he walked away.
Richards' return would make the blood boil
The quality of mercy may not be strained but the credibility of rugby union, its ability to learn from past mistakes, sometimes appears to be at breaking point.
It is certainly hard not to take this view after the Harlequins chief executive, Mark Evans, suggested Dean Richards might return to the club after he has served his three-year sentence for orchestrating the appalling "Bloodgate" affair.
Evans not only survived the catastrophe that came on his watch but attracted considerable sympathy as one of the game's brighter spirits. However, he seems to have utterly misunderstood the depth of the revulsion provoked by the blood-faking and subsequent attempts at cover-up.
Richards, like everyone else, is entitled to make a new start in a sport to which he brought such distinction before his fall from grace. However, the possibility that it should come, literally, at the scene of the crime is nothing less than breathtaking.
Tiger is not the retiring type
Whatever the future holds for Tiger Woods, we can be sure that it will not be one without golf.
The latest theory is that in a desperate attempt to save his marriage, the Tiger is prepared not only to agree to re-write a pre-nuptial agreement with numbers that might have come from his mobile's extensive memory, but also retire from the game. There is a better chance of his hugging his bête noire, Sergio Garcia. No doubt the world's best golfer has made a mess of his private life in the last few years. But he is not likely to make the ultimate miscalculation. This would be to forget what he does – by all accounts – infinitely better than anything else.
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