James Lawton: In three words, Hicks Jnr has spoken volumes about football's ruling class
The average fan is utterly deluded if he thinks he is worth anything more than the price of a ticket or a TV subscription
Tuesday 12 January 2010
Say what you like about Tom Hicks Jnr, the former football director, he could yet emerge as one of the pivotal figures in the history of the English game – a guy who, as they are prone to say in boardrooms, cut to the chase.
He certainly slashed through all those heart-rending but invariably futile arguments about the meaning of the team Bill Shankly built, its place in the community, the degree of protection granted to the fans of Liverpool, not to mention those of clubs like Leeds United and Portsmouth and, perhaps somewhere down the road, Manchester United.
Young Hicks, sharp as a whip in his Brooks Brothers gear, went right to the core of the issue, which is, of course, the regard with which most of the football entrepreneurial class hold all those people at the bottom of the food chain who like to think they are still quite an important element in the national game.
He emailed a complaining fan, Stephen Horner, with all the derision and contempt a certain type of well-heeled person reserves for the bothersome attention of a street person.
Hicks, whatever you think of his choice of language – lewd and crude and worthy of the rougher kind of drug dealer – really said it how it is.
It is that the average football fan is utterly deluded if he thinks he is worth anything more than the price of a ticket or a TV subscription. He can join as many pressure groups as he likes. He can create passionate banners. But his proper function is to create profit or, in an increasing number of cases, the means by which large bank loans are serviced.
Pompey fans have not yet been assailed by the language of the gutter but that is where their best hopes have resided for some time. Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, has voiced the fear that Portsmouth could well be on the slide towards oblivion that is only now being reversed by Leeds. He said: "It's always a possibility when you see clubs overreach themselves. But you like clubs to be in the ownership of people who are prepared to declare their interests and be up front about it and you want them to be football lovers. That may well be the case but there's a lack of evidence of that."
Nowhere was it, of course, thinner on the ground than when Hicks Jnr first categorised Horner as an idiot, then, having gathered up the full range of his withering repartee, added, "Blow Me, Fuckface. Go to hell. I'm sick of you." And are we are not sick of the infestation of football by so many people who see in it nothing so much as the main chance, a means of enrichment or some kind of recognition and excitement beyond the accumulation of oil and gas rights?
Is it not wretched that the Premier League talks of a Fit and Proper Persons Test even after once allowing someone like Thaksin Shinawatra to get his hands on Manchester City – and Hicks Snr and his partner, George Gillett, to hawk Liverpool, the most successful club in English football, around the world as though it is disposable trinket?
The role of the Glazer family at Manchester United has so far been larded with enough success to prevent the kind of examination which this last season has laid bare the situation of Liverpool, but when United announce a profit of £48m you are immediately obliged both to tot up the cost of maintaining massive debt and speculate on Sir Alex Ferguson's continued ability to effectively reseed his team.
There has been plenty of criticism of the Glazer debt-loading from the fans but so far the American family have not been witless enough to express the kind of contempt which came surging into the Hicks reaction to the complaint that Liverpool have become the sick man of the English football elite, stripped of any ability to compete properly with their leading rivals.
There is not a lot of point in going over again the failure of Liverpool to make serious progress in their ambition to regain the English title and even those of us who believe that considerable responsibility belongs in the office of manager Rafa Benitez are faced with the dispiriting claim that the club simply do not have the resources to pay off his contract and make a new start.
It is a nightmare that has taken on a momentum of its own.
The lack of leadership has indeed been catastrophic. Until now, though, contempt for the fans and their expectations based on past achievement and tradition has been implicit. Now Hicks Jnr has brought it into the open in one dismissive flashpoint.
It is, strange as it is to say again, a service, though. It strips down the cant and the hypocrisy. The idea of a football club as a force of coherence and pride in a community has been under fierce siege for long enough, but never before has the distance between the fan and his club been quite so brutally expressed.
Tom Hicks Jnr's choice of words, ironically, is what blew the cover. It said something that no press statement will ever say. It said it how it really is. The fan used to imagine that he owned his club. He knows rather better now.
Strong example must be upheld to deter gougers
Wednesday 13 January 2010 – lovers of rugby union should note the date and hope for the right outcome tomorrow when Julien Dupuy of Stade Français appeals against his six-month ban for eye-gouging the Ulster player Stephen Ferris.
The sentence was handed down by Judge Jeff Blackett, the disciplinary officer who was not seen here to have handled faultlessly some of the ramifications of the appalling Bloodgate affair.
However, there could be no rational disputing the strength of his sentiment when, after banning Dupuy, he declared: "This sanction is one heavily influenced by the need for deterrence and the fact that too many previous sanctions for this sort of offending have been unduly lenient. If these offences continue, then players must expect to receive sanctions of increasing severity until deterrence drives this sort of offending out of the game."
Blackett set an excellent precedent, as far as it went, in 2007 when he presided over the 26-week ban handed to England's Dylan Hartley and it is a shame he wasn't around when Schalk Burger last year committed his atrocity against Luke Fitzgerald of the Lions and, shockingly, was banned for just two months.
The judge is not just pushing for vital reform. He is seeking to remove the stain of barbarity.
African players preserve honour in the face of tragedy
Finding perspective in the torment of the African Nations Cup is not easy when Michael Essien is described, by one of our most influential newspapers, as flying into a "death zone".
However, it certainly doesn't diminish the challenge facing footballers who have the opportunity to show that with nerve and courage they can indeed make something out of a tragedy – and at least one organisational disaster.
What can they achieve? They can show that life, even in a designated death zone, can provide strength and stimulation that sometimes are not so easily generated in some of the more antiseptic and lavishly rewarded corners of sport. No one is advocating something as simplistic, and unattainable, as sport's open-hearted triumph over the sinister forces of terrorism and disruption.
However, it is uplifting to learn that so many African footballers, who in their eagerness to preserve a lifestyle beyond the dreams of most of their fellows would have been widely excused in running for cover, have expressed the wish to play on. At a dark time, they have sided with the force of life. It does them much honour.
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