James Lawton: Managers have been stripped of their worth in a billionaires' lottery

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The Independent Online

Before the euphoria created by the desert eagle that landed in English football laden with gold runs completely off the graph, maybe we should take another look at some of the implications.

There is one, surely, which casts a long shadow over all the glitter of new wealth and the horizons it can bring to a club such as Manchester City.

It is that more than anything else this has been the week when the football manager has been reduced to the status of a bit-part player in a theatre of the grotesque.

Yes, grotesque. Grotesque values, grotesque imbalances of power, grotesque distribution of influence over the course of the game that used to belong, give or take the investment of the odd local potentate businessman, to the people. You remember the football people? They could hire and fire with their noise on the terraces, their demos and the remonstrations and their banners. It wasn't a perfect system but it gave a hint of democracy and if a club was smart enough to hire a top manager, and give him the means and the independence to do the job, the tide of results settled most arguments.

Look at the new situation for a moment and then wonder if we have arrived at a point in English football where the long-term worries do not dwarf the elation of a City fan who, without any achievement on the field, any brilliant insight into how you make a winning football club, finds himself on the easy, cheque-wielding side of the street.

He is there, even the least reflective of his number knows, because Thaksin Shinawatra, a tawdry figure by any standards in and out of football, decided it was time to cash in his chips and with one of the richest families in the Middle East. And who worked the oracle? Some slavish servant of one of the nation's oldest and most revered football clubs? No, an entrepreneurial young lady named Amanda Staveley, a smart gal from the shires who apparently once copped a marriage proposal from the Queen's second son, and had all the right connections in Dubai to work the deal.

The core of the problem in football terms came when the new billionaire figurehead boss of City, Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim, stood before the cameras and trailed his shopping list : Robinho in, Dimitar Berbatov missed, and Cristiano Ronaldo possibly the £100m-plus target in January. Some problem, the average City punter might be forgiven for exhaling, but why have a manager of the quality of Mark Hughes, if he is denied the classic role of all his great predecessors in the game, the one of shaping a team, making the jigsaw in his own image of what will succeed. Hughes, having been starved of competitive funding at Blackburn for so long, might also say, drolly, "Well, if I have to get by with the likes of Robinho and maybe Ronaldo, I'll just have to try to make a fist of it."

But then the ability of football men like Hughes to operate in a new world, with new ruling factors, does not encompass the wider point about the game's loss of the simple dynamic of making teams according to one man's vision and not some bottomless deposit of wealth. Does the potential brilliance of a Berbatov or a Ronaldo – players who have already made an absolute mockery of concepts like club loyalty – compensate for the loss of the greatest beauty any fan will truly behold: the emergence of their team, a winning team, one built out of knowledge and character assessment and belief in its ability?

Sure, the question has the hollow rattle of dead history. You cannot remake the past but then perhaps you might just hope that some of the best of it is preserved. But in the week when Alan Curbishley felt obliged to end his long but faltering love affair with West Ham and Kevin Keegan, once such a paragon of some of the great football virtues as a brilliant, over-achieving player and a young manager filled with idealism – has suffered levels of humiliation arguably unprecedented in football's descent into a sinkhole of financial opportunism and vulgarity, such a wish is surely forlorn.

Grotesque, did we say? What could have been worse than the sight of Keegan's boss Mike Ashley, an overstretched populist if we ever saw one, sourly swilling his pint in the hours before his club made such a bleak travesty of their promise to give Keegan some vital help in strengthening a pathetically inadequate squad.

Whatever Keegan's fate at St James' Park, he has been the football dead man walking for some time, perhaps from the day of his appointment, his chances reduced to nothing by a lack of support at boardroom level and the gut-wrenching need to place a manager's most vital chore, the signing of new players, in the hands of Dennis Wise.

Here, surely, is evidence of a theatre of the grotesque financed at a far lower level than the one that was taking shape in east Manchester this week.

What occurred there with the unveiling of Dr al-Fahim, we were told, was another Abramovich moment. And what, we had to ask, did that mean? It meant the fans of City, like those of Chelsea before them, had something new to celebrate, but something about as organic and meritorious as a winning lottery ticket. There was a time, we will soon have to remind ourselves, when a football supporter had some reason to believe he was part of something. He had an interest in flesh-and-blood, trial and error, win and loss. Now he cheers for a product, one that failing some financial cataclysm, or maybe a new trend in investment, will always belong to someone else.

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