Ken Jones: Football suffers as tycoons and self-inflicted wounds make fans weary

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The Independent Football

It is little more than four decades since Alf Ramsey took complete charge of the England football team. Throughout an 11-year tenure that brought England's only success in major tournaments he regularly commuted by train and tube from his home in Ipswich to the old FA headquarters at Lancaster Gate in West London.

Ramsey worked in a small office. Apart from occasional visits to the now defunct Eccentric Club - appropriately some felt - if Ramsey took lunch, it was at a small restaurant frequented by the FA office staff. On scouting missions it was not beneath him to mingle with supporters on public transport. Those who approached him politely were given the utmost courtesy.

That Ramsey did not deliberately set out to make a name in international football management, that he was above all a patriot who implicitly believed in the inherent strengths of English football, still serves to question many of the values that have invaded, indeed overwhelmed the old traditions.

Of course, Ramsey and some of his great contemporaries, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Jock Stein and the Brazilian football philosopher Joao Saldanha, who put together the most gloriously talented team in World Cup history, would struggle to comprehend the changes that have occurred since football sold out to proliferating corporate activity. "The time may come when teams will gather for big events, spend their time arguing over deals and go home without kicking a ball,'' Saldanha later said when reporting on the 1974 World Cup finals in Germany.

A facetious exaggeration, Saldanha's words nevertheless contained a seed of prescient truth. The tiresome Beckham circus, the lessening of managerial authority, the commercial rampage, the importance of celebrity status, combine to suggest that football, incapable of self-regulation, has changed forever. No longer the proletariat game, it has become the rich man's plaything.

A friend whose opinions I respect and frequently share, argues that what appears to be an irreversible trend could lead to disaster. "Mark my words, the time will come when football supporters grow weary of the showbusiness ethic,'' he says.

Shortly before the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich trained his sights on Stamford Bridge, a Premiership source revealed that six clubs were on the brink of administration. A pretty safe bet is that Chelsea were on that list until Abramovich came calling.

Nor should we disregard the policy that Abramovich's acquisition of Chelsea is the prelude to an aggressive bid for a major British corporation. "We suspect that he's after something bigger,'' a city source said this week. "It could be a 'sighter'. Buying Chelsea gets all the baggage out of the way, all the speculation and rumours about Abramovich's past so that not many questions will be asked if and when he makes his next move.''

So this is what football has come to, a vehicle for personal ambition, beset by the self-inflicted wounds of gross mismanagement, hostage to television money and purchasing power. It is a parable of collective insanity that has a blood relative in practically every Premiership location.

Earlier this week, the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson was pictured entering Abramovich's London residence in the company of Pini Zahavi, who brokered the deal with Chelsea. A blurred, hastily taken snap emphasised that Eriksson doesn't begin to understand the meaning of discretion. The probability is that Abramovich wanted Eriksson's advice - in itself a potentially embarrassing involvement in the targeting of English Premiership players but speculation was inevitable, leading to a statement by Eriksson reaffirming his loyalty to the Football Association.

Since this is not the first time that Eriksson has raised questions about his future, and he is said to miss the daily involvement of club football, it's no wonder that many suspect he won't be on the FA payroll after next year's European Championship finals, assuming that England qualify.

Neither is it any wonder that football supporters generally are growing more and more confused. Bombarded with games on television, they have become sophisticated to the point where they can distinguish between a good game and a bad game. If fans didn't switch on every time there's a TV game, or if they switched off midway through every bad game, TV ratings would plummet. A dialogue of whether the game has peaked would begin. Advertisers and sponsors would desert the sinking ship. The financial structure of football, built on the foundation of television revenue, would crumble. Players forced to take savage salary cuts - it's already happening - would quit.

It's a shocking proposal to put to Abramovich. What do they think he's bought into the game for - sport?

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