MPs close their talking shop and wait

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The Independent Football

It will not make the most riveting day's television ever shown, nor challenge EastEnders' viewing figures, but BBC Parliament's 13-hour review on Tuesday of the All-Party Football Group's inquiry into the sport's finances is at the very least a worthy exercise in the workings of the democratic process.

The inquiry ended last week after seven sessions, over six months, most of which will be shown on Tuesday. Open to the public, the meetings featured a cast list of football's great and good being questioned by eight or nine members of the 150-strong group.

The chairman is Alan Keen MP (Labour), an amiable character who despite living 50 metres from Brentford's ground in his Feltham and Heston constituency owes his football allegiance to Teesside; before entering the House of Commons at the 1992 general election, he did scouting reports for a succession of Middlesbrough managers, from Stan Anderson through Jack Charlton and John Neal to Bruce Rioch.

Regular appearances, at 65, for the Parliamentary football team, illustrate his continuing enthusiasm for the game, of which he says: "It makes such a contribution, doesn't it? There's a club in my constituency with a hundred-plus kids playing every week, decreasing youth crime, improving healthy eating and so on. That's why we care so much about football."

His inquiry, which hopes to publish its report and recommendations in early February, has less power than a select committee, but "greater depth", Keen says. "I think there was some opposition at first, so we said we weren't out to tell the football authorities what to do. We've gathered evidence from all areas of the game and I think it will strengthen the hand of somebody like Richard Scudamore of the Premier League, who will have the evidence to distribute round the clubs."

And are those authorities likely to take any notice of the recommendations? "Well, I think they'll be judged by the media on whether they accept or reject them." The track record is not good, if based on the two Chester reports of 1968 and 1983. Yet the climate has changed to the extent that supporters are no longer merely to be seen and not heard; the interests of "stakeholders" and shareholders are of some worth; and the Football Association are prepared to subject themselves to the admittedly gentle outside scrutiny of the Independent Football Commission.

It is difficult, for example, to imagine the late Alan Hardaker, the tsar of Lytham St Anne's, sitting patiently in a Westminster committee room being interrogated by Lord Faulkner of Worcester, Christine Russell MP and half a dozen other Labour members on whether supporters had enough say, and what he intended doing about the increasing financial chasm between Manchester United and Mansfield Town.

The latter question has preoccupied the inquiry more than any other. In last Monday's final session, it was deftly anticipated by Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, who in his opening statement harked back to "a time when things were more equal - everybody had very little". He also claimed that there was far greater redistribution of funds both within the Premier League and outside it than in any other European league.

Nic Coward, for the Football Association, felt confident enough to offer criticism as well as take it, reminding the inquiry members of Government responsibility in preventing the sale of playing fields and improving facilities for the 30,000 junior clubs under FA auspices. "Sport should be a Government priority," he demanded.

Sir Brian Mawhinney MP, though he might have feared a rough ride as a Conservative, was treated sympathetically as representing the perceived Football League underdog. He pointed to developments in his 12 months as independent chairman that many would like to see the Premier League take on board: wage-capping (at 60 per cent of income for Third Division clubs); points deductions for clubs in administration; independent directors; and transparency over payments to agents.

It would not be a surprise to see all of those aims included in the final report. At which point the leading clubs will have their say. Breath should not be held.