Nick Townsend: Welcome back, champs - whatever the cost

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The Independent Online

As if a few willing hands have reached down and dragged them on to a tram that's already standing-room only, Liverpool have made it. And, what's more, the ticket to ride, one acquired at the kiosk of emotion, is free. Sweating but grateful, and never mind the ethics, they are aboard and en route to that casino land of Europe, a few chips in hand, with membership of that competition which is still acknowledged, ludicrously so, as the Uefa Champions' League.

As if a few willing hands have reached down and dragged them on to a tram that's already standing-room only, Liverpool have made it. And, what's more, the ticket to ride, one acquired at the kiosk of emotion, is free. Sweating but grateful, and never mind the ethics, they are aboard and en route to that casino land of Europe, a few chips in hand, with membership of that competition which is still acknowledged, ludicrously so, as the Uefa Champions' League.

Yet at what cost to the club, whose manager, Rafael Benitez, is hastily having to revise pre-season and other schedules? At what price to their English European rivals, and most notably the least wealthy, Everton, whose income has been reduced by millions at a stroke? And, from the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson's perspective, at what expense to the condition of at least one of his key players come World Cup 2006 in Germany?

The outcome of the Uefa executive committee's Friday ring-around is that the Premiership's fifth-best team, according to the only accurate meter of these things, have a date in mid-July with one of Rabotnicki Skopje, Sliema Wanderers, F91 Dudelange, HB Torshavn or the delightfully named, but furthest away, Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan. Eighteen other clubs, mostly, but not all, lesser members of Europe's food chain, make up the numbers. If you want to make a note in your diary, you will find that is just after Wimbledon and a week before England's Ashes series even begins in this hazy, crazy British sporting summer.

"The whole world will want us to play now," opined Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, immediately post-Istanbul. Well, if they do, they're not exactly being too vehement about it, are they? Being tacked on to the Champions' League first qualifying-round schedule is possibly not quite what those who have chanted the mantra "thou shalt defend thy trophy" had in mind. Not least because the captain, Steven Gerrard - assuming he commits himself to the club, and it's make-your-mind-up time if he isn't to become cup-tied - and his fellow internationals face in this season, culminating in Germany 2006, 12 months of football with barely a break if Liverpool are successful.

Remember that physics theory you learnt at school? To each reaction, there's an equal and opposite reaction. It applies neatly here, too. For all the outpourings of welcome for Liverpool's belated inclusion, only now are the most enthusiastic beginning to appreciate the ramifications.

But then if you're making up conditions of entry on the hoof to accommodate the entreaties of an energetic English chorus line, ranging from the distinguished to the dubious, then it's likely that it will culminate in all manner of anomalies. The arguments which won this "exceptional decision", according to Uefa, are well-rehearsed. There will be many, though, who, while lauding what Benitez achieved with a team who couldn't beat Crystal Palace and Southampton away, and ended up 37 points behind Chelsea, don't buy into this "defence of the trophy" reasoning.

Liverpool claimed the silverware against all expectation, even their own, rightly luxuriated in the moment as they paraded the trophy around the city, and then expected another prize. They got out of jail more than once last season, and should be commended for it. But did that entitle them to move immediately to "Go"? Uefa gave a sound impression of the late quizmaster Hughie Greene, pretending to be immovable before obligingly offering to "Double your money, friends?", as we knew they would.

The competition formerly known as the European Cup may have been considerably downgraded to appease Europe's monied élite, but at least the other competitors have been rewarded for their League form. Liverpool have benefited, in essence, because their friends created a commotion. An unedifying spectacle it has been, too; reminiscent of a child screaming and kicking his legs in fury until the parents give way to shut him up. We are after all talking football here, not a £3bn EU rebate. It has been all the more reprehensible because the campaign has taken little account of what knock-on effects may have been caused to clubs here and abroad just to squeeze a fifth English club into the money-making blender.

Perhaps the most sense came from an unlikely source. "There are laws and the rules are there to be respected," he said. "If we don't manage to get a change in these rules or a special right to play, then it will be our own fault." The voice of the Liverpool striker Djibril Cissé, one of the few with a sense of proportion.

Still, it's what they call justice.

Millwall's case of injustice

Speaking of which, during a week in which "Colegate" meandered on, Spurs and Chelsea became increasingly embroiled in accusation and counter-accusation over Frank Arnesen, and there was a disquieting judgement involving Millwall Football Club, Lord Burns's plans for changes to the structure of the FA appear timely - even if such phrases as a "semi-autonomous unit within the FA, run by a director", his prognosis for disciplinary reform - tend to induce a desire for sleep, rather than debate.

The concern will be, however, that the outcome, if Burns gets his way, is yet more regulation when, in truth, there are too many finger-searches seeking out evidence of mischief already. However, if the resulting judgements are less perverse than some we have witnessed recently, any alteration would be welcome.

Take Millwall and the case of the elusive witnesses. The London club were fined £25,000 by the FA last week for failing to ensure that their spectators "refrained from racist and/or abusive behaviour" during the Carling Cup tie against Liverpool on 26 October. The club's former chairman, Theo Paphitis, suggested that "if it wasn't such a serious issue, Comical Ali should have read out the verdict on the steps of Soho Square". By all accounts, the guilty verdict was handed down on the basis of emails arriving at FA headquarters from some Liverpool fans, although there was no evidence they were actually at the game. None of the match officials, stewards, police, spectators or players offered any evidence.

Nobody may like the Lions, as their faithful frequently like to remind us. But we should care, shouldn't we? Whether there has been a miscarriage here is something for the appeal inquiry to determine, but if Burns's semi-autonomous disciplinary "czar" is perceived to dispense justice with rather more authority and transparency than at the moment, that can only be for the good of all.

Just as long as the good Lord maintains a perspective and a hold on reality. Football is portrayed as a sport in which ill-discipline and scandal is pandemic. In fact, it is probably no worse than any other industry employing many thousands, except that it is watched by millions, and its ills are magnified and the subject of constant debate because of its media exposure. Putting football's house in order has been a worthy and recurring theme among politicians and spectators for as long as this observer can recall. My own late father was a member of the Chester Committee back in the early Eighties, and every positive suggestion he and others proposed foundered on a negative response from a sectional power in the game.

That remains as true today as it did then. They call it vested interest.

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