Peter Corrigan: Callous FA deserve to suffer friendly fire

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The Independent Online

While we are on the subject of paying too much for inferior football matches, we should not disregard the 36,000 poor souls who turned up at Elland Road, Leeds, on Wednesday night to watch a game not good enough even to be a dress rehearsal of one.

While we are on the subject of paying too much for inferior football matches, we should not disregard the 36,000 poor souls who turned up at Elland Road, Leeds, on Wednesday night to watch a game not good enough even to be a dress rehearsal of one.

As customers offered a rare chance of seeing England play in the flesh, did they not have rights? Meaningless and boring friendlies are by no means a new presence, but this was rendered even more sterile by the constant changing of the personnel. Perhaps England were anxious to practise how to make quick substitutions. After nine run-throughs on Wednesday night, and dozens in previous friendlies, England can be confident that no team in the World Cup will have a more efficient subbing routine.

I can sympathise with Sven Goran Eriksson's difficulty in extricating key players from club campaigns approaching their climax, but this was among his more predictable problems and one that has hog-tied most of his predecessors.

If availability of established stars was so restricted, why didn't he compose a team of players able and willing to play for 90 minutes? They would have been drawn mainly from the periphery of his World Cup considerations but, offered a fair test of their claims, they would have made a game of it. The result would not have been as important as the lessons learned and, who knows, a few promising performances might have caused senior players suddenly to discover an appetite for the next friendly.

Instead, we were treated to an exhibition that was several buckets of sweat short of the pace and intensity of an acceptable contest, and of use to no one. The Italians would have been happy at the non-event but they have a more settled side and even this saunter would have been of some use in furthering their style and confidence. One of the better consequences of the Wembley fiasco is that the England team have been able to visit the regional strongholds, but it has swiftly become a doubtful pleasure for spectators, who are receiving no value at all for their support.

There is an offence in horseracing called "schooling in public", which forbids trainers running horses merely to see how they go. It should be incorporated into the rules of the Football Association; either that or let the crowd in for nothing. To charge people for Wednesday night's fare was to take money under false pretences and is indicative of the FA's strange disregard for the interests of spectators. Forcing the fans of Cup semi-finalists Chelsea and Fulham to travel all the way to Villa Park on a Sunday night is another example of this callous indifference. We wait to see what happens at Anfield on 17 April when England play Paraguay on their farewell appearance before they leave these shores bound for the Far East. The match comes a week after the second legs of the Champions' League quarter-finals, a few days after the FA Cup semi-finals and the week before the first leg of the Champions' League semis. There will also be a liberal sprinkling of vital Premiership games.

This congestion is hardly the fault of the clubs, and Eriksson will have to wait until 13 May before he has complete control of his World Cup squad. There follow two warm-up matches against South Korea and Cameroon before the big tournament opens at the beginning of June.

It is not ideal, obviously, but I don't recall Sir Alf Ramsey's preparations in 1966 being all that smooth, either. Many a successful World Cup team has taken shape on the hoof, not least England's in 1966. Then, the composition of the final-winning 11 could not have been predicted two months earlier and neither, I suspect, can the composition of Eriksson's.

Apart from the fixture fiasco, the FA are doing their best to assist Eriksson to foster squad morale. They are to fly the players' wives and partners out to Dubai for a holiday with them before they move on to Japan. News of this generous gesture, which will cost £100,000, emerged on the same day that ITV Digital dropped its bombshell threatening the existence of a few dozen League clubs. Not the most sensitive timing, and a glaring example of the varying values at work in the game.

There is no reason why England's players shouldn't enjoy some quality time with their loved ones before going off to battle for their country but, surely, they could afford to pay for their own pleasures. That £100,000 would help an entire club to stave off extinction.

Cheek by Jowell

If England were to win the World Cup, innocents at London's Heathrow Airport could die in the rush as the Prime Minister and assorted members of his cabinet clamoured to be the first to welcome them home. At the moment, however, football is far from the Government's favourite activity. Stung, no doubt, by being made to look fools over Wembley and by being dragged into the absurdly expensive and forlorn attempt to stage the 2006 World Cup, they have developed a nasty antipathy to the game.

This was demonstrated in waspish fashion on Thursday by the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who weighed into the bitter conflict between ITV Digital and the Football League with a damning attack on the very clubs who have been put into deep financial trouble. Why this minister was ever put in charge of a department that includes sport is a mystery. That she has neither knowledge nor sympathy for the subject was obvious from her statement that it was not her responsibility to "bail out" football.

"Clubs are paying their players too much," she accused. Whether they are or not, the words "bail out" imply they've done something wrong. They may have been naïve to think you can trust anyone concerned with big business, but their only "crime" has been to build their budgets around money they would have received from an agreement they had every right to expect to be honoured. Perhaps Jowell is getting her Manchester Uniteds confused with her Torquay Uniteds and all the other clubs whose fight for existence was grim even before ITV Digital decided to complicate it further. But, however wretched their situations, they still mean a great deal to their communities and in their forthcoming battle with those behind this digital cop-out they could do without ministers providing ammunition to their opponents.

It was a despicable stance to take at this delicate stage and unhappily typical, because when it comes to sport, this is a Government that will intervene only where there is glory to be gained and not where there are principles to uphold. If they want to stay out of it, the Government should have remained silent and not made prejudicial statements that favour one side – in this case, the big, if incompetent, battalions.

It would not be so bad if this was a rare disregard of our sporting interests, but it is reflective of an attitude that is stifling the development of sport in this country.

Braveheart Berti

We shall soon discover how lucky Sven Goran Eriksson is, but he was certainly far more fortunate than his counterpart in Scotland, Berti Vogts, in the manner of his introduction to the job.

The former German manager had to make his Scottish debut against the world champions, France, in Paris. The resultant 5-0 thrashing was a sobering start. Vogts, a belligerent player himself, criticised his new charges for their lack of passion in the tackle. He didn't expect Scots to be emotionless.

Inevitably, the pair's progress will be closely compared, and it promises to produce some fascinating differences. While Eriksson is guiding the English team towards a more sophisticated future, Vogts is already calling on his men to get the claymores out.

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