Peter Corrigan: Fingers on the mutual destruction button

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The Independent Football

While Juventus and Arsenal were playing out their eventually meaningless Champions' League match in Turin on Wednesday night, the incessant barking of a dog could be clearly heard echoing around the deserted stands of the Stadio delle Alpi.

While Juventus and Arsenal were playing out their eventually meaningless Champions' League match in Turin on Wednesday night, the incessant barking of a dog could be clearly heard echoing around the deserted stands of the Stadio delle Alpi.

If it was a black dog it would reinforce the symbolism of a week that should serve as a portent to a game that is continually advancing in the wrong direction.

The success of a tournament involving Europe's best teams is assured only if the games mean anything and the transformation of the European Cup into a league structure in its early stages is not going to have lasting value if last week was an indication.

Juventus, already out of the competition, stuffed their team with reserves and attracted only 7,000, many of whom were from London. Arsenal could have made it interesting but they weren't up to it and the resulting fare was far from prime-time material. Even Coronation Street would have been preferable.

Sparta Prague, also out, drew 10,000 for their match against Porto while Panathinaikos, already through, had 13,000 to witness them play Real Madrid. On the same night, Burnley had a capacity 19,000 to see Paul Gascoigne's debut; the moral being that if you want people to watch a football match you have to give them a convincing reason to do so.

The further the Champions' League moves away from the old knockout format, the more duff games they are going to produce and television might learn to be a little more selective of the matches they buy live.

However, it was not the fault of the product that caused ITV Digital to attempt to renege on their £315m deal with the Football League. I wondered at the time whether the bright sparks at ITV had ever seen a Third Division match but buying football in all its manisfestations was the frenzy at that time and it has come horribly unstuck purely for the reason that so very few people are hooked up to the channel. I presume that, one day, television coverage of football will have advanced to the stage at which it will be feasible for supporters to be able to pay-to-view their team play an away fixture.

I couldn't even guess what the economics of that would be but local loyalty, even to the lowly teams in the League, could provide an income via television.

But you can't buy what you can't see and that is hardly the fault of the clubs. To be robbed of the remaining two years' instalments of that fee would put most of them in trouble. Many club owners have ideas above their station but make genuine attempts to plan their club's futures. That they often do so with a reckless optimism is understandable because fierce competition ensures that if you don't try to go forward you'll go backwards.

The money contained in the agreement with ITV Digital at least offered some incentive for the investment required to make upward progress. The annual £150,000 for Third Division clubs rises to £200,000 in the Second Division and, more dramatically, to £2m in the First. The fact that three or four times more clubs are budgeting for those increments than can actually step up to receive them carries its own destruction button is no fault of ITV Digital. Nevertheless, it is a situation that the television company created and one from which it cannot be permitted to walk away.

The threat to clubs is not being exaggerated. In the past month Bury have joined Queen's Park Rangers in administration, owing over £2m, and Notts County only narrowly avoided it. Swansea City have a creditors' meeting tomorrow to explain how they are going to meet their £1.7m debts. The television income is part of the budget they are presenting so how are their creditors going to react to this latest development?

The situation is not totally divorced from the activities at the top level. The more they clamour for more Champions' League action, the smaller the priority they place on domestic competitions. The Worthington Cup is fast losing its importance because of the increasing number of large clubs, Arsenal for one, whose attitude attacks its credibility.

Yet, if treated seriously by one and all, it could offer life-saving finance to lower clubs who do well in it. The plight of our lower League teams may be of peripheral interest to the major clubs but they benefit from the game's strength in depth and should be reminded of that by the Football Association.

Sadly, the FA is an organisation that concentrates what imagination it has upon the national team and seems to have little to spare for the guardianship of the domestic scene. No matter how small, the death of a club is a warning for all. As the man said: do not send to hear for whom the bell tolls...

The not so beautiful south

There's more riding on Cambridge United's visit to Cardiff's Millennium Stadium today than the LDV Vans Trophy; as important as that is to them and to the other finalists, Blackpool.

Cambridge are occupying the south end of the stadium which has rapidly acquired hoodoo status. There have been eight finals played at the new stadium since it took over Wembley's role as the FA's and Football League's main cup and play-off venue last year and on each occasion the team allocated the south end has lost.

The last victims were Tottenham who were beaten by underdogs Blackburn Rovers in the Worthington Cup final a month ago. That result has since proved to be the start of a major slump by Spurs rather than a one-off jinx but the supersitious nature of football is likely to be seriously roused if the trend continues.

Millennium Stadium officials have dismissed it all as a statistical anomaly but, to be on the safe side, they've hired a feng shui expert, Paul Darby, to lay the curse to rest. He visited the stadium last Wednesday and discovered too much negative energy in the south dressing room and in the south stands.

With help of incense, a Tibetan bell, a scattering of liberal handfuls of sea salt and a horse called Lincoln, Mr Darby performed a ceremony which, he stressed, would remove the disruptive energy but wouldn't make any team play better.

As the bottom side in the Second Division, Cambridge are already up against it form-wise but shouldn't be surprised if they, and not favourites Blackpool, get the local support. If they break the bogy they will be ever remembered with gratitude. If they don't, the next big football match at the stadium is the FA Cup final and, whoever they are, neither of the two finalists is likely to take kindly to the haunted end.

Perhaps, the only fair way would be for both teams to use the north dressing room. This might cause friction in the bath after the game and the referee and his two assistants would also have to bathe with them, using yellow and red tablets of soap to keep the peace. But that's probably taking it too far.

Video ref's pulling power

Cricket's experiment with a dedicated television umpire who can be consulted by his on-field colleagues over difficult decisions ought to be studied by football. It is not feasible, as in cricket, to keep stopping a match to check the video but it should be possible to appoint an off-pitch referee to conduct a surveillance of certain offences with a view to punishing peristent offenders later.

Shirt-pulling, for instance, is particularly furtive and irritating and most of it takes place out of sight of the referee. As if Arsenal's game against Juventus on Wednesday wasn't frustrating enough to watch, the amount of tugging going on, particularly between Edgar Davids and Patrick Vieira, was staggering. It is frustrating to see players of such quality continually cheating in this manner and I'm sure it could be stamped out if a TV shirt-watch was mounted.

This service needn't cost anything. I'm sure someone like Umbro would be delighted to sponsor it.

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