Peter Corrigan: Football's multi-million-pound dating agency

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The Independent Football

Apart from a bloody good hiding in Turkey on 11 October, if anything is likely to shift Sven Goran Eriksson from the helm of the England team it would be the uncomfortable feeling that he was involved in a sideshow.

This is not to suggest that the European Championships in Portugal next year will not glitter at us from the highest dais, but the torpid progress of our national teams towards qualification made it much easier for events in and around Chelsea and Manchester United to upstage them last week.

Rivalry for our attention between clubs and country is nothing new, but the stakes are rapidly climbing in value, and at a time in the season when the clubs are usually just sparring with our interest, the Chelsea involvement in major toing and froing is almost hypnotic.

This week, that fascination will gather impetus when Chelsea join Manchester United and Arsenal in the first knockings of the Champions' League against an interestingly high quality of opposition.

Chelsea at Sparta Prague, United against Panathinaikos and Internazionale at Highbury are encounters unlikely to leave us with the deflated feeling it was impossible to shake off last week.

What highlighted the distraction Chelsea mounted was the sudden change of emphasis in Roman Abramovich's recruitment policy. Instead of the steady stream of lethal immigrants plucked at great expense from teams across the continent, we had football's first high-profile chief executive transfer when Manchester United's Peter Kenyon quit to take up the same role at Stamford Bridge. When exactly he will commence his new duties depends on contractual niceties which, considering the snarl-potential building up between the clubs, might not be too nice.

If that move took us by surprise, we were even less prepared for Sir Alex Ferguson's revelation that he had been offered the Chelsea manager's job not long after Abramovich had arrived. He rejected the approach without pause.

Doubts have been expressed about this claim, but invention is not part of Ferguson's nature. His timing might have been full of mischief, but you can be assured that it happened.

Not that anything is straightforward in these matters. There is talk of agent's fees being demanded for parts played in various activities around Chelsea, and this undercurrent of controversy over payments for acting as go-between appears to have sealed the fate of the previous administration. This is a part of modern football not clearly visible from the surface, but it appears some agents think they are running the football equivalent of a dating agency, in which an introduction that leads to consummation is worth a million of anyone's money. The entire scene is surreal. Imagine what would happen if reports of the imminent arrival of another happy-go-lucky billionaire, or even two, come true. Having established that anyone is acquirable, havoc could be created.

The first step in any conflict is to try to destabilise the opposition. In some countries they achieve this by shooting someone; here, the signing up of a key leadership figure would probably suffice. Whether Chelsea would have still gone for Kenyon if they had procured Ferguson is debatable. Perhaps just one person who knows how United work is sufficient to begin the long-term overtaking process.

Wisest money seems to be on Eriksson moving to west London when he feels his England stint has run its course. Claudio Ranieri made a joke about it on Friday, saying that he was building a team for Eriksson, Ferguson, Souness or anyone, but such a situation cannot diminish the difficulty of his job.

If Eriksson does move to Chelsea one day it will help solve the dilemma of those slow-witted folk, and I include myself among them, who have yet to recognise his brilliance. You cannot argue with eight consecutive wins, but quality of performance still has a part to play. At the moment, much of his reputation for shrewdness seems based on the changes made after half-time. It is not often a manager can become famous for correcting his own mistakes - neither do we often celebrate having players clever enough to avoid a yellow card.

Our national teams now have to wait until next month before they attempt to become the focus of our attention once more. It does raise the prospect that should England fail to secure the point they need in Turkey to qualify directly, they will be pitched into the play-offs. It will be decided by Uefa next week whether the draw for the play-offs will be random or based on seedings. But it would not take a massive twist of fate for England to be drawn against Scotland or Wales. If that happened, even Roman Abramovich might be hard-pressed to top it.

No winners in a phoney war

If they were searching for the best way of expressing their utter distrust of the most vital human beings involved in the horseracing industry, the Jockey Club hit the target by banning the use of mobile phones by riders between races.

What sort of message did that send out to a racing world that traditionally seethes with suspicion? What else can we helpless punters deduce other than that the jockeys are spending every out-of-saddle moment cooking up scams with disreputable people over their mobiles? Somewhere in the mists of history there may be a good reason why this pompous governing body call themselves the Jockey Club when they ooze an image far removed from the basic requirement of a horsey person, but there surely hasn't been a time when it has been less appropriate.

From the outset, the ban has been a monumental example of ham-fisted public relations. But as misguided as it was, the destruction of today's Sandown meeting by striking jockeys is not a forgivable reaction. The strike is vociferously supported by several senior jockeys who will ride in France today and not face the losses to be suffered by the lesser lights, who can ill-afford a non-earning day.

But the main victims will be, as usual, the owners from whom most of the sport's blessings flow and who can look forward to future strikes affecting the progress and development of their horses. Ironically, owners are the most regular beneficiaries of quick news about the condition of their animals, both before and after races. The advent of the mobile phone is a boon to them, and it is difficult to begrudge it to them.

All this stems from a court case two years ago when it was revealed that certain jockeys were relaying information from the weighing room to doubtful parties. That sort of traffic occurred long before mobiles were invented and would continue if they were all gathered up and dumped in the ocean; blessed thought.

There has to be a compromise that allows the Jockey Club to feel they are fulfilling their role as guardians of racing's integrity and permits jockeys to speak into their mobiles without being regarded as potential crooks.

There are enough serious feuds and issues vital to the future of racing in progress without plunging in to create one that is totally unnecessary.

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