Peter Corrigan: Silly season in year of playing famously

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The Independent Football

One day we'll be able to calculate to the nearest million or two how much that World Cup qualifying goal scored by David Beckham against Greece was worth in material terms. At the moment, it has accumulated one piece of glassware, and by tonight will add a familiar lump of silver to its value.

The glassware was awarded on Thursday to England's coach, Sven Goran Erik- sson, after he had been named UK coach of the year jointly with Alex Stanton, who is interviewed on page 21. Eriksson, with typical modesty and complete justification, acknowledged the contribution that Beckham's injury-time free-kick made towards his receiving the honour. But for that goal, England would have been involved in a play-off that may have qualified them for next year's World Cup but hardly in an award-winning manner. Had they lost, one trembles to think what the national mood would have been.

No offence to Eriksson is intended by this conjecture, nor by the observation that this prize will be far more meaningful if he steps up to collect it next year. Neither is it fair to ask whether the emphatic brilliance with which Beckham struck the goal is coachable. That's another argument. It is also difficult to imagine its impact had it been scored in the first seconds of the match and not the last. Like many epic moments in sport, it owed much to the timing of its arrival and the demeanour of those it affected. England's performance that night had been so disappointing the nation was at the peak of its despair at such a relatively easy chance of qualification being squandered, at Old Trafford of all places.

As superb a goal as it was, its quality was magnified a thousandfold by the drama of a lost cause being rescued. A lot of fortunate people dipped their bread in that moment, and the goal deserves to give Beckham the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award tonight.

I have long found it difficult to warm to this annual BBC smug-fest, which has been going on since 1954. I suspect that the programme was created in order to squeeze a couple of hours of extra airtime out of all the sporting footage the Beeb had lying around.

I don't blame them for that – many of us in the media take advantage of a bit of retrospect at this time of the year – but for the proprietorial attitude with which the programme was presented. They carried the air of plantation owners patronising those who had been slaving away on their behalf all year. There are still traces of the old arrogance, even though they can hardly claim to be the big cheeses of sporting television any longer.

The terms of reference for deciding the winner have always been vague. The word "personality" widens the field beyond pure accomplishment, and comparing achievements across various sports is a difficulty they overcome by a viewers' voting system conducted in absurd secrecy that is bound to excite suspicion unless you get a momentous hero like Sir Steven Redgrave. The award tends to favour the major sports, which makes it difficult for a contender like the yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur. After Beckham's goal she would have needed to go 10 times round the world in a biscuit tin to have a chance of upstaging him.

And while we are on the subject of imperfections, why does this programme invariably take place with three weeks of the year still to go? What if one of England's cricketers scores 300 in the Second Test in India this week and then takes 10 wickets for 40 runs? I suppose a recount is out of the question.

The windows clean-up

Back in the Fifties, a wily old Welsh manager called Billy Lucas used to while away long train journeys to faraway fixtures by talking about the game's future. He was particularly incensed that substitutions weren't allowed, even for injury, in those days.

There will come a time, he would predict, when unlimited substitutions will be allowed. "Then we'll see who the good managers are," he would say. "They'll be the ones who can read a game so well they can alter its course by changing key players." He was right, although there could still be some way to go in that direction.

The other subject that used to engage his clairvoyant powers was the transfer market. In his opinion, if every manager had to finish the season with the same squad he started with he would have to use his brains instead of the club's chequebook.

Last week, Uefa took a large step towards making those words prophetic when the top European leagues agreed to introduce a system in which transfers would be restricted to two windows a year. A new transfer system giving players greater freedom of movement is already on the way, even though much disquiet about its finer points is justifiably being expressed by the clubs.

The new proposal would limit transfers to the close season up to 1 August and during the month of January in an attempt to harmonise the system around the Continent and make it more compliant with our old friends the European labour laws. This week, Uefa's executive committee will approve the move and recommend that it be implemented for deals among the top leagues in Europe. But Premier clubs will have to decide quickly whether to adopt it in our top league next season, and if they elect to do so the Football League clubs will be under pressure to follow suit.

This is where it becomes dangerously complicated. Although it has undergone several changes, particularly after the Bosman ruling, the market is still operating much as it has for decades and it is firmly entrenched both in the psyche and the economic structure of our game.

I would like to see a situation in which managers are forced to seek team solutions within their own squads. This would create opportunities for many young players attached to big clubs who get meagre access to the first team and spend a vital part of their development out of meaningful action. It would help equality if instead of buying their way out of trouble the richer managers had to think their way out until the next transfer window arrived.

Once you drop below the Premier League, however, different pressures apply. The transfer movement of players in the Nationwide League is an integral part of the cash-flow process and it also frees up gaps for younger players to fill.

There was a transfer last week that provided a prime example of that. Southampton paid £1.75 million for Blackpool's 25-year-old striker Brett Ormerod; not a massive sum by today's standards, but one which will bring much relief not only to Blackpool but to Ormerod's previous club, non-League Accrington Stanley, who will collect 25 per cent of the fee.

The deal could have waited until January, but Ormerod and the three clubs concerned could not. The player wants to get on with his career; Southampton badly need the goals he might provide; and the two smaller clubs will have good use for the money.

One of Uefa's theories about the transfer windows is that they will minimise the effect of agents. That shows a worrying naïveté. It would be easier to shake nits out of a blanket than get rid of agents from football. Whatever stop you put on transfers, our friends will be busy setting up deals in readiness for the next window. And what sort of effect do you think that will have on the players concerned? I did not relish Robbie Fowler's move from Liverpool to Leeds, but I recognise that the situation called for it. Certainly, none of the parties involved would have benefited from a delay.

Our clubs have to think about this very carefully. The transfer system leaves much to be desired, but I am not sure that these windows are going to throw a lot of daylight on it.

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