Ruud beginnings of football's new order

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The Independent Football

Due to a sad lack of resources, I have been unable to conduct a survey of Manchester United supporters to confirm my distinct impression that England's inept performance against Holland at White Hart Lane on Wednesday would have been of secondary importance to them.

This is not to question their patriotism but to suggest that the display of their new £19 million Dutch striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, would have been their paramount consideration. The same could be said of Fulham fans anxious to see their new goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, in action – if action you could call it – and of Chelsea examining one of their newcomers, Boudewijn Zenden, and of Arsenal devotees wondering what Giovanni van Bronckhorst is going to bring to Highbury.

Apart from those items of subjective interest, what on earth was the point of exposing England's limitations in a meaningless friendly during the delicate and nervy week leading up to the start of the Premiership? There has been little evidence over the past 30 years or so to suggest that the appetite for a new football season can be in any way whetted by watching the England team play. Indeed, such a sight could do untold damage to a nation's anticipation of the joys to come.

Why, then, were we exposed to it? Last week's report on the game by accountants Deloitte and Touche confirmed that English football is now a £1 billion a year industry. It is difficult to imagine any other commercial enterprise of that size allowing such an act of marketing lunacy just three days before it opens its doors for business. It completely curdled the anticipatory juices created by the Charity Shield.

Had any of the aforementioned luxury Dutchmen, or an Englishman like David Beckham or Michael Owen, suffered the fate of West Ham's goalkeeper David James we would have certainly heard more of the argument. James had hardly stepped on to the pitch as a second half substitute when he damaged knee ligaments in a collision with Martin Keown which may keep him out of the game until next year. James' profile is not of sufficient height to provoke a major outcry, but you had to be sympathetic with the indignation of West Ham's manager, Glenn Roeder, who bitterly questioned the need for the match to take place at all. Roeder claimed that England coach Sven Goran Eriksson would have learned just as much if they had stayed practising among themselves at Bisham Abbey. It is difficult to disagree, particularly as Eriksson had promised the Premiership managers that he would confine each player to just 45 minutes on the pitch.

Under the circumstances it was hardly fair to charge for admission to White Hart Lane and, all in all, little has been achieved apart from a sharp reduction in confidence and morale just two weeks before the crucial World Cup qualifying tie against Germany in Munich.

The very fact of the fixture is an error. Past England performances show that this time of the year, when players have scarcely settled into the new season, is not ideal for them to face important matches. The date is forced on them by Fifa, who could not care less about domestic concerns, but it is in the Football Association's power to dictate what strength opposition they meet.

Arranging these fixtures with the other teams in the qualifying group is invariably difficult but the trick is to play the weakest opposition at the time you are at your most vulnerable. Whoever arranged to play Germany away two weeks after the season starts is a dumkopf.

Just as puzzling is why we agreed to play a warm up against Holland of all people. A game against Spurs reserves behind closed doors would have been far more appropriate. Now, we have to face Germany unprepared and half-cooked.

Never mind, we still have the exciting club scene to occupy us and if there is one forecast to be confidently made it is that the clubs will get stronger.

A former leading member of the English football establishment summed it up perfectly in a private word last week. There was a time, he said, when you played well for your club hoping to catch the eye of the England selectors. Now you play for England hoping to persuade your manager to put you in the club team.

Precious moments

Will David Ginola succeed in finding a loophole in football's contract law?

And, if he finds one, is he thin enough to squeeze through it? These are the big questions surrounding Aston Villa's controversial Frenchman who has taken exception to remarks by manager John Gregory about the fullness of his figure.

Backed by the Professional Footballers' Association, Ginola has sought legal advice from the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, a leading employment barrister. It seems that all the nasty things said about her husband are as nothing compared to calling one of her clients fat.

Actually, Gregory was a little more subtle than that. Last December he said he thought Ginola was "carrying a bit of timber in terms of body fat". In June, he said his players had returned looking "as fit as a butcher's dog". But he added that in Ginola's case that would depend on which butchers you go to. There may be other comments of which I am not aware but I fail see any justification in PFA chairman Gordon Taylor calling them "very offensive".

Traditionally, some football managers are apt to address their charges in terms that many sergeant-majors would admire. I have even known sports editors of a similar disposition, but for any of them to be taken seriously is ludicrous.

Ginola was signed from Tottenham Hotspur for £3m last year. He has a year left on his contract but if he can prove "sporting just cause" it is possible that his contract could be terminated and Villa would received nothing for him.

If such a precedent was set, what other excuses would emerge for getting a contract annulled? The attentions of the chairman's wife, the smell from the local gasworks...

Football managers have various ways of motivating their players and some may be cruder than others but if they have to start treating them with one eye on the legal consequences, players may become too precious for their own good.

Cook and the books

Geoffrey Boycott said on Friday how much he would enjoy coaching England's most promising teenaged batsmen. On the same day Seb Coe expressed a wish to help young middle-distance runners.

I don't know why these expert services haven't been utilised previously but you do not have to look far to see how desperately our sport needs this sort of quality help.

All we have had from successive governments is talk of sporting academies and coaching structures but very little action. What use have we made of Sir Steven Redgrave since his Olympic exploits? He could do for the youth of the country what he is doing for the sales of crisps.

Of course, it would need the Government to organise and fund such a move. And their attitude was best summed up by Robin Cook last week. Now in charge, for some reason, of sorting out the stadium developments at Picketts Lock and Wembley he swore that not one penny of taxpayers' money would be devoted to either.

Does he realise that the proportion of Government money given to sport has long been the lowest of any developed nation and that what we are after is money from the Lottery, not the taxpayer. What is happening to it at the moment represents an unforgiveable departure from the declared aims of the Lottery, aims that presumably encourage people to support it still. The distribution of the proceeds to sport and the arts has been deliberately allowed to clog up in that well-known bureaucratic bottle-neck called the Treasury.

What sport needs are politicians brave enough to start the funds flowing in the right direction – not to trot out the same party lines under the spurious guise of protecting taxpayers.

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