Simon Turnbull: Poignant parallel of little fish in big pools

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The Independent Online

So much for the club-coloured goldfish. After another week of Premiership madness, it was a blessed relief to make it to the Millennium Stadium yesterday to see the minnows in the Third Division play-off final. Watching Lincoln City and AFC Bournemouth brought a measure of sanity to the stark, raving world of English football. There has been so much made of the insane goings-on in the Premier League these past nine months it has been shamefully overlooked that there actually happens to be another life in the beautiful game beyond the ivory towers of Old Trafford, the marble halls of Highbury and the fish tanks of Elland Road.

So much for the club-coloured goldfish. After another week of Premiership madness, it was a blessed relief to make it to the Millennium Stadium yesterday to see the minnows in the Third Division play-off final. Watching Lincoln City and AFC Bournemouth brought a measure of sanity to the stark, raving world of English football. There has been so much made of the insane goings-on in the Premier League these past nine months it has been shamefully overlooked that there actually happens to be another life in the beautiful game beyond the ivory towers of Old Trafford, the marble halls of Highbury and the fish tanks of Elland Road.

The fish tanks that were, that is. The £20-a-month blue-and-yellow goldfish have gone now from the chairman's office at Leeds United - along with the former chairman who rented them. In revealing the extent of the "indulgent spending" of the Peter Ridsdale regime, Professor John McKenzie, Leeds' chairman of two months, was no doubt seeking understanding for the current £79m-overdrawn state of affairs at Elland Road. Instead, the catalogue of grand profligacy - £600,000 a year on company cars, £70,000 on private jets, £5.7m in compensation for David O'Leary and Terry Venables - probably intensified the incredulity.

It has hardly helped the attempts to portray Leeds as a changed club that Peter Reid has been paid a £500,000 bonus for keeping them in the Premiership. Even in their downbeat state, it would have been more difficult to have got them relegated. Goodness knows how the Leeds fans must feel. An advert run on local radio stations is urging them to buy season tickets, "because we need you more than ever".

They can hardly be inspired to dig deep to find the money needed not just to foot the bills for the excesses of the recent past but also to find a little spending money for a manager who saddled Sunderland with such deadweights as Milton Nuñez, Carsten Fredgaard and Nicolas Medina (combined cost £7.5m; combined Premiership playing time 45 minutes) and the £42,000-a-week Tore Andre Flo (yet to score in 2003).

It is easier to comprehend why Lincoln City fans have come up with a fifth of the money needed to provide their team with a pitch to play on next season. At last count, the "Sponsor a Sod" campaign had raised some £20,000. For the £20 it costs to rent blue-and-yellow goldfish for a month, supporters can buy two square metres of turf for Sincil Bank. The total required is £100,000, less than the price of three weeks of misses from Flo.

Last summer, Lincoln's supporters raised £200,000 to help their club out of administration. They deserved their day out in Cardiff against Bournemouth yesterday. So did Keith Alexander despite the defeat. The Lincoln manager has transformed a team who narrowly missed relegation a year ago with a clutch of £250-a-week recruits from the non-League ranks. There is no £500,000 reward for him, just the worry of finding the rest of the £80,000 for the pitch.

Similar wonders have been worked by Sean O'Driscoll at Bournemouth and by Ian Holloway at Queen's Park Rangers. Both clubs have been pulled back from the brink of collapse by the financial backing of their supporters, and both managers made it to the play-off finals on the kind of budget they formerly had for the foyer at Elland Road. Such achievements outside the surreal world of the Premiership have been the real success stories of the season. And there have been others.

Take Oldham, who Holloway's QPR overcame to meet Cardiff in today's Second Division play-off final. Iain Dowie has made his managerial baptism at Boundary Park while having to pay off 10 members of his playing staff to reduce debts of £2m. He has been an inspiration. The Football League is fortunate to have such young managerial marvels, quietly making their way at breadline level. In the madhouse of the Premiership, it is the usual suspects who continue to get the big jobs, frittering away the big bucks.

Not quite the full Nelson

It seems the eight Premiership players who declined the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela on Wednesday morning were counting sheep rather than the millions in their bank balances. Their no-show, nevertheless, has strengthened the popular perception that the thickness of the archetypal English professional footballer happens to be double-planked. Why jump at the chance to meet the planet's finest living statesman when you can snuggle under the duvet and get the full 40 winks ahead of a meaningless international kickabout?

It brought to mind the occasion when John Trewick visited the Great Wall of China on tour with West Bromwich Albion in 1978. The incident has become accepted as evidence of the average footballer's less-than-average intellect. It has been lost in the myths of time that the highly intelligent Trewick was being ironic when he remarked: "When you've seen one wall, you've seen them all." He is, after all, a native of Whitley Bay, little more than a free-kick away from Wallsend, the completion point for the great cross-country wall constructed at the behest of the Emperor Hadrian.

The stereotype of the dumbo footballer hardly bears up to scrutiny these days. Iain Dowie has a masters degree in aeronautic mechanical engineering. He worked as a designer for British Aerospace before he became a centre-forward with Luton Town. Then there is Clarke Carlisle, who will be at the heart of the QPR defence in Cardiff today. Last year he won the title of Britain's Brainiest Footballer in an ITV contest hosted by Carol Vorderman. It was no hollow victory: he clinched it by correctly answering that the period in a heartbeat when the pumping chambers are relaxed and filling with blood is known as the diastalic period.

Not that you have always needed to be an expert in surgery of the heart, or the brain, to become a professional footballer. One particular captain of midfield industry emerged enraged from a Midlands dressing-room in the 1970s to pin the local evening-newspaper reporter against the wall. "Don't you ever call me that again," he thundered. "Call you what?" the stunned reporter enquired. "You know: that name you called me in your report last week," the player said. "What word?" the poor scribe demanded. "You know," the player said, "...ubiquitous."

Testing, testing

According to The Real Story on BBC1 on Monday night, the drug-testers are anything but ubiquitous at football grounds and training pitches in England. Of 700 pro players who responded to a survey, 36 per cent said they had not been tested in the past two years, and 56 per cent said they did not expect to be tested in the next 12 months. It was not mentioned in the programme, but Sunderland were involved in a minor row in Belgium last summer when they failed to comply with a demand for seven players to be tested after a friendly in Antwerp. There was no suggestion of anything more untoward than a lack of communication. Judging by the evidence of the past season, though, it would have been little surprise had the Sunderland players tested positive for a mega-dose of Mogadon.

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