The Nick Townsend Column: A bum rap for Barton, but will anyone take the bungs rap for football's ills?

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The Independent Online

It says something about football's priority in cleansing itself of the dirty dealings its midst that the closest we came to a police prosecution last week was the result of an exposed bum. Joey Barton's.

That rather more grievous matter of exposed bungs will have to wait a little longer, apparently. Lord Stevens' investigation into illegal payments to clubs or officials, presented to the Premier League chairmen and the media last week, is not yet a dead duck. But as an exercise in reassurance that the investigation would produce a "result", Monday's interim report was not exactly bung-ho, was it?

It was not one of those TV Crimewatch occasions when presenter Nick Ross says: "Several viewers have rung with the same name, and officers are at this moment on their way to make an arrest..."

It was more of a "wait and see", to quote his lordship. Certainly there was a glimpse of some statistical cleavage to keep the customer, or in this case the media, satisfied. Eight unnamed clubs were being investigated further, over 39 transfers. Reportedly, another 12 transfers, involving seven clubs, have been scrutinised but are unlikely to be taken further because foreign-registered agents are implicated.

Yet the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police did not exactly radiate confidence with his declaration: "If we can't expose this, I don't know who can." Neither does the fact that of 150 agents contacted only 65 responded fully instil a sense of anticipation.

To look at it from the more sanguine perspective that the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, prefers us to adopt, 89 per cent of the 362 transfers examined by Stevens and Co had been "signed off", an interesting expression which tends to put you more in mind of a GP validating a worker throwing a sickie than a clean bill of health. But privately Scudamore must be praying that Stevens' investigation will ultimately bring some transgressors to book; if not for the police or Inland Revenue to prosecute, then at least for the Football Association to take forward.

It is 11 years since George Graham became the only beneficiary of a bung whose guilt was proved. Since then, there has been unrelenting rumour and innuendo. In 1997, a Premier League report uncovered "a deep-rooted culture of fraudulent agreements", in which the late Brian Clough was implicated. Then there have been the whistleblowers, in particular the Luton manager, Mike Newell, whose words back in January instigated all this activity. But not another individual, or club, has been shamed since 1995.

In the light of all this, there needs to be at least some prima facie cases produced if the national game is not to curl up and die in embarrassment as far as its integrity is concerned.

It could be that, indeed, come early December, Lord Stevens will return with a full report with sufficient "juicy stuff", as Everton's chairman, Bill Kenwright, described what was absent on Monday, to assuage the sceptics. Yet the curious aspect is the time limit. Why have Stevens and his grandly named Quest team of accountants and investigators been given only two further months to complete their work?

"The inquiry will be thorough, detailed and robust," says Stevens. "As an old policeman and an old detective, I will wait for the evidence to come in."

In that case, why not three months, or why not... as long as it takes? Why has Stevens been given the bungs rush by the Premier League? It has reportedly cost £600,000 so far, but in terms of Premiership finances that is not much greater than an agent's cut on a medium-sized deal.

Stevens has promised "forensic examination of agents' bank accounts, onshore or offshore", but though FA-licensed agents could leave themselves open to a misconduct charge if they do not produce information, this is not legally enforceable.

That is part of the problem; whatever his stature as a cop, Stevens can no longer brandish a warrant card and suggest that suspects might like to accompany him down to the nick.

One suspects that the final report will be heavy on recommendations for the future. The concept of transparency will feature strongly. As Stevens was at pains to convince his audience last week, "prevention is better than cure". What those of us with the game's interests at heart will be more interested in, though, is whether, to borrow the Crime-watch catchphrase, certain characters should be having nightmares.

To return to more trivial matters, at least Merseyside Police did not bring themselves, and football, into ridicule when they inquired, as they are required to do, into the antics of Joey "Peaches" Barton after the final whistle at Goodison Park. They are to take the matter no further. In fact, is there not an argument to be made that those spectators who apparently complained about the Manchester City midfielder's baring of his backside should be charged with wasting police time?

Why the FA could not have adopted a similarly sensible stance and maybe quietly reminded him that it wasn't clever, wasn't amusing, and not worthy of a man who, on talent alone, would not be far removed from selection for the England squad, is difficult to comprehend. Instead Barton, allegedly the target of the most vituperative language, will be up before an FA commission soon, and presumably fined. Wasted time for all involved.

Many of us would concur with City's manager, Stuart Pearce, who reflected: "Maybe some of the things said to that player are a more serious matter."

Ban the divers - but forget the instant replays

After a World Cup in which there was more diving than you would find around a wreck full of gold doubloons, we thought the integrity of football was once again safe in Premiership hands. Even Didier Drogba has been on his best behaviour. We didn't reckon on Didier Zokora.

Glenn Hoddle, for one, was vehement in his condemnation of the Tottenham man. "Those players are making it impossible for refs to referee," the former England coach contended after the Ivory Coast player had contrived to secure a penalty against Portsmouth on Sunday with a preposterous dive. There was much truth in that, though someone could have reminded Hoddle that he was in charge of England when Michael Owen "bought", to use that wonderful euphemism, a spot-kick against Argentina in 1998.

Indeed, while the pundits scream "foreign disease" as though Persil-clean English players are incapable of such misdemeanours, the World Cup dramatics of Joe Cole should not be forgotten; nor the Olivier-like attempts of Newcastle's Steven Taylor to convince the referee that he had not handled the ball at Old Trafford.

Fifa regulations do not allow retrospective action if the referee has witnessed the incident. Also, even if he had seen the handball, the act would have been regarded as a yellow-card offence. Yet if such behaviour is to be banished a suspension must be the outcome in cases where there can be no doubt.

Which is not to add this voice to the chorus demanding instant video replays. The Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, may argue: "It would take seconds for the fourth official to take a look at the monitor", but we all know it would not just be that incident; there would be countless other "big decisions".

Vote for in-match video replays only if you are prepared for a game far removed from the one we enjoy now.

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