The simple way to soften body blows

It has to be in the interests of all, even agents, to agree deals that ensure players are not driven into the ground to justify their soaring rewards
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The Independent Football

A good idea tried bravely to make itself heard last week as our football and rugby union players braced themselves for the unremitting rigours of the sporting stage for the next nine months or more. The fact that it proved as inaudible as a Roy Keane apology was hardly surprising.

A good idea tried bravely to make itself heard last week as our football and rugby union players braced themselves for the unremitting rigours of the sporting stage for the next nine months or more. The fact that it proved as inaudible as a Roy Keane apology was hardly surprising.

Matters affecting the actual playing of our winter ball-games seem to take subordinate place to administrative affairs, and the lead-up to this weekend's entry of our leading gladiators has been dominated by loud wailing over the future of the transfer market and the ongoing lamentations about the ruinous level of players' wages.

I doubt if the genuine fans would have allowed these negative topics to spoil their anticipation, but it doesn't help it when we approach the new season yawning. One subject that would have had a more invigorating effect on the imagination and been more germane to the start of the long winter haul was the suggestion that we should curtail the body-breaking number of games we impose on our best players.

The idea came, appropriately, from rugby union, a game which makes a wider and more brutal range of physical demands than most. Union may be dragging its boots in the attempt to come to terms with professionalism, and the sport spent the week typically preoccupied with internal wrangling. But from those chaotic ranks did come the plaintive appeal that we should be looking seriously at imposing a strict limit on the number of games played by each player, some of whom could face over 50 matches if they go on the Lions tour of Australia next summer.

The campaign to cut down is not new, but has previously centred on reducing the number of fixtures. This was not welcomed by clubs, who need as many matches as possible to balance their books. An individual limit is the only solution. Damien Hopley, of the Rugby Players' Association, thinks that a restriction of 36 first-class games a season would be a good starting point, thereafter reducing the total further when the game gets the hang of it. Even that would leave our players with a schedule much tougher that that of their southern- hemisphere counterparts, who are required to don their boots on a dozen or so fewer occasions even than Hopley's compromise.

The man giving the debate a higher profile is Graham Henry, theLions coach, who has already highlighted the problems of being handed a squad likely to be battered and exhausted by a domestic season crammed with every conceivable league and cup test.

For them then to be matched against players from whom much less has been asked is an absurdity that must soon be addressed. The same urgency exists in football, in which all attempts to reduce the number of teams involved in our top leagues have failed because clubs refuse to countenance fewer games.

Considering the boundless expansion of players' wages, this might not be the best time to suggest a reduction in their workload, but it could be an important key to a new era in the employment of professional players. Imposing a games limit would have to come from the governing bodies, who could justify it as being in the best interest of the game, the players and - this ought to appeal to both codes - their international teams.

There would be other benefits, too, including more first-team opportunities for younger players and, at those clubs with a high proportion of foreigners, for home-bred players. Protecting players from overuse is not a new concept. The memory of Sir Stanley Matt-hews is not besmirched by recalling that he didn't overtax himself by being an ever-present. Some clubs operate a squad system aimed at rotating the responsibilities and keeping players fresh. Others pick their sides according to the strength of the opposition.

By creating an official limit on appearances, the authorities would be introducing a new factor into the game, but since many aspects of the relationship between players and clubs seem about to change fundamentally in any case, the timing would not be inappropriate.

If the transfer system is to be scrapped as unlawful, then the contracts between player and club must protect both parties if the game is not to drift further into anarchy. It has to be in the interests of all concerned, even agents, to agree deals that ensure players aren't driven into the ground in order to justify their soaring rewards.

Regrettably, the agents who act as shepherds do to their flocks are easily outnumbered by those who act as madams do to their call- girls. Getting the most out of your investment seems to be the only priority, but it might occur to them that less wear and tear on their clients could mean longer careers and an extended earning capacity.

Obviously, there would be a mass of detail to work out, particularly when it comes to big club and international tournaments, but every aspect of the games would benefit. It might even make rugby and football clubs less inclined to keep sending injured players back into the fray much in the manner of First World War generals. We have recently heard of many half-crippled stars of yesteryear - Liverpool's Tommy Smith is one -who are paying a severe price for playing with pain-killing injections hiding the effect of injury.

At least such a new rule would be easy to administer. Attempts have been made throughout the history of both games to impose restrictions on clubs, most of them governing financial inducements. Sadly, transgression is nine-tenths of any law in sport. But if salary caps aren't enforceable, a games cap would certainly be, and the case for it is unanswerable.

It wasn't necessary to be a sports-hater to have experienced a shudder when the BBC announced their plans to cover the Olympic Games in Sydney next month. Licence-payers would have had their own wince at the revelation that the Beeb are sending over more than 350 staff to cover the activities of 310 British athletes.

But it is the steps they are taking to justify the £35m operation that are the bigger problem. They fondly think they are doing the nation a favour by transmitting about 20 hours of pictures a day. "Our schedules have been almost totally handed over to the Olympics," said the director-general, Greg Dyke, with some pride. I don't blame him particularly, because this will all have been arranged before he took over, but it is difficult to pile-drive the thought into the BBC that merciless overkill in one direction does not compensate for complete lack of coverage in another. Ninety minutes of pursuit cycling does not make up for the absence of a football match.

Another executive pointed out that the £35m was very cheap in TV terms because it works out at about £65,000 an hour which, apparently, is a bargain. Not if nobody wants to watch it and, sadly, there are vast tracts of Olympic activity that interest only a few enthusiasts and the relatives and friends of those taking part.

Mindful of the need for security in these troubled times, the FA have instructed all referees on their national list to ensure that their home telephone numbers are ex-directory. The FA have also ordered the end of the time-honoured tradition of listing the referees' home towns in programmes.

I hesitate to call upon the services of the News of the World, but shouldn't we be told if there's one living near us?

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