Future mapped out in plain brown envelope

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL seasons are always welcome, even when they start as half- arsed as they do these days with the rabble going off a week before the rich deign to start rubbing the Yves St Laurent wintergreen into their sun-bronzed legs. We may utter a few stage groans and bemoan the early passage of summer pursuits but, deep down, all true aficionados love being re-united with the fascinations of our national game.

The affection survives despite the fact that we have been sold so far down the river many of us may never get back. I refer not to the top Premiership clubs who have been discovered in a conspiracy to join an exclusive European Super League but to the smaller fry who have allowed themselves to be left so far behind in the football revolution that catching up is so very hard to do.

The Nationwide League is still offering the same old clapped-out format that will soon become stale for most of us in the winter months ahead. For all the tingle of anticipation we might have felt before the first ball rolled into action yesterday, too many of our local clubs will in the space of a month or two be doomed to a long and profitless plod towards next April.

The battle at the top of the First Division to win a precious presence in the Premiership will, obviously, be worth watching but for all but a few of those trailing in their wake and in the two divisions below - which includes many famous clubs who are followed by millions in spirit if not in body - it is impossible to sustain interest.

It wouldn't take a genius to create a more captivating and dynamic structure to the season. I mapped out one myself 25 years ago which is still available in a plain brown envelope. It involves splitting the season but provides many more meaningful matches and, importantly, recognises that there are two big markets in football.

Whatever team we were brought up to support, the majority have by now adopted one of the big clubs and there is no doubt that big matches available on pay television will be massive earners. But there still remains an appetite to attend a game that the top teams can't possibly satisfy. If our local teams were able to offer more exciting and attractive football they would tap into this second market and become viable.

There can be no question that football fans - real ones, not the nouveau chic - are prepared for change. The format of our week-by-week association with the game has been already fundamentally altered. Among the traditions to suffer over the years has been the Saturday night fever that once accompanied the arrival of the results which were first used to check the pools and then as the subject matter of a close study of the surges and slips up and down the league tables.

The dispersal of vital fixtures over the prime television viewing times of the weekend and Monday nights has cast upon Saturday evening a sad inconclusiveness that has forced millions into the far less satisfying embrace of the National Lottery. One of the by-products of this is a reduction of interest; not in football but in the domestic scene as a whole.

We are aware of which teams are leading the Premiership but we are losing our grip on trends and movements among the lower orders therefore creating the paradox that we've never been closer to the game nor further away from it.

This is why the violent media reaction to the news that a few of our top clubs have been engaged in secret negotiations to form a European super league did not reflect the mood of all football followers. If the World Cup proved anything, it showed that there is a market for televised football of a high standard, no matter who is involved.

I cannot believe why we should be so surprised that our better teams should want to seek more lucrative opposition in readiness for the tidal wave of earnings to come from pay-per-view television. The money-grubbers whose clubs occupy the heights of the Premiership are no different in their fat-cattery ambitions to the executives of our big companies. If you find yourself on the edge of a gravy boat, the temptation is to dip your bread in up to the elbow.

It is a depressing fact that many would-be football tycoons have taken over smaller clubs in the hope that they, too, can cash in on the game's boom-time. Unfortunately, few of them have had the sense or the substance to make an impact, and famous clubs are flagging for the want of some decent leadership and investment and a competition that will offer better turnstile opportunities.

It is pointless complaining about the cream of the domestic scene floating out of reach. Football clubs are by nature notoriously selfish but it is vital that those at the top continue to create the interest for the game as a whole. The future need not be the disaster the headlines of the past week have been portending. Our interest in football is so massive and varied, there should be plenty for everyone.

ENTRIES for the World Billiards Championships to be held in India next month will close tomorrow and it is a disgrace that the name of Clive Everton is not among the competitors. He has been barred from playing in that, or any other world-ranking event, and hasn't been given a reason.

Everton is the editor of Snooker Scene, a well-known voice in the BBC's commentary box and the snooker correspondent for this newspaper. You'll have to take my word for it that I would be reaching for the cudgels on his behalf even if he wasn't a colleague and friend. Indeed, he wrote well enough about his plight in these pages two weeks ago not to need help from anyone.

A member of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association for 18 years, he automatically became an honorary member earlier this year after reaching his 60th birthday and in June was told he was no longer a member and therefore ineligible to play in any of their competitions. No reason was given. Had he still been a paying member he could not have been disciplined without being convicted of some crime - sniffing coke or head-butting officials are pretty popular, I understand - but honorary members are not so protected.

In fairness to the WPBSA board, they did send him a form to reapply for membership which he duly returned. They wrote back to say his application was refused and that "in accordance with its usual practice the board is not prepared to give reasons for its decisions".

Two years ago, the chairman Rex Williams described Everton as the "watchdog of the game". Perhaps the watchdog is paying the penalty for piddling on the wrong leg. Whatever the reason, his 45-year career as a competitive billiards player - he is ranked 22nd in the world - has been ended without charge or trial.

I have long petitioned for an independent adjudication body, under the supervision of the Sports Council, to which examples of apparent injustice can be referred. Regrettably, there are many administrators who feel that their positions put them on a par with God in their respective spheres but, unlike God, they shouldn't be allowed to move in mysterious ways without some check.

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