Last week in Luxembourg, often the scene of collapse on the pitch, a report was delivered to the European Court of Justice that many feared would cause the destruction of the game off it.Carl Otto Lenz, its advocate general, had trained his eye on football, prompted by the iniquitous treatment of a Belgian player, Jean-Marc Bosman, by his former club Liege. Not surprisingly, he found some of its practices comparable to feudal labour laws. Now Bosman has become the modern equivalent of a Tolpuddle martyr.
The game has never looked especially impressive in court, from the days of Don Revie claiming restraint of trade to Dennis Wise telling m'learned friend that "there's no point getting the hump with me". Now the Lenz report finds that a club's holding of a player's registration at the end of his contract offends European rights on freedom of movement. For good measure, it adds, the rule governing how many "foreign" and "assimilated" players can appear for a club is unlawful.
Reaction has been hysterical: football's Wall Street Crash, said someone, though Sir John Hall has not yet been seen contemplating the noose at Newcastle's Gallowgate End. Up to 75 per cent of players' jobs could go, says the Football League. And when the agent provocateur Eric Hall declares it the best news he has had since he brought us his skills from showbiz, the gut reaction is that it must be a bad thing.
But wait. Lenz's report - a recommendation - will probably be accepted by a full tribunal in January then implemented by the European Commission, which backed Bosman's case. They may decide, though, as the rather more rational chief executive of the Premier League, Rick Parry, points out, that it should apply to cross-border transfers only and that domestic systems remain intact. "The EC wants to do this by negotiation rather than decree," Parry said. "And the article in question does allow exemptions on economic grounds."
The Commission may be tiring of Uefa's unwillingness to get to grips with the freedom of movement issue over the past decade. Football, despite its pleading as a special case, should not be above any laws, they rightly maintain. The EC may now be ready to negotiate with national governing bodies themselves. An official, for instance, will meet the Premier League in this country on 19 October.
After all, the system in England has worked, by and large, since George Eastham defied the retain-and-transfer system in 1963. Bosman could not take advantage of the English procedure for out-of-contract players: if their club does not offer them a new contract equal to or better than their previous deal, they are entitled to a free transfer. If he is offered an acceptable deal but still decides to leave, the buying club has to compensate the selling club, who have recourse to a tribunal if they deem the fee inadequate.
And when, Parry also pointed out, did lower-division players last deprive their club of a transfer fee by waiting until the end of their contract until moving to a bigger one? The examples of David Platt and Rob Jones moving from Crewe are those of reasonable fees being paid. To be fair, Eric Hall did have a point when he said that it falls to clubs to back their judgement with longer contracts for younger players.
What does seem certain is that there must be tighter business practice and planning in the matter of contracts, probably overseen by more experienced and qualified administrators.
The potential relaxation of the number of "overseas" European players allowed will inevitably draw mixed reactions. The FA may baulk, fearing for the future of the national team, along with those such as Liverpool and Newcastle who have cannily assembled largely English teams.
The other home nations will, though, be happy that many of their players will be allowed a good-quality home. So will Manchester United, though if they can buy five players of whatever nationality. Milan will surely buy 10. We are likely to see, however, a lowering of the highest transfer fees. A key factor in Liverpool paying pounds 8.5m for Stan Collymore was the fact that he was English.
Lower down the scale, the fears for those clubs whose resources are thin are likely to be eased soon anyway. There does now appear a realisation by the Premier League that that the widening of the gap between it and the First Division (six of whose clubs met last week in a move reminiscent of the League's big five of a decade ago) is unhealthy.
In addition, there is a belief that the unique English structure of 92 full-time clubs needs to be nurtured and when new television contracts come to be agreed in some 18 months' time, the Premier League is likely to increase significantly the pounds 3m it grants the Endsleigh League. "If we don't act responsibly next time around, we will be rightly and roundly criticised," Parry admitted.
Lower profile it might have been, but of potentially more import for the English game last week was the case of Matthew Wicks, a highly promising 17-year-old, whose move from Arsenal to Manchester United was the subject of a five-hour FA hearing on Monday. Arsenal claim that United breached rules governing poaching, United deny it, and judgement will be pronounced next month. The issue of clubs at whatever level being able to hold on to assets, though reconciled with players' freedom of choice, is central to the well-being of all in the game.
Change might just be for the better. In these days of eroded employees' rights, better conditions should be welcomed rather than condemned and the most enlightened - not necessarily the richest - will surely survive and prosper.
Football has, anyway, coped well with the changes imposed by the Taylor Report, of which it was initially suspicious. It is just that it needs a moan, then a kick, before embracing a change it fears.
Eamon Dunphy, page 21Reuse content