Hard truth of making deal with Red Devils

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SOME MONTHS ago, a friend in this trade called from California to ask whether Rupert Murdoch had attempted anything over here comparable with his imminent purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club. "No," I replied, "but it's going to happen."

A pretty safe bet for anyone with half an ear to the ground was that Manchester United would end up in Murdoch's toy cupboard. Once his company, BSkyB, obtained a share in Manchester United Television, the country's first seven-days-a-week club channel, you could see it coming.

I'm not putting this forward with the "I-told-you-so" cynicism of an older generation. It's just that the only thing I found surprising about news of Murdoch's latest acquisition was the shocked response to Manchester United's capitulation.

The trepidation felt by United's supporters, their sense of betrayal, is understandable. But people who are presently banging on about a conflict of interest and the threat to English football raised by Murdoch's latest manoeuvre have mounted only token resistance to the march of market forces.

It is all well and good for the broadcaster and politician David Mellor to describe the Manchester United deal as "a cardinal act of folly", but his close affiliation with Chelsea - whose admission prices at Stamford Bridge are the highest in the Premier League, operating on the basis that if you want the best you've got to pay for it - hardly supports the idea of a people's champion.

The worst nightmare for English football is that many of its best traditions and values will be torched in the cause of what many mistakenly suppose to be progress. The clue to its future lies, I believe, in the growing and perhaps irreversible conviction of corporate influences that elitism is the only way forward.

For the majority of football supporters, dreams are now confined to marginally improved status. "I still go along because the club is in my blood," one recently said, "but I've given up on the belief that we could really get somewhere, perhaps even win the Premiership."

Last week, a businessman of my acquaintance refused desperate pleas for help from two Third Division clubs on the brink of bankruptcy. "It didn't make any sense to get involved," he said. "It wasn't necessary to study their accounts to know that it is only a matter of time, and not a long time either, before they go under."

You only have to ponder for an instant what has happened at Manchester United to realise what the takeover implies; a philosophy based solely on profit and an ignorance of history. As to the institution of tycoonery itself, I recommend you to the fact that demands are raised in accordance with investment.

We have heard and read so much about the scale of Murdoch's involvement at Old Trafford that it might not be a bad idea to point out the outcome so far of his move on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

If, admittedly, occupying a much lesser status in the National Baseball League's Western Conference than Manchester United do in the Premier League, the Dodgers have not prospered since the O'Malley family, owners for generations, sold out for an estimated $500m to Murdoch's Fox TV network.

A restructuring programme that saw the payroll spiral from $45m to $60m, when emerging young players were dumped to make way for ready-made stars, is unlikely to bring better than a mid-table position. "You can't say that it's been a disaster," Tom Cushman of the San Diego Union-Tribune said, "but nothing much has happened unless you count the fact that both the manager, Bill Russell, and the general manager, Fred Clare, were sacked - only the third time this has happened in more than forty years."

The hard rule in these things, and very hard indeed for anyone who has grown up with football as a game not a business, is to stop kidding the people with the notion that investment takes their feelings into consideration. It does nothing of the sort.

There is something the people can do about this beyond expressing disapproval. They can stay away from games, turn in their season tickets and tell the clubs where to stick their disgracefully over-priced merchandise. That will not happen, of course. They are hooked - and Murdoch knows it.