Keegan was an appropriate visitor to the conference, nicely fitting into its themes - New Labour, New Britain, Newcastle

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
Thanks to the machinations of the local team's directors, the citizens of Brighton may soon be deprived of their football team. Yet the bars and halls of the town were this week alive with footie chat: the Labour Party Conference wasn't able to stop talking about the national game.

Tony Blair (notably honoured by a delegate as the only party leader skilled in keepy-uppy) in particular was exposing his allegiance all over the place. Thanks to him, Eric Cantona became the first French footballer to be name checked in a big conference speech. Kevin Keegan slipped in there too, when Blair alluded to his head-to-head meeting with the Newcastle boss earlier in the week. "For the first time since I became leader," he said. "I have done something which impressed my children."

You could tell at the time that the encounter was an important moment for Blair, he was anxious not to fail in the eyes of his sons, not to mention the lenses of the brigade of photographers hoping for a prat-fall. At that sports centre on Monday, his body language betrayed a man concentrating more than might be considered healthy as he padded the ball back and forth to the famous badger-striped head no fewer than 26 times. Not a bad performance, that: last summer I spent five hours with my mate playing head tennis and our best rally was 13. But then, neither of us was Kevin Keegan.

Keegan was an appropriate visitor to the conference, nicely fitting into its themes - New Labour, New Britain, Newcastle. He addressed a fringe meeting which drew a larger crowd than the Goldstone Ground has boasted for months. His theme was upbeat - money flooding into football; Euro 96 could be a world beater if promoted aggressively; such excitement in his area that 4,000 people turn up to watch Newcastle train.

A different vision of the game, and indeed a different turn-out (12), occurred at another meeting later that evening. In a hotel room just down the prom from where Keegan had performed, Glyn Ford MEP was hosting a discussion about the problems English fans have when they follow their team in Europe. Politicians are regularly characterised as selfish but no one could accuse Ford of being motivated by self-interest in this issue: he is a Manchester City season ticket holder.

However, being a Euro MP he had become aware over the five years since English clubs were re-admitted into Europe, of the appalling treatment regularly meted out to fans who follow their team abroad. The litany is extensive: Manchester United supporters in Istanbul, Chelsea followers in Bruges and particularly Zaragoza. And the complaint is always the same: the assumption by all concerned that, to paraphrase Jane Austen, an English person in possession of a ticket to follow his team abroad must be in pursuit of a fight. Everywhere they are herded about, given little opportunity to sight-see, and rounded up even though they are not involved in any disturbance, and sent home. Veal calves have it easy, it seems.

It is a difficult subject, this. As John Williams, professor of football studies at Leicester University, pointed out to the meeting, the one export in which England was a world leader during the 1980s was hooliganism. The citizens of Luxembourg, Stockholm or Turin would prefer their police behaved without regard to civil rights rather than allow a re-run of the mayhem that was visited on them by young Englishmen who once arrived in their cities apparently determined that nothing remain still standing on their departure. And though back home things have changed, and though we here may be aware of the distinction between the decent folk who follow clubs and the detritus that attaches itself to the England team, you would hardly blame Dubliners if they were less than open-armed the next time English fans of any hue visit their city.

It would help, Professor Williams suggested, if some of the ring leaders of England violence were arrested rather than merely being watched. It would help, too, if the FA did not arrange friendlies in places like Dublin, or indeed Oslo, so juicily accessible to the yob.

Plus it would help if the clubs themselves did not collude in the maltreatment business by insisting, occasionally to the point of threatening to take away season tickets, their fans do not travel independently and go on official tours instead. It is on official trips that fans are cattle-herded around, swept in and out of their destination, in short not trusted.

The assumption by the clubs is that the only way to deliver trouble-free support is to treat fans as if they were a consignment of liquid nitrogen, rather than civilised people. But the clubs may be driven in this instance by another motive: the fact they charge considerably more for their appalling service than independents offering better packages. As Kevin Keegan said, football's financial health has never been ruder. And, as always, it is the fan who pays the price.

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