Keys to a gold-mine at a knockdown price

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The Independent Online
When you consider the buffoons, bandits, crooks, charlatans, shysters and sundry megalomaniacs who have parked their fat backsides around the boardroom tables of British football over the past century or so, it is a wonder we retain the capacity to be outraged by the comings and goings at the governing levels of our clubs.

Perhaps the shudder that greeted the shadow of Rupert Murdoch over Old Trafford was caused more by the realisation that a new breed of bossmen was breezing on to the scene. We've suffered the miserliness of old money, borne with fortitude the brash gaucherie of the nouveau riche and now we must contend with the cold and corporate clutch of the mogul-led conglomerates.

It can be better tolerated if you force yourself to hold fast to the fact that in the middle of it all is the simple game of football; that there is a green field field far away from the stock market, media analysts and digital technocrats and upon it the important issues will still be settled.

I was reminded of this when watching Match of the Day late on Wednesday evening. Desmond Lynam presided over a crop of excellent matches that were a credit to the surging, if somewhat rustic, charms of the Premiership. Among many delights were Wimbledon's amazing recovery from being three goals down at West Ham; Manchester United's ability to quell their rebellious hordes and send them home purring peacefully at the 4-1 beating of Charlton; and, above all, Liverpool's sleekly exciting performance against Coventry. It caused me to go to bed luxuriously comforted by the thought that by the time BSkyB's acquisition of United is finally signed and sealed, Murdoch's first experience as a club owner will be the sight of Liverpool's arse disappearing up the top of the table.

This piece of fanciful thinking will betray a partiality to Liverpool which I can't deny. One tends to collect football affinities in the course of a lifetime. Cardiff City have been undiscardable since I first watched them at the age of 10 while stints as part-time programme editor at Fulham and Millwall have added them to the list of fortunes to be closely followed. And any football writer who had the privilege of covering most of Liverpool's big games in the 1970s would have found it difficult not to remain incurably attached.

There are reasons to admire a club other than their results and I was further endeared to them when, in about 1973, Liverpool elected a new chairman called Eric Roberts. There was far less interest in the occupants of the boardroom in those days - and, at most clubs, far less noise coming from within - so the appointment went practically unnoticed. However, I thought it would be worth interviewing him about the club's philosophy. He is a very likeable man and in the course of our conversation he confessed that he had brought an embarrassing problem to his new role.

He earned his living as chairman of the giant sweet firm Barker & Dobson whose manufacturing headquarters was based in Liverpool. It so happened that the best known, and the most traditional, of his firm's range of sweets were Everton Mints which are a delicious, soft- centred confection coloured in blue and white stripes and, I believe, still available. It had been suggested to him, in the nicest possible way, that it was less than compatible with his new post at Liverpool FC that he should derive much of his income from a product bearing the name of their deadliest rivals.

His solution was commendably swift; a new addition to the range that tasted remarkably similar but was red and white and called Liverpool Mints. Honour saved, crisis averted and they've been making a mint ever since. Homely little tales like that are not likely to emerge from the modern football boardroom but you feel it is still typical of Anfield; a tycoon- free zone and a model of what a close-knit football club should look like.

So many machinations are rumbling below the surface in football these days that one hesitates to make any assumption but it is difficult to imagine Liverpool selling out to anyone. You don't get the feeling that they are propelled by the same profit motives that have fuelled Manchester United in recent years. In any case they would have the nous to realise that a profitable future awaits our leading clubs without the need to hand over the keys to a passing media giant.

Indeed, in the minds of innocents one question has survived the passage through a bewildering week. Why? Why was it necessary for United, the most popular team in the world, to sell the gold-mine for what will eventually look a knock-down figure? The smart answer is that, being a quoted company, they have to act in their shareholders' best interests. Since at least one of the major shareholders was instrumental in making the decision we'll never know how objective it was. The chief executive, Martin Edwards, is a lucky man if a vote that brings him pounds 85m was also the very best he could do for the club.

That personal return will be easily surpassed at other clubs if reports that similar deals are about to be made. We moan about the astronomical sums that top footballers take out of the game but at least they make a highly visible and easily judged contribution to the game.

As for the supporters, they at least have the satisfaction that thanks to the digital revolution their great passion is going to be satisfied, at a price, like never before. And I have to admit that I have long looked forward to the day when I can choose what I want to watch and not have some big dope at the BBC decide for me.

But if you are looking to identify the true beneficiary of the week's work, study Rupert Murdoch. Without doubt he is the man of match if you regard artfulness as highly as many do. He saw his chance of completing the first and probably the finest no-risk business deal in football and United gave him an open goal. All we can do is trust the game will survive it intact.

There was a time when the Daily Mirror was forced to suck up to its proprietor Robert Maxwell's excesses in the world of football but the experience made them in no way sympathetic to those employed by another media magnate who was throwing his money around last week.

They splashed over their front page that a Murdoch aide, the American Mark Booth, confessed that he didn't know the name of Manchester United's left-back. We can help you, trumpeted the Mirror: "He is Northern Ireland international Denis Irwin."

A brave attempt but, alas, not entirely right. Irwin plays for the Republic of Ireland which, as students of modern history will confirm, is not quite the same. People in crass houses shouldn't throw stones.

I take great pleasure in owning a half-share of a handsome racehorse called Turn to Stone. Sadly, just because he has developed the regular habit of losing, disgruntled punters in my pub have re-named him Turn to Chappie.

I was reminded of this cruel jibe by last week's Burghley Horse Trials which were sponsored by Pedigree Chum. When I mentioned the unfortunate connotation between sport and sponsor last year, I received a hurt letter from the Pedigree people. Much as I regret reviving the subject, I do share certain equine sensitivities and there can be no more disheartening experience for a horse struggling around a cross-country course than the sight of a poster advertising dogmeat.