Ludicrous twitching of official nostrils

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The Independent Online
IT IS an indication of the rampant folly possessing football at the moment that the least extraordinary financial transaction to surface in the game last week was the one that drew the most indignant response from the authorities. The seemingly harmless revelation by Wimbledon's manager, Joe Kinnear, that some of his team had bet on themselves to win the Worthington Cup at the generous odds of 66-1 brought the wrath of the Football Association upon his head.

There are few more pathetic sights in sport than outraged officialdom in pursuit of supposed miscreants from the lower orders but the hue and cry raised by the FA surpassed any norm in these matters. Indeed, if there was a prize for the year's most astonishing over- reaction they would have won it by a considerable margin for the way they lunged in with demands for urgent explanations from the club. "We are treating this matter very seriously and dealing with it as a priority," said an FA spokesman.

With, among other matters, internal wrangling raging about an unauthorised pounds 3.2m grant to the Welsh FA and the "bungs" inquiry into Nottingham Forest now disgracefully dragging into its l2th month, you would think that the FA wouldn't have room for new priorities especially those of the nit- picking variety. Besides, any sensible organisation would wait to see if Wimbledon win the cup and then confiscate the winnings.

But what made their prosecution of this innocuous breach of a ludicrous rule all the more bewildering was that it should take place at the same time as the bizarre fiscal fandango now going on at Everton FC. I am not suggesting that any foul play has taken place behind the scenes at Goodison Park but what has happened there is disquieting at the very least. It can't be right that a man should walk away from a mess he helped to create with such a massive profit in prospect.

When Peter Johnson acquired a controlling interest in Everton four years ago it cost him about pounds 20m. Following his resignation as chairman last week, his shares are now on offer and could conceivably fetch up to pounds 80m. That would be a return at odds of 4-1; not as dramatic as Wimbledon's 66-1 but a much safer bet at far higher stakes and not an official nostril twitches. I don't possess the knowledge to understand how such high finance works but I do have enough curiosity to wonder why the game puts up with it.

It may be just the present state of the market but big-time investors in other sports don't appear to be so fortunate. In rugby, for instance, it is easy to end up with a small fortune through owning a club; you just start with a big fortune. However, it seems that football exists principally for the purpose of making men rich. And whatever we may think of the wages received even by average players at least they do their earning in the open.

There is a swelling harvest of profit being reaped just outside the rim of the spotlight. It was inevitable that once the initials plc began appearing behind the names of clubs, the priorities and morals of the City would begin to apply. The upheaval at Everton is by no means the only manifestation of this. There are increasing revelations that some directors are paying themselves more than they are paying their players and that there are grand designs afoot that may not be in the best interests of the clubs and their supporters.

We have reached the time when some official scrutiny ought to be applied to the important matter of how our clubs are run. It would certainly not be easy but anyone who gains control of a club should undergo a screening process fashioned to ensure that the future well-being of the club and its followers were uppermost in their plans.

It would seem an ideal cause for the new Football Task Force to take up; certainly a far more constructive use of their talents than bleating about the cost of replica shirts. In an ideal football world, the rich men in charge of our clubs would have altruism piled as high as their money. Alas, there are not enough around to perform sugar-daddy roles like Sir Jack Hayward of Wolves and Blackburn's Jack Walker but a certain affinity to the club should be a basic requirement.

There are multi-millionaires such as Peter Johnson whose philosophy is that, in football, your heart is where your money is, but that way of thinking does not allow for the personal and emotional sacrifice that close interest in a club often demands. It is unfair to write off Johnson's contribution to football as a failure because he spent several years nourishing Tranmere Rovers away from bankruptcy before he acquired Everton. But as a card-carrying Liverpool supporter his motives were never going to be interpreted as genuine by the Everton fans; and you don't have to be a member of that furious fraternity to study his record over the past few seasons and come to the conclusion that the talents which enabled him to earn a fortune from the Christmas hamper business fell well short of those required to run a big football club in these demanding times.

Despite that failing he is now in the position to sell his 68 per cent of Everton for whatever massive profit he can get. If there is a silver lining it is that Bill Kenwright, the impresario who is trying to gather the wherewithal to buy out Johnson, is a lifelong Goodison devotee. But raising the dough for Johnson is only the first hurdle. There then follows the problem of Everton's pounds 20m overdraft.

If the thought of all that money floating about without a penny of it reaching the club isn't galling enough, Johnson is reported to be in no hurry to complete the deal until after February because of tax reasons. Meanwhile, back at Wimbledon and the real scandal of the week, we have to consider the alleged mortal sin of players falling to the temptation of backing themselves at the start of the season to win the Worthington Cup at the inviting, some might say insulting, odds of 66-1. There is a passing irony here because, although they haven't always been the most pleasant team to watch, Wimbledon do represent a refreshing example of loving and level-headed husbandry, and having faith in their ability to win a trophy is not out of character with their self-confidence.

But there is an enormous difference between real gambling on the outcome of single games and and a harmless flutter on a knock-out tournament spread over several games and months. When the FA tightened up their gambling rules in the wake of Sir John Smith's report last year they did so as a reaction to the match-fixing case against three players. Although the charges were thrown out, the governing body was right to be concerned.

But to outlaw a team betting on itself to win the cup on the grounds that it could lead to bribing the opposition to lose is ludicrous. They'd have to fix five or six games including a Wembley final that carries entry into Europe. That would require about pounds 2m in bribe money. To make such a venture worthwhile, I estimate that Wimbledon would have had to stake over pounds 40,000. Had they done so, I'm sure the bookies would have mentioned it by now.

If the Football Association believe that by hounding Wimbledon they're fulfilling their role as the game's fearless watchdogs, they are barking up the wrong money-tree.

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