Mystery mogul's game of three halves

Click to follow
The Independent Online
You may have read reports earlier last week that a "mystery bidder" had come on to the scene with regard to buying Manchester United, fronted by a strange bank with a name like a Scottish midfield trio, Macbeth, Banquo & Duncan. The bid failed, or was withdrawn, without the identity of the would-be owner being revealed. But now I am able to let the mink out of the cage - the mysterious bidder was none other than myself.

For years I have been masquerading as a part-time sportswriter and stand- in columnist, a conveniently innocent and impecunious front for my secret media empire. This role cunningly allowed me to be a mouthpiece for my own interests, and to manipulate your opinions, dear readers. But now that my fellow columnist Richard Littlejohn has declared his hand in making a bid for Tottenham Hotspur, I have no alternative but to declare my own global media ambitions. We opinionated loudmouths cannot abide other voices holding sway.

Now that I have withdrawn my bid for Manchester United plc, I am happy to tell the world what I had planned for them. In the first instance I intended to copyright the name "United" as the team's sole name. The term "Manchester" has become far too parochial and too limiting for a company that seeks to trade around the world. Nor do the terms "football" and "club" have any relevance in the new order of things. "Football" doesn't even begin to rate as our core activity, compared to leisurewear merchandising and digital home-broadcasting services. Meanwhile "club" is a laughable Edwardian anachronism implying co-operation, fellowship and inclusiveness - and inclusiveness is out, right?

I had also intended to widen the team's player base so that it could be more representative of non- European football culture, as reflected by my All Asia and China Satellite Broadcasting System, otherwise known as "Dishes R Us". To this end, one of my representatives was dispatched to Malaysia, Japan and China to sign up their best players, of whom Hoo Ya Bung is best known to European audiences. The excitement generated by bringing these talented players to England would have generated such interest in my All Asian Sports Channel that I inevitably would have deferred to my 500 million paying subscribers by moving all "United" matches to a time more convenient to these viewers. I was more than confident that the players in the team and the United Kingdom-based supporters could handle the new 10am kick-offs.

This would be especially so once the authorities had accepted my proposals for all games to be of three halves not two. A long overdue development, this would put football more in line with the classic three-act structure of Greek drama and, like the Greeks, we would be able to sell more chocolates and ice-creams at the intervals, metaphorically speaking that is. It'd be more like cars, foreign holidays, white goods and satellite television systems that would be on the agenda during the breaks between action.

Indeed, in the long term I would have reduced the proportion of football in the broadcast as a whole, and simply have got the two teams to play "highlights" instead. You know, the exciting bits in the penalty area, leaving out all that other passing and build-up stuff. This is the sort of football the kids want to see.

In order to make this vision coherent, I would have installed my 10-year old son, Coonawarra, as chairman of the plc. I'm sure that Mr Martin Edwards would have understood that the forces of nepotism can be a progressive influence. In any case, the boy just knows instinctively how football should be, much closer to the computerised games in style, laced with violence, and with players doing exactly what you want.

But it was my being so far ahead of the game on an intellectual and commercial level that actually persuaded me to pull out of my negotiations. There I was watching the game against Barcelona on Wednesday night and it was free, on terrestrial television, and broadcast at a time to suit a small minority of European viewers. This was the Stone Age. Worse still, there were two crucial penalties in the game, a controversial hand-ball and a sending- off. Under my proposed broadcast system, such incidents would be blanked from the screen and replays of them would only be shown to those who offered a further instant payment to view. I learned everything I needed to know about running newspapers and television from a "What the Butler Saw" machine on Blackpool pier in my childhood.

Depressed by this sheer lack of commercialism, the unpredictable nature of the result - my "United" would never have been allowed to lose or draw - and the humiliation of being held by a Spanish club owned by its fans, I decided to stack my chips and go home. It's all yours, Messrs Murdoch and Littlejohn.

Just as the BSkyB bid is fed into the bureaucratic machine which assesses whether certain ventures are monopolistic in intent, the verdict on another controversial move is soon to pop out at the other end. When the bookmakers Ladbrokes moved in to take over Corals last January, the implications of one firm owning close to 37 per cent of the off-course betting market seemed too serious to be waved through. So a referral was made to the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and finally to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Deliberations have taken nearly eight months, and what was once Margaret Beckett's decision will now be Peter Mandelson's. New Labour probably would not be seen dead in betting shops while Old Labour practically grew up in them. Nevertheless it is to be hoped that Mr Mandelson takes into account the new landscape of racing in making his final decision on the deal's approval.

Peter Jones, the new chairman of the Tote, has halted the Nanny's sterile, Woodrow Wyatt phase, and has shown some adventure in acquiring new betting shops and adopting the Trifecta bet, which yesterday at Ayr offered a potential pounds 1m pay-out to a lucky punter. The Tote has become what we always wanted it to be, a progressive enterprising fund-raiser for racing that has the punters' entertainment at its heart. Any expansion of the already highly profitable Ladbrokes at the Tote's expense is just giving money away.

Meanwhile at the British Horse Racing Board, something akin to an owners' revolution has taken place, with Peter Savill having assumed its chairmanship with the main intention of improving the return on owners' expenses by way of increased prize-money. One way of improving this, and the Government's receipts on betting duty, would be to stem this tide of corporate acquisitiveness. Capitalism without competition is no deal, especially when rampant bookies are offering the bets.

The news that Premiership referees are to be given full-time jobs and technical aides for their decision-making next season is a remarkable attempt to embrace the 20th century just before it ends. Apart from radically affecting football chants - nobody earning pounds 50,000 a year can really be accused of onanism - the notion that the referees can wear individual sponsor's logos is most intriguing. Of course it sets up all manner of cheap jokes - Vision Express, Anusol, and Quink will surely be queueing up to have their company name on a ref's shirt - but it sets up the possibility that one referee will almost certainly have Alex Ferguson on his back.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday

Comments