No rest for the quick and the dumb

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The Independent Online
I Don't know whether Manchester United's chief executive, Martin Edwards, nor indeed any of his equivalents in the other 19 Premiership clubs, are familiar with Dr Faustus, Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century play about temptation, greed and punishment. But "Faustian" was the first word to spring to mind when the Premiership's Board declined United's appeal to extend the season beyond Sunday 11 May in order to ease fixture congestion.

For those who conspired to create the Premiership in the early Nineties had only one aim in mind, to garner more of the game's income for an elite section of clubs, a decision which looked triumphantly vindicated when BSkyB started to pour their millions into buying up broadcast rights to Premiership football. It is, perhaps, more than a coincidence that United, the most mercantile of all the top clubs, have claimed the dominant share of Premiership glory. This isn't to suggest that they have bought their way to the top, quite the opposite, in fact, with the development of so many home-grown players.

But the harmony of purpose between the club's financial development and the team's epic resolve to keep on winning trophies, is now threatened by this decision to hold United, and the rest of their Premiership colleagues, to the agreed schedule of games. It seems like a rare moment of impotence for United, who can see their charge towards yet another championship threatened by having to play their last four games in eight days.

And yet the original architects of this were the club chairmen themselves, not just in defining the size of the Premiership but also its obeisance to Sky's schedules. So there seems little use in the chairmen pointing the finger at the game's bureaucrats when three of those fingers are pointing back at themselves.

But while it might be tempting to gloat at such self-created misfortune, the rumpus deserves a more intelligent and robust response, and not in terms of who tells whom what to do.

So over these next few break-neck weeks we should apply the same pressures to club chairmen as are being applied to their managers and players. Let's ask them if they can defend a 20-team Premiership when everyone knows that at least eight of its members don't deserve such status.

Let's ask them if they can still see a point in Premiership clubs taking part in the Coca-Cola Cup now that a Uefa place will no longer be available to the competition's winners. Let's ask them if they can tell Sky to abandon its Monday-night fixture, the most disruptive to supporters and players alike.

And let's ask them if they are prepared to sacrifice their per-game income by reducing the Premiership to 16 clubs, in the hope of creating a more relaxed schedule of competition which should in turn help develop footballing standards at both club and national level.

Of course, we already know the answers to these hypothetical questions: no change, thanks, except perhaps in getting more of their own on to the committees who make the decisions. The prevailing rationale seems to be no more sophisticated than not wanting to kill the goose laying the golden eggs.

And yet the impetus for a re-think continues to be generated not just by a fixture glut, but by the national team's recent defeat by Italy at Wembley, their unconvincing form against others, the possible consequences of non-qualification for the 1998 World Cup, and also by our clubs' continued failure to measure up to the best in Europe.

Manchester United, of course, may yet overcome a Borussia Dortmund who they couldn't put away in midweek, despite the home side missing several internationals, and Liverpool were truly abysmal in Paris. But more damaging, I contest, is the general level of play within the Premiership.

As a match reporter, I see a varied spread of teams, yet as the season draws to a close, I can remember only four or five games being anything other than a blur of incoherent action, poor technique and monolithic thought.

One Premiership manager, to whom I was speaking recently, told me frankly: "The Premiership is crap. There is just too much speed and too little thought in the football." His remarks may equally apply to those who run the game - too quick to think of profit, too dumb to realise the consequences.

Of course, the synthetic excitement we are about to get stuffed down our throats with the next few weeks as a dozen mediocre teams scramble to stay in the lifeboat, will be called as a witness to the vigour of our football. But the testimony will be a false one.

Unless our clubs bide their time to allow their players to rest, to work both on technique and intelligence - and that requires proper coaching not just repetitive five-a-side - then a few pints down at the Dog and Bucket, my guess is that the English Premiership, like Faustus himself, will be taking its riches down with the Devil.

The golf season proper has begun this weekend with the US Masters at Augusta and with it commences my annual search for a first winning bet on the sport.

Year after year I transfer my allegiance of failure from Cheltenham and Aintree to this infernal sport, lured by the promise of favourites whose odds are in double figures. Yet year on year, whoever I pick, disappears off the leader board, misses the cut after two days or goes drinking with John Daly.

I was tempted to back Tiger Woods this time, until I saw his Nike advert the other night and remembered the traditional fate of most sportsmen who appear in their promotions - abject failure. So instead, I opted for the most improbable golf bet I could think of and put a "pony" on Greg Norman to win. By Saturday morning he had missed the cut and was out of the competition. I wonder if Nike need a sad gambler for one of their adverts?

A last few words on the Grand National, or more particularly, Liverpool itself. We are told that "Scousism" is now a living prejudice, embracing both accent and post-code.

But in their random acts of kindness to many stranded people last weekend, Liverpudlians confounded the stereotypes that have developed over the last decade and they fully deserved their good press.

But the message has still to get through to some observers. Ginger McCain, the trainer of the great Red Rum, struck a banal and insulting note with his complaint that the cars which had to be confined overnight on the racecourse would be likely to incite the interests of "all the local tearaways".

I'm sure a few people of this description exist, but they are smart enough not to take on armed police, sniffer dogs and helicopters in pursuit of a Nissan car stereo.

Equally off key, was the Old Etonian racing journalist who was chuckling over the phrase "thieving Scousers". This vile calumny on my fellow Liverpudlians will not go unanswered if he dares to repeat his accusations in my hearing again. I will engage him in vigorous debate, as they say in Huyton.

Peter Corrigan is on holiday

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