Sport: Crackpot philosophy and the greed creed

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The Independent Online
Normally, September is my favourite month of the year for reasons other than my children going back to school. I suppose that it is mainly to do with the combination of balmy weather and the onset of the football and jump racing that cheers me up. But this time round I've been feeling more like Victor Meldrew than John Keats, and I know that it's the football that's to blame. The "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness" has become one of missed opportunities and rampant greediness, and it's bloody depressing.

Leaving aside the eagerness with which the board of Manchester United embraced Rupert Murdoch's takeover bid - and a Lewinsky/ Clinton clinch springs to mind - last week has seen further evidence that football seems to have lost all moral direction. First, we had the League, the dispossessed rump of what was once a single parliament, grotesquely trying to ape its richer, FA Premiership counterpart by announcing its own pay-per-view deal which is expected to be up and running over the winter.

League executives confessed that they had no idea what the strength of the market would be for such matches, no definite scale of charges for the potential viewer and no mechanism as yet to distribute any income from pay-per-view games throughout the League. In other words, they are not even at the stage of putting the cart before the horse, because the cart has yet to be organised.

Apart from the obvious problems of finding sufficient matches to appeal beyond parochial boundaries, the decision to go down this route simply sets up the same divisive elements that are now pulling away at the Premiership's stapled-together unity. The prevailing corporate instinct within the sport is to make as much money as possible and keep it from the others. Forget brotherhood, forget genuine competition, just be Number One and grind the faces of the other bastards into the dust. You can hear, running through this sort of thinking, the crackpot philosophies of American business gurus who have fragmented every morsel of public life in their own country and brought it to market.

The hardware to enable this is here now, as the digital television age launches on Thursday, and what we are witnessing is the almighty scrabble for the software, which includes football clubs up and down the country and the rights to show their games. But Britain isn't America, either in geographical size, market volume or cultural inclination. We retain, I think, a sense of the collective experience, an image of ourselves as all pretty much the same, whereas American business philosophy has generated the cult of the individual market.

The Football League may have been seduced by the idea of unforeseen riches, and by the piquancy of beating their Big Brother to a marketing breakthrough, but I wonder if the best strategy for them is to be distinctive from the Premiership and not merely a junior version. A straw poll of some of my oldest friends reveals an increasing disenchantment with big-time football, with its exploitative expense, its tacky glitz and, ultimately, the poverty of the football itself. Well, have you seen a great match in the Premiership this season? One that didn't involve cynical diving, great acres of sterile play, or simply a corporately enriched team beating up on one of its poorer relatives?

My pals are talking about drifting back to the days when you could go to a match on the spur of the moment, and not have to book months in advance. They don't want to spend fifty quid, or queue for hours or even sit in a seat unless they have to. They're talking about going to watch Tranmere Rovers or Wigan rather than Everton or Liverpool, Oldham rather than Manchester United, Barnet rather than Spurs or Arsenal. Hundreds of thousands are already there, spotting the next most likely player to break a teenage transfer record, or the old lag who has fallen through the divisions.

And yet now those who run the League are on the verge of jeopardising their best assets, which include the sense of community that the lower divisions generate and the sheer perverse pleasure of following a hopeless team. American business classes don't teach this sort of thing; they don't understand, or will not countenance what they would see as failure or mediocrity. They don't see that the three divisions of the Football League are the equivalents of the family shops in the high streets of our towns, with the Premiership clubs as the out-of-town superstores. A marketing strategy based on this image might serve the League better than trying merely to imitate the Premiership's avarice.

This becomes especially apt when each week seems to take our flagship football division closer to disrepute and moral chaos. After the last "bung" offender, Steve Burtenshaw, had been fined pounds 10,000 in midweek, it now appears that his fellow bungee, George Graham, would yesterday lead out his current team against the one he's about to join, with a tax- free signing-on fee as a bonus to all his other rewards. The term "contract" is now a joke at the highest level of football, with built-in escape clauses and payments, not to mention the usual practice of ignoring them or allowing them to expire.

But is Nemesis at hand? One of the few segments I remember from English history classes is the episode of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. A resurgent Britain began to embrace wildly the foreign cultures of Italy and France, while speculative investment mania centred on the South Sea Company and its trading rights, before a spectacular collapse ruined thousands. I won't labour the obvious parallels. But with the contemporary global stock markets entering what seems to be a new period of instability, how many of the much-mooted investors beside Murdoch will actually now stump up the cash to feed this gluttonous, amoral monster known as the Premiership?

The conventional language of newspaper obituaries is euphemistic, in the sense that it abides by the convention of not speaking ill of the dead. "He did not suffer fools gladly" is shorthand for "he was a right arrogant bastard". But the usual etiquette seemed to have been ignored when it came to the tragically early demise of athlete Florence Griffith Joyner last week. The immediate speculation was that her death at 38, almost exactly 10 years after her triumphs at the Seoul Olympics, was the result of a Faustian pact - an exchange of drug-enhanced victories and glory then, for an untimely death now. With the results of a post- mortem examination still awaited, this obituary gossip seems to verge on the offensive no matter how well-founded it is. And it seems particularly unpleasant when most of those writing about the woman are men. Dead male sports stars seem to get a much rosier, nostalgic treatment whatever their misdemeanours, especially if they include womanising and drinking. And while the libel laws too often prevent accurate comment while people are living, that shouldn't be an excuse for tap-dancing on someone's grave within moments of burial. How about remembering Flo-Jo for her vibrancy and style, irrespective of what she achieved on the track?

Everton's purchase for pounds 3.3m of the 19-year-old goalkeeper Steve Simonsen reminded me of somewhat humbler custodians in the Goodison Park nets. In particular I recall the less glamorously named Albert Dunlop who once had the misfortune to be questioned by the Merseyside police about a store of stolen cigarettes in his garage. The joke at the time was that Albert had only been carrying out his manager Harry Catterick's instructions "to get some Players".

Peter Corrigan is on holiday

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