Sugar and the season with extra spice

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The Independent Online
AFTER sitting here quietly simmering in the juices of our ineffectuality while the World Cup blazed brightly on the other side of the Atlantic without us, you might have thought that we would need some persuasion to get excited about the domestic chores of a new football season. Far from it; with the Premiership kick-off still two weeks away, anticipation is running amok.

For us to be so cranked up with winter interest during a hot first week of August is due in part to many millions of pounds' worth of transfer activity by clubs, but mainly to the intiative shown by Tottenham Hotspur in signing Jurgen Klinsmann. It was an act that revealed plenty about the present demeanour of the Spurs chairman, Alan Sugar. It also proved the truth behind the theory that football is more about clubs than it is about nations.

Admittedly, there is nothing on the club scene that offers as much reflective glitter as the World Cup or even the European Championship but these are intermittent opportunities. The bed-rock of a country's football development is contained in its clubs and the combined power they can generate on behalf of the game. Within few shores is that more true than here, and while the Football League - despite its present guises we still think of it as that - may lack the flair of the internal competitions of one or two other countries, it is stronger in structure and depth than any. This is just as well considering it has to supply varying chunks of the five national teams resident on these islands, plus several abroad.

What have those clubs received in return, you might ask? Well, there was always 1966 and, 1970 wasn't bad, but generally we have not been blessed on the international field with a flattering representation of the game we play which has been an object of scorn and ridicule as a result. What pride we have harvested has been from success at club level in all three European cup competitions, particularly from clubs like Liverpool but also from a long list of others.

And, realistically, it is from the clubs that we are likely to get the quickest and most concerted attempt to repair the damage to our image caused by not appearing in the United States. This brings us to an extension of the above theory - that football is more about clubs than it is about national associations.

This view received judicial suppport two weeks ago when three Welsh clubs won the right to play on their home soil pending the result of an appeal against the Welsh FA's decision to exile them for not joining the League of Wales. Whatever the desirability of such a league, it does not merit such high-handedness.

Perhaps the FA wanted to prove they could get their hands even higher when they pronounced sentence on Spurs for past financial wrongdoings. Their decision to fine them heavily and also to bar them from next season's FA Cup and dock championship points in advance has been roundly denounced. Spurs have paid the pounds 1.5m fine but may still carry on the fight against having their season disfigured before they start. I hope they do.

The FA must take action against clubs who blatantly ignore rules but this punishment betrayed a desire to demonstrate to the Premiership clubs that the association remains the superior power in the land. It is a pitiful show of flabby muscle by men whose own attempts to run a football team have proved so fruitless. Their priority at the moment should be to help as many top clubs as possible to attain a level of eminence that will earn them status in Europe.

It is clear that the future must bring a European super league, membership of which will require each club to have a great team and big earning power. The fact that England enter the new season without one club ground capable of holding more than 45,000 - which is less than half the capacities of clubs like AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona - is a tribute to neither clubs nor country.

But we do have massive television audiences to deliver, which will be a telling factor when Pay TV comes along. How many teams we will have to tempt them with will be decided over the next couple of years. The whole point in creating the Premiership, in which the FA played a leading role, was to cut our bigger clubs free of restraining tentacles of the old Football League and allow them to grow. It has proved a sound move.

Business is better all round and the seeds of superdom have been sown in several clubs. Manchester United are already there, Blackburn Rovers must surely follow, Arsenal, too, and Liverpool have the spending power if not yet the team. We can have high hopes of Newcastle and Aston Villa and maybe even Wolves and Middlesbrough in time, but Spurs are suddenly a bonus - and the reason is that Sugar is newly given a mind to do what his tormentors at the FA could not dream of doing. He can build a team.

When Spurs' punishment was first announced, I was inclined to blame Sugar for helping to attract such severity. As befits a man who has made his money the hard way, he came into football with the same blustering attitude. His attitude to the FA, the fact that he turned up at the hearing with a busy barrister, did not make demands on their capacity for mercy.

I would not have blamed him for walking away from his disillusioned club and finding something else to do with his spare time. After all, he did not appear to be as enraptured with the game as his wealthy counterparts Jack Walker at Blackburn and Sir Jack Hayward at Wolves. But he decided to stay and fight and I'm blowed if he is not looking the part all of a sudden. His close colleagues confirm that he has been transformed into a passionate soccer devotee.

There is no football love greater than that of a mature person who receives a kick in the heart from Cupid. What is more, Sugar is not blindly affected. The signing of the Romanian World Cup player Ilie Dumitrescu was no mean stroke but the lunge for Klinsmann for pounds 2m was a stroke of brilliance, as the German striker cost less than half the price of Blackburn paid for Chris Sutton and only pounds 700,000 more than Aston Villa paid for John Fashanu.

Spurs say there are more signings to come. A season that could have been barren in promise has achieved overnight magnetism. There have been warnings that the influx of too many foreign players may have a detrimental effect on the England team. I don't believe that for a minute, but even if was true it would be a risk worth taking.

The important thing is the game we witness week by week. Sugar's Spurs have made that a sweeter prospect.

MUCH merriment has been caused by the organisational difficulties encountered at the Goodwill Games in St Petersburg. A charcoal-darkened swimming pool, no ice for the ice-skating - we have all had a field day reading and laughing about it.

Last week at Cowes, one of the principal races collapsed when the Class One boats in the Britannia Cup discovered that one of the buoys they were required to sail around was missing. It had been removed two years ago and the organisers hadn't noticed. People in crass houses shouldn't throw stones.

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