The price of falling for bawdyroom activities

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been difficult to observe Newcastle United's plight over the past week without recognising distressing parallels with Sodom and Gomorrah. Thankfully, the penalties for gross misbehaviour are not as drastic as when God was in sole charge of promotion and relegation but there was certainly something eerily judgmental to be felt about the club's 2-1 home defeat by Crystal Palace on Wednesday.

It was a feeling most profoundly shared that night by their supporters who are still reeling with indignation at revelations that the club's two most powerful directors have an appetite for the sins of the flesh that is matched in fervour only by a contempt for many aspects of life in and around St James' Park.

The shame of that is severe enough but now that it is accompanied by the real prospect of falling out of the Premiership it is hard to avoid the impression that decay is spreading rapidly through one of football's most proud and ambitious citadels. Having won only two Premiership games out of the last 16, they face a nine-match battle to stay up with only two of those fixtures being at home. It is a bleak task that would be forbidding even to a club able to gather itself together and concentrate fully. But Newcastle are hardly likely to find themselves in that settled state over the next few weeks. Indeed, United is looking less appropriate a title by the day.

Had the directors concerned, chairman Freddie Shepherd and his vice Douglas Hall, volunteered their resignations last week, the club might have been able to summon the necessary spirit of unity. As it is, the controversy is bound to overshadow all else. There are more tasty details promised in today's edition of the News of the World and the Football Association may well be considering whether the matter merits a charge of bringing the game into disrepute.

Directors have the right to express opinions, however rude, about managers and players and even about the general standard of the local ladies. But what they bragged about with unfettered enthusiasm to a well-wired stranger in a Marbella brothel presented an ugly portrayal of the sort of people who can control our top clubs and offered an image from which the game ought to distance itself. They may not be typical of club directors but having spent many years reporting on football I can vouch that the game has frequently encountered their type before. Directors are no more temptable to bawdy and licentious behaviour than any section of the football industry - many of the others, even members of the Press, would have, locked in their past, experiences they would prefer not to discuss and conversations they would be relieved not to be on tape - but they do tend towards the belief that because they don't bring much to the game in terms of ability they have to work harder on their hell-raising activities during social hours.

The human contents of the board-room have never been one of football's more consistently endearing features and many have floundered because of this need to prove themselves. During all the ages of our national game, directors have been the only integral part who are not there on merit; unless you count being rich as being meritorious. Managers, coaches, players, physiotherapists, and even journalists are present solely because of their ability and soon chucked out if they fall short of the mark. Directors are directors because of birth, connections, wealth or because they have bullied, bamboozled or bulldozed their way in via methods familiar to the business world but not to anywhere else.

It was ever thus and the result has been the invasion of such monsters as Robert Maxwell - who could have caused untold havoc had not the old Football League stopped him - and others who can't be named because they have so far neglected to fall off the back of their yachts.

The essential difference between the old crop of directors and the new is that the old lot couldn't make any real money out of it, as hard as many of them tried. Money would have been the last thing on the minds of the worthy, aldermanic figures who first emerged to set up the clubs and the League. Locals to a man, most of them saw it as part of their public duty and a chance to impress. The first altruist to become a director, and probably one of the last, was William McGregor of Aston Villa who founded the Football League in 1888 and was undoubtedly the father of our national game.

Another prominent figure in those pioneer days was William Suddell, architect of Preston North End's great "Invincibles" team and the League's first treasurer. Alas, Suddell was to spend three years in prison for diverting money from the local cotton mill where he was manager to fund Preston. It remains one of the few instances of money moving in that direction.

Until 20 or 30 years ago, it was usual for directors of a club to be local dignitaries or the neighbourhood nouveau riche. Unfortunately, they didn't bring much to the game apart from a knowledge of how to make a fortune out of a string of laundrettes. Of late a number of clubs have fallen into the hands of footballing adventurers looking to make money not spend it. I point the finger at no man but there are a number of property men among them. I fancy that the game appeals to them less than the intriguing sight of a valuable green acre in the middle of a built-up area. Where we see a football pitch, they see apartments. As long as directors aren't vetted for suitability and motive, such vulnerabilities will continue.

Property doesn't figure in the Newcastle scandal but propriety does and if this episode doesn't lead to a long reappraisal of the inhabitants of football's board-rooms the FA are failing in their duty to the game.

MY item last Sunday about the little foibles of some of the fancied horses running at Cheltenham brought dismay to some. The feat of One Man, who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase in fine style, was all the greater because, thanks to my advisers, I wrote that there was no way he could win because he baulks at noise and the uphill finish at Cheltenham is the noisiest in the world.

The jockey Brian Harding did say that One Man checked a little when he hit the sound barrier but, of course, he came stomping home and I have had lots of readers moaning that I put them off betting on him. Don't expect any sympathy. I backed only one winner during the entire three days so I have problems of my own. Anyway, they should delight that any creature should overcome its fears.

I can't even derive any pleasure from the fact that the bookmakers took a hiding. One bookie, Pat Whelan, told the Racing Post that he had a "seriously bad meeting" but confessed that it was the first time he'd lost in 35 years. My friendly bookie actually made a slight profit and put the event in perspective when he explained: "Bookmakers expect to make a bundle at Cheltenham. It's a betting oasis for them; its fill-up-your-wallet time; when you get your ammunition for the rest of the year. The bonanza didn't happen for once but it wasn't a disaster for us."

Just as I thought; bad news all round.