The profit and loss of playing Footsie

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The blossoming courtship between football and the City has thrust back the game's horizons and allowed us to gaze over new vistas of corporate possibilities. Those of the game's true lovers who haven't shuddered at the prospect have probably not thought too deeply about the consequences or may even have themselves acquired shares and are eagerly awaiting the fruits of their investment in one of the growing number of clubs who have become public companies.

Football folk seem to find being quoted on the stock market no more frightening than being misquoted in the tabloids but it is difficult to avoid the anxiety that one or two of the clubs who have been floated might be caught wearing concrete Reeboks.

At the very least, the new status can put an extra pressure where there is already pressure enough and there was evidence of this in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Newcastle United's delayed flight arrived back from Monaco after a 3-0 defeat, 4-0 on aggregate, that dismissed them with uncomfortable abruptness from the Uefa Cup.

While the bleary-eyed players were waiting to collect their bags from the carousel, the club chairman, Sir John Hall, administered a public shellacking for a performance that left a lot to be desired, especially by him.

It is not uncommon for club chairmen to become agitated after a beating but the usual form is for this displeasure to be transmitted to the players via the manager who is, after all, employed for the express purpose of informing his team what a knock-kneed bunch of tossers they sometimes resemble.

Some managers won't let their chairman, or any of the directors for that matter, near the players except to say "well done" or "hard luck" or "what are you having?" When Bobby Robson was manager of Ipswich he once ordered his chairman, John Cobbold, out of the dressing-room before a game. I happened to be there when Cobbold came out disconsolately. "I wouldn't mind but I only went in for a piss," he grumbled.

If they were all like Cobbold, sadly no longer with us, the game would be the richer, if not the clubs, but modern days bring modern men and in Hall we have a chairman of singular style and without whose countless millions Newcastle might well have been playing in Huddersfield and not Monte Carlo last week. Whether that credits him with the right to flout football's accepted protocol is a question we can leave to be sorted out within the confines of St James' Park.

But it can't be a promising sign particularly when, running parallel with their misfortunes on the Mediterranean, Newcastle were attempting to start an avalanche of City interest in their stock market flotation. With share prices taking even more of a hammering than their team, it was not a good time for a club to be hawking its wares around such a sniffy market, as Charlton Athletic experienced on Friday.

With their supporters plunging in with the typical abandon of loyal fans Newcastle will do very well but the big players, the institutional investors, were more sceptical. All the more reason, then, for Hall to have adopted football's time-honoured method of dealing with defeat - with a smile on his face, plausible excuses on his lips and his arms around his gallant lads.

Slagging them off is no way to attract cash from those who are likely to ask the question: "If this lot are no good, how much is it going to cost to buy players who are?"

The last man to denounce his own products publicly was, I believe, Gerald Ratner of the high-street jewellers of that name. Ratner lived to regret describing one of his items as "crap" and thereby established the golden rule that honesty is not always the best policy. Football will have to learn many other new rules. Shareholders have far more power and far less patience than supporters ever had.

Simultaneous to the airing of Newcastle's woes we had the disquieting sight of the Spurs chairman, Alan Sugar, presenting his half- yearly report to the City. We will have to get used to these regular supplications to Mammon on behalf of the game we revere. Sugar is a tough City cookie but he still came over like a crest-fallen manager summoned before the directors to explain a 6-0 home defeat.

Admitting that the club is having a disappointing season, Sugar revealed that operating costs at White Hart Lane had soared 13 per cent to pounds 10m because of new players and that their poor league position was mainly down to the number of injured, the new signings Ramon Vega and John Scales among them. The abnormal amount of injuries, Sugar said, was a "gross misfortune".

Injury problems? On the City pages? This was a chill blast of things to come. Anyone who owns shares will know that we are dealing with an organisation that is more susceptible to blind panic than any other in the country. We might get to the stage when one groin strain could start a run on the pound.

It won't stop there. How long will it be before we read the headline "Club chairman Blames Slump on One-Eyed Referees"? The stock market had better realise that at any given time, 80 per cent of our football clubs can be rated as unsuccessful and are subjected to various demonstrations of impatience from their followers. And these are people tied to the club by nothing but devotion.

From its earliest days football has attracted well-to-do benefactors. Invariably, they were local dignitaries anxious to boost their personal standing or that of their businesses. There was never a chance of them making profits directly from the club. They were more likely to be asked to put money in when times were hard.

They still exist. When the multi-millionaires Jack Walker and Sir Jack Hayward started pumping their cash into Blackburn and Wolves respectively I am sure that there was no thought of a return. We may never see such altruism again. There are too many signs of clubs being prepared for market like a flock of plump turkeys.

That financial bonanza called Manchester United may have given the impression that large numbers of clubs are ready for similar exploitation. I fear that this Eldorado factor is attracting the wrong kind who can lead us only into that maze of takeovers, mergers, insider dealing, black holes, the Office of Fair Trading, monopolies...

I trust those who are charged with the guardianship of our national game are aware of the jungle towards which the game is hurrying.

EASTER once loomed large in the football calendar like a giant rock in a stormy sea, a treacherous cluster of two or three games that had to be safely negotiated by the pursuers of glory or the fleers from damnation. But this weekend the best of the action will be frozen in suspense while the internationalists take over.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have World Cup games and, I suppose, there's little we could do about that. But England take the opportunity to play a friendly against Mexico. Few will rate that as a fair exchange for our traditional fare. There'll be some amusement in watching managers try to wheedle their players out of the England team but, generally, boredom beckons. Nothing is sacred anymore.

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