Valuable lesson from land of free-for-all

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The Independent Online
L ET THE New York Yankees be a lesson and a comfort to all those British football clubs bewailing the end of civilisation as they know it. Since baseballers in the US became free agents 20 years ago, the Yankees have been a beacon of opportunity for players in search of riches and glory. The world's most famous baseball club have the resources to offer wages beyond the greediest dreams - and they haven't won a damn thing since 1981.

It isn't necessarily so, therefore, that the granting of a basic right that most of humanity has long enjoyed will automatically improve the lot of the wealthy clubs and send the rest to the knacker's yard.

There is no more appropriate place to be than here in the land of the free-for-all to appreciate what happens when ball-players are allowed to slip their chains and offered unlimited access to the chairman's wallet. America's main sports, having already gone through what is soon to be faced by the football clubs of Great Britain and Europe, can provide a fascinating study to those back home who are convinced that their little world is in the last five minutes of extra time.

Once they get over the irony of taking lessons from the US on how to handle the abolition of a form of slavery, British clubs can find much to calm their anxieties from what has happened here. Regrettably, there has also been more than enough going on to frighten the living daylights out of them but, on balance, they should be encouraged that their worst fears need not be realised when last week's verdict of the European Court regarding transfers is eventually translated into law.

Undoubtedly, there will be problems of adjustment. There are greedy eyes already peering beyond the small type of the 190 pages of legal reasoning that persuaded the court to grant footballers the freedom to move to the club of their choice once their contracts are over. The brash and tediously breezy footballers' agent Eric Hall welcomed the news as "a monster breakthrough". I'm sure Mr Hall will forgive me for pointing out that it could also be a breakthrough for monsters.

But the game's ability to survive with all its constituencies intact has been repeatedly proved over a century and a quarter and its resilience to this latest challenge will no doubt be marshalled when the panic subsides. Baseball went through a similar change in the mid-1970s when the old contractual system that had existed, heavily in favour of the clubs, since the start of the century, was thrown out and the players became free agents. The game has experienced many troubles but the anticipated domination of the mighty has not transpired.

Grabbing who you perceive to be the best players and putting them on long contracts does not guarantee success any more than it does under the present transfer system. Top players are going to get richer, but that is hardly a trend confined to sport, and if the total price of their freedom is the end of the transfer fee spiral it is worth paying. Not that we have seen the end of transfer fees. There will still be a trade in players under contract and, although the fees are liable to be a touch more realistic, it is wrong to assume that the smaller will lose completely their traditional income from the development of young players.

There are ways that the game can help to avoid a few clubs attempting to gather all the talent. Basketball and American football have tried to do this by imposing a salary cap which controls the amount a club can pay its players and, hence, the number of top players it can harness. When they tried to introduce the system into baseball last year, however, the players went on strike and a whole season was lost. Democracy never knows when to stop.

It has been a long time coming, but players were always going to get a bigger say in their own destiny. Not for the first time in its history, football has been forced by the law to forsake its feudal past and should be grateful that it at least has plenty of time to prepare itself.

R YDER CUP coverage on Radio 5 Live last night meant the cancellation of David Mellor's football phone-in which usually takes place on Saturday evenings during the season. Among those relieved at this small mercy would have been drivers on long journeys and referees.

I listened to Mellor's programme the previous Saturday night and if I were a referee returning home from my latest attempt to impose law and order upon a big match I would have been less than grateful to the former Cabinet minister for his haste to discredit those doomed to officiate.

One Manchester City fan, egged on by Mellor, who hadn't seen the match, blamed the referee for their defeat by Newcastle that day. Between them they rubbished him and refereeing generally. A few hours later on Match of the Day, the referee's decisions looked to be absolutely correct.

I can sympathise with Mellor's anxiety to be accepted as one of the boys after all he's been through, but even media people ought to feel a touch of responsibility towards the game. It is sad that this valuable slot isn't used for a more sensible and structured football discussion programme.

S EVERAL MILLION dish- less or cableless sports watchers deprived of the climax of the Ryder Cup today will no doubt have been heartened by the news that neither will they be able to see the next two, in 1997 and 1999. These have also been sold to satellite television. By the time they come along, we may well have entered the era of pay-TV, when one will require not only a satellite dish but also an extra lump of money.

I'm afraid we will have to swallow this as one of the disadvantages of communications progress, and in many ways I am not grieved, since it means that far more televised sport than ever will be available to the sports enthusiast and if he has to pay for it piecemeal at least he has the choice.

But although they have got us over a barrel, we must not allow our Sky friends to run away with their excitement. They have been taking a few liberties with their claims about their coverage from Rochester this weekend.

"Live and continuous" has been their proud announcement but that which is interrupted every eight minutes by adverts cannot be described as continuous. "See every shot from the first drive to the final putt" has been another of their boasts in trailers leading up to the event.

Temporarily unemployed television experts of my acquaintance point out that this is impossible even when you have only four matches out on the course. You can only watch one shot at a time. Others taking place simultaneously can be recorded, of course, but if you store more than two you won't keep up with the live stuff.

There have been a potential of more than 5,000 shots in the Ryder Cup, and you are seeing nothing like all of them. A trivial point, perhaps, but since we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other I'm sure Sky will want to get it right.