Value of a cause we need to champion

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The Independent Online
NEXT WEEK Manchester United play Barcelona in the European Champions' League and only those who have lost touch with the real meaning of life will be able to resist watching it. We would all prefer to see it in the flesh at Old Trafford but the woefully inadequate capacity, even of that great stadium, for a match of this dimension renders such a treat unthinkable for all but a comparative handful.

However, thanks to television and to ITV in particular, millions of us both here and in Spain will be able to see a live screening - exactly how many millions we will never know. Viewing figures will be issued eventually but they will not include the swiftly growing numbers who watch these major games in pubs and clubs where they can stand and drink a pint out of real glasses without upsetting Lord Taylor or infringing any Home Office ordinances.

Then we have the Spanish viewers, who will include countless British holidaymakers, and the other European countries who through fair means or foul will have access. Indeed, the figure is likely to be so high I doubt if the television authorities would be keen on revealing the size of the audience in case it is brought up at the next negotiating meeting.

All this, of course, has happened before. We've had our top teams locked in thrilling European duels for decades. But there is one difference, an aspect of this match that we in the birthplace of the game are not used to experiencing. This is the first year of the European Cup's new format, whereby the last 16 teams split into four leagues of four (where they are guaranteed six lucrative matches) with the top two in each league going through to the knock-out stage.

Let me reassure supporters of Rangers that I am fully aware that their team played in the prototype of this Champions' League in 1992 and did very well, too. But, with respect, Rangers do not hold the country in thrall as do Manchester United, who have taken over from Liverpool the role of Britain's team, just as the Dallas Cowboys were once called America's team.

With England facing a run of team-building friendlies for the next two years and the other home countries engaged in a series of tough and not often appetising qualifying encounters before the 1996 championships, the clubs are going to dominate our collective representation internationally. Manchester United are not the only team involved - Aston Villa have seen to that - but they are well topped up with the blood of our isles. They even have one or two English players.

By having a league instead of the traditional knock-out format, Uefa have not only ensured that more interest can be sustained in the competition, but have pointed a clear way to the future. I have long advocated that the only way to add vitality to our leagues is to break with the notion that they need almost nine months to reach their conclusions. Too many clubs are already sentenced to humdrum activity with only the cups, or a fight against relegation, to interrupt the monotony.

It makes more sense to re-

assemble the divisions twice a year instead of once, moving the stronger teams up to face a more challenging second half to the season and leaving the weaker to be joined by the top teams from the next division down. This would place clubs in a level of football more suitable to their current form and stimulate interest at a time when most of them need it.

To achieve this upward movement you need room at the top and this will come about if the European situation develops as it surely must. It is a logical progression from the formation of a Premiership in this country to allow the better teams a chance to be rewarded for the considerable investment they have been making. This can only come from European competition, and guaranteed competition at that.

If the existing European Champions' League was to be expanded and adapted as a post- Christmas competition for the top four teams from the stronger countries we could have a dream tournament capable of generating so much income that fewer matches would be necessary in the second half of the season. Not the least benefit would be that the best players would be relieved of the heavy-duty pressure under which they now try to perform.

The smaller clubs must realise that they gain nothing by hanging on to the coat-tails of the bigger clubs. The game's expansion must start at the top and create the interest that can filter down through the lower levels. It is a problem that rugby union will face, after they have dealt with the more obvious one. International club competition is as essential to union as it is to football.

Rugby league does not have that option and it was disappointing to see the sport's proposed reformation make such little progress last week. Once more, the little clubs hung on like drowning men dragging their rescuers down with them. They have no hope other than to allow the bigger clubs to develop and improve the game's general attraction. There is no future for clubs like Highfield and Barrow, who are bottom of the Second Division and whose season is already full of nothing to play for, unless it is to find a level at which they can start winning.

Part of the league's proposals came via its new public relations chief, Harry Gration, and they would make sense even if they didn't support the point I've been making. His suggestion was that in addition to forming a smaller Premier Division, the second division should be split into two with the top half of each forming a new division at the half-way mark of the season. The chase to be in the top halves would stimulate interest in the run-up to Christmas and even those who ended in the bottom halves would have a chance to make amends in the New Year.

They wouldn't hear of it and booted out the idea along with that of a streamlined top division. They decided, nevertheless, to call it a Premier Division but it is no more than a rechristening of the present First Division and does nothing to improve the game's appeal to supporters whose loyalty is wavering.

The only long-term solution is to change our rugby league season to the summer and play a parallel campaign to that of the Australians. Then they could have end- of-season play-offs between the top teams, with each country taking turns to play host.

The income from attendances and television could be colossal - and our winter games will prosper only if they can create the highest possible level for the best clubs. So don't miss Manchester United v Barcelona - it is a signpost to the future.

WELSH rugby players are murmuring revolt this weekend about the latest directive from the WRU demanding they sign an oath of their allegiance to amateurism. It is like asking motorists to sign a declaration that they don't exceed the 70mph limit on the motorway.

If they don't sign, they are guilty. If they do sign, they are joining a conspiracy of untruth that has become one of sport's most despicable features.

They have no choice. The object of the exercise is to lock up the signatures of 17,500 potential liars in the Cardiff Arms Park safe so that the WRU can continue to sleep the sleep of the innocent.