Vision of a game enriched by the rich

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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to football your Johnnie Foreigner is as artful as a cartload of carpetbaggers. Arsenal's chairman Peter Hill-Wood summed them up a treat last week when he surveyed the rapidly increasing numbers infiltrating our teams and alleged that many of them were motivated solely by money.

This sent a shiver of disbelief through the game. Does he mean that they are not being drawn here by those irresistible jewels of our national game like Middlesbrough and Millwall? Can it really be that the weather isn't part of the bait? And, most monstrous of all, is he suggesting that these players haven't come here to learn how to play the game properly?

It shows how cynical the game has become. Not content with taking the ball off English players for all these years, they've now come over to take the bread out of their mouths. While our boys are willing to play for next to nothing these cash-crazed interlopers are holding a gun to the heads of English club managers (I rush to assure Faustino Asprilla that this is a figure of speech).

Hill-Wood, furthermore, asks whether English football is getting value for money from these foreign imports. Presumably, clubs rushing to succumb to this extortion will have addressed this question before embarking on the complicated and often frustrating process of signing one of our new brothers - the words "is it worth it?" would have sped through Kevin Keegan's mind more than once over the past seven days - and will no doubt reassess the value they are getting at a later date.

At the last count there were around 60 foreigners among the 750 players registered with the Premiership. Not enough to fill a Trojan horse but, perhaps, sufficient to make our game more interesting. Certainly nothing to get alarmed about, because what we are witnessing is a natural progression.

For more than a century the English league has relied on players from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In recent years, the erosion of frontiers has brought many others within England's invasion area. The division of the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia, has left a bewildered mass of gifted but unfulfilled footballers in its wake. Since England still possesses one of the richest, best established and most competitive domestic competitions it would be surprising if one wasn't drawn to the other.

Apart from Hill-Wood's concerns, we have been also subjected to a blast from the Spurs chairman Alan Sugar, who warned on Friday that clubs face financial ruin if they carry on throwing money at players. But football is in a situation that a newcomer from the business world might find hard to accept. It is not the bosses who get the money but the workers, and in the next year the question of who gets the best workers is the most vital.

When the top clubs split from the rest of the Football League to form the Premiership, they unleashed a force that will not end until the best of them are in a European league that will dominate the pay-TV market. A huge audience will ensure fortunes for the clubs involved and precious little for the rest.

The question Messrs Hill-Wood and Sugar should be addressing is not how they can afford to compete but how they can afford to be left out. While they complain, Newcastle United are preparing for a future they hadn't contemplated.

In the near future the spoils will go to those whose vision embraces the best footballers. There will be no such word as foreigners.

HERITAGE Secretary Virginia Bottomley has launched a national debate on televised sport in advance of a move in the House of Lords this week to pass a law preventing the eight "listed" sporting events - the Grand National, England's home Test matches, the Derby, Olympic Games, Wimbledon, FA Cup final, Scottish Cup final and the football World Cup - being sold to subscription television.

Quite properly, she wants all parties to get a hearing before the political chancers and popularity- seekers steamroller it past the dozing ranks in the upper chamber. Sport's voice is in danger of being drowned in a clamourous argument in which it doesn't seem to be involved; caught up in a battle between terrestrial television and the grabbing hands of Murdoch's Sky.

Having sold off everything else we might regard as our heritage, the Government doesn't want to be seen nationalising sport's big events. The nation may love these occasions but they don't have the right to own them. That privilege belongs to the governing bodies, the participants and those supporters whose money has paid to create and develop them through the century. But these are the people yet to be consulted.

By all means retain big sport for all to see, but do so by giving the BBC the commercial muscle to compete in the open market. The BBC, of course, would prefer to get them cheaply, as they always have done. They have, however, managed to splash out to secure coverage of the Olympics, winter and summer, for the next 12 years, as part of the European Broadcasting Union consortium that won the contract from Sky, whose bid was higher.

This was hailed as a victory for the common man and a tribute to the fairness of the IOC. The fact is that vastly superior viewing figures will enable the Olympics to make vast amounts from sponsorship. Altruism wasn't part of the calculations. Sky shouldn't be too downhearted. The promise that subscribers are to be spared hours of luge and synchronised swimming is bound to be a big selling point.

Meanwhile, the BBC stepped up their lobbying in the House of Lords by announcing the results of a survey which revealed that 90 per cent of people want the main events preserved on mainstream television. That was a tough decision - do you want something for nothing or do you want to pay for it?

The BBC were also pleased to announce the events people most want to see live on TV. Top was the Olympic Games, second was World Cup football and third was the Commonwealth Games. That's right, more people wanted to watch the Commonwealth Games than, in descending order, the FA Cup, Wimbledon, world athletics, world snooker, the Grand National and Premiership football.

I don't know the sort of people the BBC conducted this survey among but I fancy not many were genuine sports fans.

WINNER of the last race at Lingfield on Thursday was Digpast, a chestnut gelding owned and ridden by Davy Jones, who is isn't a gelding but a former pop star. Jones made his name with the Monkees, America's answer to the Beatles, and recently celebrated his 50th birthday.

Jones once cherished a future as a jockey when he was a Newmarket stable boy but swerved off to stardom of a different kind. Lingfield was his first triumph in the saddle and all the sweeter for the wait.

The prize money, however, was not grand: pounds 2,968.35p to be exact. It bears out what they say in racing, football, and life generally. If you pay peanuts, you get Monkees.

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