Leading article: Mellor FC: surely a candidate for relegation

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The Independent Online
"Despite the fact that he is a Tory, we are very happy." Thus Mr Bean of the Football Supporters' Association, responding yesterday to the news that David Mellor, the ex-minister turned sports pundit, is being recruited by the Blair government to head a football task force. We say: because of the fact he is a Tory, we are happy to see appointments of this kind. Not quite on the level of Paddy Ashdown's membership of a Cabinet committee, this none the less represents another step away from our dreadfully over-politicised way of doing things in Britain. David Mellor may not be the best man for this job, since there is not much of a job to do - on which more below - but the fact that he was a Tory politician, albeit lately of a semi-detached kind, makes him a good symbol of this government's determination to move away from enervating partisanship.

There are some cynics who will say Mr Mellor is a bit of a playboy so it is only fitting that he is being brought in to look at a sport. They are on all fours with those who say, of football, it's only a game. If Nick Hornby's response in Fever Pitch isn't sufficient, the slide in the value of Newcastle FC shares on the news of Alan Shearer's injury at the weekend ought to be. Football is big business, major leisure. It's a national (meaning in this instance Scottish, Welsh and English national) preoccupation and, for many, nothing less than a way of life.

Football is a working-man's sport that in recent years has been colonised by the middle classes. There is scarcely a Whitehall permanent secretary or a deputy governor of the Bank of England who does not append a football club, preferably northern, to their CV to show their continuing closeness to the people through the people's sport. What was once the playground of eccentric local plutocrats is now a business proposition, though MBAs are still few in the boardrooms. Public policy interventions have played their part, notably the report of the Chester Committee and Lord Taylor's inquiry into ground safety.

It has perhaps been as well that none of the main political parties have had anything consistent or compelling to say about the game. Labour's problem was partly that what soccer needed for so many years was more, not less, capitalism; the Tories, typically, could not bring themselves to force the clubs to accept responsibility not just for the safety and comfort of fans but also their behaviour - the way, still, major games can produce instances of unashamed racial prejudice is a standing charge against the Football Association, the Premiership and club proprietors.

Racism is on the agenda of the Mellor committee and anything it can do to break into the culture of violence and incitement that surrounds certain clubs will be welcome. David Mellor's background as a Home Office minister should help if - this would require Tony Banks to start acting as a grown-up - he is able to pull together the various departments with an interest in youth and the estates and the other breeding grounds of football's deformations.

But what is this committee really supposed to do? To judge from the rapt attention paid to last season's finale, at both ends of the Premiership, this is a sport in fine fettle. The internationalisation of the top clubs' line-up has been hugely beneficial even if Middlesbrough's fate proved that you cannot win by grafting on foreign stars and Manchester United's triumph proved old Anglo-Scottish skills and attitudes remain as relevant as ever. Could it be that Tony Banks, forever grandstanding, has convinced the Prime Minister to "be seen to be doing something" - the curse of every administration?

Is there really, as the Football Supporters' Association claims, a slate of problems associated with this game? Clearly if you are a supporter of Scunthorpe or Leyton Orient you might wish for some white knight to come into town with a huge budget for player acquisition - but there is nothing here that needs concern government. Besides, what do those classy chaps who sit in the directors' box at Stamford Bridge know about the nether reaches of the Nationwide League?

Unlike, say, athletics or swimming, football has gone far in modernising its administration and refereeing procedures; it has mercifully few of the blazered blimps who continue to throw their weight around in other sports. Of course an objective analyst of the condition of English (and Scottish) football has questions to pose, especially about the relationship of clubs and country, about the number of clubs in the Premiership, about fixture congestion and the proliferation of competitions. Yes, there are questions to be asked about the nature of club governance, but only as a sub-set of questions about how "democratic" are public limited companies and voluntary organisations. Discontent among fans may simply have to do with the way football clubs have been changing: once part charity, part small business, they have turned into - in some areas - monopoly suppliers of a highly prized product. What role should fans have, other than that of paying customer? It is not as if there is no choice. Chelsea may be the monopoly supplier of Gianfranco Zola's talents but the London area offers plenty of alternative football - the more disappointed Chelsea fans turn up at Craven Cottage, the better Fulham's prospects of pulling itself out of the doldrums become. But of course football is not as rational as that - we are talking here about subjective affiliations, passion, inexplicable loyalty, exactly the kind of terrain wise government keeps well away from.

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