Were it not so serious - at worst an abuse of a paying public, at best an indifference to them - it would be comical. Football, in all its vainglory, is ruthlessly exposed in the courageous report of the Premier League's "bungs" inquiry that, after four years, has yielded 300 riveting pages.
In investigating 12 high- profile cases with potential transfer irregularities, the commendable three-man team of Rick Parry, former chief executive of the Premier League, Steve Coppell, ex-head of the League Managers' Association, and Robert Reid QC have laid bare the foibles and follies of the English game. But it will only be to its benefit if action follows words.
We are treated to a bizarre demi-monde of dodgy characters, barely credible capers and a "cult of dishonesty". We have, for example, an Italian restaurateur negotiating the biggest transfer of the early Nineties, Paul Gascoigne's from Tottenham to Lazio, at times unbeknown to Alan Sugar and Terry Venables, jointly running the club. In addition, we learn that the inquiry was unable to obtain certain information in the transfer of Andrei Kanchelskis from Shakter Donetsk to Manchester United because "the persons who were directors of Shakter at the time have been murdered". Later we are told that David Webb, wannabe manager of Spurs, is involved with a consortium trying to create a "mini-Disney" theme park on Boscombe Pier.
Then there is the case that prompted the whole inquiry, that of Teddy Sheringham's move from Nottingham Forest to Tottenham in August 1992, as a result of Sugar's assertion in court during his dispute with Venables a year later that he had been told that Brian Clough "liked a bung".
The 144-page account reads like a whodunnit, with a copious dramatis personae and section headings such as "The Langan's Lunch", "The Closed Doors Meeting" and "Why did Mr Fenton go South?" Thankfully, the report provides answers rather than mere questions.
Names and conclusions too. It asserts that Terry Venables, Frank McLintock, acting as agent for Teddy Sheringham - as well as, bafflingly, both clubs it seems - Ronnie Fenton, Clough's assistant, and even Sheringham himself all "deliberately misled" the inquiry. Indeed, where the three-man team was not picking its way through deceit and corruption, it was negotiating club officials' extraordinary incompetence at both Forest and Tottenham. Goodness, neither club seems able even to spell Sheringham's name correctly.
Unlike Parry and Reid, Steve Coppell is not convinced but the report concludes nevertheless that the pounds 50,000 Spurs paid McLintock - they say for promotional services - was a bung for Fenton. They think it "likely" that Fenton used some of it to pay for his daughter's wedding reception. Others at Forest also received "brown envelopes".
Venables knew it was a bung, too, the report says after sifting "self- contradictory" evidence. They accept that he personally did not profit but his conduct "cannot be justified". Indeed, he could well have benefited in the future, given that he was an investor in Spurs and that Sheringham's value was likely to increase. Imagine the dilemma for the FA, as they consider acting on the report, had Venables still been the England coach.
Nor does Sugar escape unscathed for sanctioning the cash payment, despite his vigorous refusals to approve any "bung". In a statement which smacks of the dry wit of Mr Reid, the report ventures: "It is singularly unfortunate that his customary acuity should have apparently deserted him."
The report is unable to conclude with certainty that any money was received by Brian Clough in the Sheringham case but, almost as Al Capone was convicted for the relatively minor charge of tax evasion, the team does insist that "there is direct evidence of a fraudulent arrangement by which Mr Clough and/or Mr Fenton acquired a substantial sum of money" from the transfers of two Leicester United players to Forest. A deal that should have cost the club pounds 15,000 eventually saw pounds 61,000 leaving their funds.
Ronnie Fenton - along with the former Arsenal chief scout Steve Burtenshaw, who also received payments from the Norwegian agent Rune Hauge - emerges the worst affected by the report after also being said to have received pounds 45,000 in the transfer of Alf-Inge Haaland.
Then, in the case of Thorvaldur Orlygsson's move from an Icelandic club, one witness at Forest suggests that Fenton went to pick up a payment "in a fishing box off a trawler in Hull". It is the final ridiculous example of a "so-what" arrogant feeling in the game that operates by its own masonic rules. It seems unable to see that this is fans' money it is stuffing into its own pockets.
The game will deserve the disdain of its public if this report merely gathers dust. Flawed it may be, in its tip-of-iceberg nature, with many well-known figures having escaped unnamed - as privately the team acknowledges - but admirably it has gone further than many expected. Now the FA must do it justice by clearing up the mess of the past and disciplining those still within its jurisdiction. They found the courage last week to charge Bruce Grobbelaar and Hans Segers with breaking rules on betting; more is needed this week.
As a result of an interim report almost three years ago which saw George Graham banned for a year, the Premier League realistically adopted new rules that accepted a role for players' agents but which were designed to stamp out dubious conflict-of-interest practices, for which even the England coach Glenn Hoddle's agent Dennis Roach is criticised in the latest report.
The Premier League also believe that the advent of plcs running clubs, along with codes of conduct and new auditing rules, will clean up the game. It is a touching idea. More vigilance, not less, will be needed.
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