Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Cradle of the Game - One Year On

At the end of last year I wrote this article about my growing disillusionment with the not so beautiful aspects of our national game. Inspired by Stuart Clarke's amazing book The Cradle of The Game, I was reminded of what made football enjoyable in the past. Aspects of the game and supporting experience that are now being eroded by various parties, usually with avaricious motives.

So where are we one year on? Putting aside the fact that this year saw my team return to the third tier of English football for the first time in 22 years; the answer is not really any better off.

During 2011 there is rarely a week that passes without talk of a football club heading towards financial meltdown, moving close to oblivion. For some it happens, see Croydon Athletic. For many others it is a move into administration which eventually saves them, but again that may only be temporary respite. As I write there is speculation that Darlington are set to enter administration, for what could be the third time in nine years.

Last December I bemoaned the football creditor rule, which gives priority of settlement to football debts ahead of those of local businesses, charities and other suppliers. There is something inherently wrong about football clubs having their own rules which over-ride the manner in which any other business deals with such situations.

I am pleased to see HMRC challenge the rule in fact HMRC QC Gregory Mitchell described the rule as "the ugly side of the beautiful game". The Football League were quick to point out the domino effect that a club failing to satisfy their debts to other clubs might have on the league, but for me it is an example of how football sees itself as above common law. Where it deserves special treatment that other businesses in other industries do not receive. The failure of a manufacturing business may haves knock on effect on a team of raw materials suppliers in a local business community, but they get no preferential treatment and this could lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs in a community.

As clubs move on and are sold, you have to question whether the "Fit & Proper" rules are worth the paper they are written on?
  • When Portsmouth now sit on the brink of a points deduction again.
  • When the owner of Truro; a club with a six figure tax debt, unpaid wages and a white elephant stadium proposal, can be considered as a suitable bidder for Plymouth Argyle by the club's administrators.
  • When you wonder what might happen to Milan Mandaric's ownership of Sheffield Wednesday and Harry Redknapp's suitability for the England manager's job if they are found guilty of tax evasion in the New Year? And you realise the answer is probably little.
  • When you see Peter Ridsdale continue to find gainful employment as a John Harvey-Jones to troubled clubs.
Football clubs that avoid financial meltdown then face other problems, like not being welcome in the community whose name they use. One of the saddest stories this year relates to Barnet being forced out of their home of 104 years (Underhill) by the local council's inability to work with a club in meeting safety requirements. The same local council that is more than welcoming in helping develop the local athletics stadium to accomodate a nomadic rugby union team.  Even in the 21st century, communities display a nimby attitude to football and it's followers.

Last year I mentioned the FSF campaign for safe standing areas in grounds, like they have on the continent. Germany being the most quoted example. Twelve months on and we are seeing British football authorities seemingly split on the issue, but both motivated by the same factor.

The SPL see safe standing as a possibility for clubs, with "atmosphere" quoted as a reason for allowing pilot schemes at clubs. For atmosphere, read money. In a poorly supported league and in tough economic times, the availability of standing areas at reduced prices may pull in some wavering support with all the discretionary spend that comes with them.

Maybe the decision is easier for the Scottish authorities, not hide bound by the laws imposed in England post-Taylor Report, but for the the Premier League to immediately and vehemently rule out any move towards standing says as much about the financial success of the league and revenue maximisation than anything else.

Increasingly we are seeing extreme police measures to deal with the perceived potential for trouble at football games. Frequently they are deciding that certain games are to be "Bubble matches", where the freedom of movement of fans to and from the game is restricted by police containment. Basically match ticket and coach ticket have to be bought together and fans are picked up from assorted pick up points and then provided with match tickets at the ground where they are deposited and then collected post match.

Not only does this impinge on the freedom of supporters, with no independent travel allowed, but also imposes unnecessary additional costs on supporters beyond extortionate ticket pricing. These have been applied at local derby games and the latest example, Portsmouth v Southampton, highlights one other key issue. It is often the case that away supporters may live closer to the opposition's stadium than their own. Plenty of Saints fans will live in and around Pompey and vice versa. They will end up travelling a thirty mile round trip, expend petrol and parking costs on top of their coach ticket. The police say that this is protecting the normal fans, preventing trouble occurring, yet all they are doing is badging all football fans as troublemakers. As the FSF protest, 'Watching football is not a crime'.

Yet in using these high profile methods of policing, upsetting the everyday supporter and actually increasing the likelihood of anti police/authority feeling amongst supporters, the police sometimes get it wrong and fans are put at risk. Not that they ever wish to admit it, portraying the image they want to in the local media, where the success of the plan and how worthwhile the hassle and inconvenience of supporters was is all you read.

In attending the Sheffield Derby at Bramall Lane in October, my brother arrived in his seat just before kick off rather flustered and breathless. As he walked along Shoreham Street, behind the Blades Kop, a group of Wednesday supporting trouble makers tore up the road indiscriminately throwing missiles and bottles at nearby Blades, with women and children about.

I immediately tweeted about the incident, to which I received a reply from a Police Inspector who had clearly been monitoring social networks saying that nothing had been reported and the helicopter reported that all was quiet. The fact of the matter is that Wednesday fans shouldn't have been where they were, if police plans has worked. Thus no mention in the press of any issues or arrests. Yet that by inference makes liars of those who witnessed events from the concourse at the back of the Kop, or those who were caught up in it like my brother. But that is okay, because they are only football supporters, their observations and opinions are automatically worthless.

It has been a year where players have done little to improve their own public image. The England captain charged by the CPS with making racist comments. The stupidity, thuggish and unsavoury behaviour of England's best striker. One of the best strikers in the World refusing to play for his club and providing piss poor excuses for his actions. An average Premier League striker playing the "Don't you know who I am?" card, when in a pizza shop without cash. The stand-off only ending when two young ladies paid for his pizza. Players have successfully and unsuccessfully issued injunctions to protect themselves from lurid allegations about their private lives being made public.

Beyond digging into the private lives of players whose salaries, partly  paid for by the man in the street, make them public property, we have a media that cannot move beyond lazy, patriotic and bombastic statements that fail to look at football beyond the white cliffs of Dover. Sky bigs up their Premier League product beyond belief, yet serve up Stoke v Aston Villa on Boxing Day. You can fool some of the people some of the time.....

Terrestrial television is no better. On the BBC pundits are paid exorbitant amounts per show to not have an opinion, or know nothing about players like Hatem Ben Arfa who arrive from successful careers overseas. Over on ITV they struggle to hide their disappointment at some of the (and I quote Adrian Chiles directly) "inferior teams left in the last sixteen of the Champions League". One hopes such insular views are not shared by clubs and players. It is certainly not by informed football followers.

Then we have a mainstream written media that feigned interest in the Football League when it suited them, but any other week wouldn't publish a story warranting more than a few lines. Premier League sells papers apparently, but every week more people watch Football League matches than Premier League games.   

Now, in the last couple of days, we have reports of terrestial television seemingly on the brink of casting aside any pretence at coverage of the game beyond the Premier League. Leaving it even more difficult for clubs outside the elite few able to inspire and attract the next generation of supporters in their own community.

Yet the clubs do little to help themselves. This year has also seen Football League clubs write off years of academy investment in one fail swoop after being blackmailed by the Premier League into accepting the EPPP proposals. Thus allowing Premier League clubs to poach young playing talent, pick them up cut price and stockpile them, to no one's benefit. The Premier League claim that this ensures that the best young talent gets the best coaching, providing a greater benefit to the national team. But since when have the Premier League chosen to do anything for the greater good of the national team?

The financial gains provided to football league clubs by the Premier League proposals may only provide short term succour at the expense of long term gain. For clubs like Crystal Palace, Southampton and Sheffield United who have invested heavily in facilities and coaches to provide a sustainable future for the football club it is a disaster. They could see players they have nurtured for a number of years creamed off by the big clubs with compensation figures massively reduced from those currently agreed. The Premier League potentially killing the vibrancy of the football pyramid that very few other countries have and many would court.

As much as there are more informed and pro-active supporters around, s
adly, there are those supporters who don't possess the basic skills of being a decent human being. There are still the uninformed, uneducated and those of twisted minds that not only embarrass themselves, but also their clubs and the game they profess to follow. If it is not defending Luis Suarez by racially abusing and wishing death on Patrice Evra, some are telling depression sufferer Stan Collymore to hang himself and others make "jokes" about the death of Gary Speed. Away from twitter, at the F.A. Cup Semi Final, some Stoke supporters considered a car containing a mother and son supporting Bolton to be fair game for abuse and damage just outside Wembley.

Above it all is one over-arching enemy of football at its head - Sepp Blatter. Whether caught up in racism or corruption scandals, this man is seemingly untouchable. His support across the rest of the world is as strong and widespread as the sense of indignation amongst the British media, authorities and fans. Whatever we uncover is seemingly turned to reflect badly on the bitter English. Blatter and the state of world football can best be summed up in his reaction to the apparent corruption crisis within F.I.F.A.

"Crisis? What is a crisis? We're not in a crisis ... I am FIFA president, you cannot question me."

Maybe, we can't, but surely we can question everything else. Yes, there are plenty of things in football past that we wouldn't want back and are best forgotten, but I think that the way things are heading there are plenty more unpleasant aspects heading our way. Sadly I am not sure there is enough of a will, enough lobbying power and enough financial clout to do anything about it.

Here's to a positive 2012 for football. Sadly, I just don't see it.

1 comment:

  1. I feel more and more removed from professional football in this country. Far too much money in all the wrong places. I think things will have to get (a lot) worse before they get any better.