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Old 21st September 2006, 08:33   #1
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Default Football's never been a 'beautiful game'

Football's never been a 'beautiful game'

Leo McKinstry

Is that it? I asked myself after watching the BBC Panorama investigation into alleged corruption within Premiership football.

More of a rubber bullet than an Exocet missile, the programme never lived up to its hype. The Panorama team were unable to produce any hard evidence of widespread financial malpractice, so instead were forced to rely on innuendo, hearsay and gossip, much of which appeared to be macho posturing by mediocrities on the fringes of the sport.

If this is the best that the BBC can come up with, then football is a healthier game than I imagined. Indeed, the programme had the paradoxical effect of actually enhancing the reputations of some of its targets. The Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp, for instance, has long been the subject of rumours about his dealings in the transfer market.

When Panorama's investigators tried to substantiate the case against him, they only succeeded in proving his innocence, as Redknapp was shown to be playing by the rules. Tittle-tattle turned out to be twaddle.

The programme may not have lived up to its advance billing, but that is not to deny the seriousness of some of its charges, particularly those centred on Sam Allardyce, the manager of Bolton Football Club. Allardyce's son Craig, a football agent, stands accused of having accepted illegal payments, with his father's knowledge, in a number of transfer deals involving Bolton FC.

Other agents were recorded on film stating that Sam Allardyce routinely takes "bungs". But here again, the evidence is largely circumstantial and yesterday Allardyce strongly denied the charges against him.

The Panorama team has added to the growing concern about the activities of football agents, who perform little real service in the game while making millions in representation fees and percentages from transfer deals. Ostensibly their job is to represent their players' interests, but many regard them as little more than parasites.

The heroic Luton Town manager, Mike Newell, described them recently as "the scourge of the game", adding that he had frequently been offered bungs of up to 10,000 to proceed with certain transfers. One Scottish-based agent, Jake Duncan, has claimed that around 15 per cent of all deals made by his colleagues are corrupt.

One of the most bizarre aspects of this new breed is their apparent lack of any inhibition over potential conflicts of interest. Even if Sam Allardyce is not guilty of any impropriety, his son Craig has for the last two years been explicitly banned by his club, Bolton FC, from any involvement with their own transfer negotiations.

Panorama claims he has flouted this at least three times and allegedly in return for illicit payments. Similarly, in 2004, Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, was criticised because of the way his son Jason, head of the Elite Sports Agency, had a role in several lucrative transfers at the club. Following the row, Manchester United announced that it was severing links with the Elite Agency.

But again, a sense of perspective is required. From the hysteria that Panoroma has tried to generate, you would think that irregularities are something new in football. In reality, however, they are as old as the sport itself. The "beautiful game" was never a paragon of morality. We now look back through a sepia-tinted lens on the age of Matthews and Finney, thinking that their gentlemanly values prevailed.

But there was always a dark side. In the era of the maximum wage, when top professionals could not earn more than 20 per week, many of them took illicit expenses in brown envelopes. In the same way, even in the post-war era, bungs were common to secure the recruitment of a promising young player. When I was researching the lives of the Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, I was told that Sir Matt Busby, the Manchester United manager now regarded almost as a saint at Old Trafford, was ruthless in dishing out illegal cash payments to the parents of teenage stars.

Tapping up, the practice of making a clandestine approach to a player to inquire about his willingness to move to another club, is nothing new either. Even someone as honourable as Sir Alf Ramsey, the hugely successful manager of Ipswich and England, could resort to such methods. Ron Reynolds, goalkeeper at Southampton in the early 1960s, was astonished when he was once tapped up by Ramsey over a possible transfer to Ipswich Town. And there have been far greater bung scandals in the more recent past.

Brian Clough, perhaps the finest club manager in English football history, was notorious for his fondness for a cash payment, despite his loudly professed socialist principles, and would almost certainly have been prosecuted for fraud had he not fallen into ill-health brought on by chronic alcoholism.

In 1995, two years after Clough's retirement, George Graham, the manager of Arsenal, was sacked for taking 425,000 from a Norwegian agent. More ugly forms of corruption have also been part of the fabric of football, like the match-fixing scandal of the early 1960s, when three top players, Tony Kay, David Lane and Peter Swan, were jailed and banned from the game for life for betting against their own team, Sheffield Wednesday.

Enoch Powell once said that for a politician to complain about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. It is equally idiotic to moan about financial opportunism in soccer. In the wake of Panorama, there has been a lot of pious talk about the fans losing out, but all fans really care about is the performance of their team.

To them, it makes little difference if the money is wasted on ludicrous wages or agents' fees, as long as they win. One irate caller to BBC Radio 5 tried to draw a spurious analogy with municipal corruption, but that is quite different, as taxpayers' money is involved.

The real scandal in football is not this spat, but the fact that all the riches in the English game have not brought us a decent national team. If we're looking for a genuine cause for outrage, it has to be the expenditure of 25 million on Sven Goran Eriksson's salary. The coffers might be full, but the trophy cabinet remains empty.
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