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An almighty mess
By Chris Lawton
Part one

Well, what a start to the season. Talks of Super Leagues, managers sacked and takeover bids coupled to a completely inept performance by our national team has made this one of the most bizarre starts to a season. As always, the key driving force in all this is money and significantly lots of it.

Christian Gross and Kenny Dalglish must be feeling downright annoyed and miserable right now. Whilst I do not think that either is the finest manager ever to grace the game, to remove them so unceremoniously from office after only a handful of games is to say the least a disgrace. The pressure from fans for success is clearly the catalyst in modern football that causes seemingly level-headed chairmen and boards to make the most hasty of decisions. The merest hint that relegation might happen seems to be enough to send shock waves right through the club.

Whilst some sympathy must be felt for these two unfortunate casualties one must also reflect that they are also, in part, the cause of their own downfall. In response to the fans demands for success, both managers bought expensive players in with the consequence of further increasing expectation and so the failure is compounded until the manger suffers. It is interesting that it is never the players, who often perform so spectacularly poorly, who are kicked out without pay and no certainty of a job.

Next we have the talk of Super Leagues. Thankfully, well into the eleventh hour, the FA noticed what was going on and took some measure to stall, if not prevent, this process. The Super League plan is a clever one. The best teams in Europe guarantee themselves of three years of competition and, more importantly, money. Money that will be reinvested to ensure that the clubs will probably stay there for an awful long time. Equally interesting are the criteria for entry. Three self appointed clubs, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd go forward from the Premiership. Why ? Man Utd's recent history has been riddled with an inept failure in Europe. Ditto Liverpool and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal. What of Chelsea - current holders of a European trophy ?

What a Super League signifies is that certain clubs have realised that the popularity of the home market is saturated. Sooner or later the football bubble will burst and the big clubs, with big overheads, need another market to exploit and draw money from.

BSkyB will probably end up buying Man Utd. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission didn't stop Alan Sugar at Spurs, with his vested interest in the satellite market, so why stop BSkyB ? They won't. The FA has said that it is not their problem, so we are left with the voices of a few fans to cry out against a potential footballing disaster.

If BSkyB have their way then football will be changed in this country, and probably Europe, forever. The amount of media control gained by owning Man Utd will enable Sky to control even more of football. They already dictate when fixtures are to be played, how much more when they can do it on a club by club basis. If this takeover happens I genuinely fear for the survival of many clubs.

So we stand at one of the most critical crossroads in football for many a decade. Money has for some time controlled to some extent the game but in recent seasons it has grown in influence. The buck, if you pardon the pun, stops quite clearly at the doorstep of Lancaster Gate and the FA.

This body is supposed to govern and run our game at all levels. This is meant, in theory, to include Man Utd and the Kings Head Pub Team playing in some local weekend league. At all levels though the FA is failing quite spectacularly to meet the needs of players and fans alike.

At the start of the decade we saw the formation of the Premiership with the FA selling out to Sky (i.e. for money NOT fans interest) in the creation of their league. Doing this has had several effects. Firstly it let Sky in who then proceeded to dictate when matches should be played. Secondly it monopolised the power of the game into the hands of twenty chairmen NOT ninety-two as was previously the case. Finally it brought so much money into the game that players demanded greater wages. This coup has meant that clubs, like Man Utd, have too much power. The clubs now control the authority, not the other way round. Their demands are seemingly met without thought for the impact on the remaining seventy-two clubs who are an annoyance, particularly in cup competitions. The fiasco over the League Cup and the various exemptions is a simple pandering to the demands of a few clubs. The FA has a lot to answer for and to say "we don't care about the Man Utd situation" is an complete abdication of responsibility.

My final comments are reserved for UEFA. Another incredibly inept organisation which has allowed itself to be caught on the back foot at least twice in the past five years such that it no longer has any power and merely responds rather than leads. The whole Bosman situation could have been avoided if UEFA had intervened and offered some kind of arbitration instead of letting the EU dictate how transfers should operate. Secondly the UEFA Super League has come about in response to a situation that they had no control over. Surely UEFA should have been able to anticipate this problem and make proposals five years ago ? Once again out of touch people are controlling the game.

The upshot of all this mess is that a few clubs will inevitably get richer. Maybe this isn't too surprising with the game structured the way it is as opposed to the American system whereby the worst team picks up the best players. The long term impact is difficult to guess. Personally I feel that ninety percent of the money and power rests with ten percent of the clubs which is a very dangerous situation. I think we will see a lot of smaller clubs going at least part time and possibly in some cases being shut down altogether. The game of football in this country will be changed irreversibly in the next few years unless UEFA and the FA stand up to the big clubs and prevent them spoiling the game so many of us love. The ultimate long term consequence, which might be a bit fanciful, is the abolishing of national teams altogether. Instead Man Utd, Arsenal or Liverpool will represent the nation at the World Cup with a team of internationals against the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid.

Part two

So the inevitable happened and the Man Utd board accepted vast sums of money in the interests of their bank balances. Martin Edwards has been proclaiming that this is "..a great deal for the club.." and you know what? He is right.

This is a wonderful deal for Man Utd - they join a massive sporting family that has money to spare to pump into them to keep them going when they finish second in the Premiership one year. Furthermore they have a ready-made platform on which to launch their own pay per view system. It is a dream ticket - if you have shares in the club and get a cut of the profits.

For once, however, I feel genuinely sorry for the Man Utd fans. Whatever you say about their general attitude to have your club sold off in this way is of genuine concern. The loyal fans will ultimately suffer. What's more the two organisations that could help them, the FA and the government, have both washed their hands of it. Credit Mr Murdoch - he has done one hell of a job, pulling off one of the biggest coups in sporting history.

The FA won't get involved because SKY pumps so much money into the pockets of those that run our game that they won't exactly take a stand against it. A case of not biting the hand that feeds you.

The government won't get involved because Murdoch controls the media in this country. Consequently a government that is under some pressure could do with good publicity, not the bad publicity it will almost certainly get if it becomes involved in this debacle. Again a case of not biting the hand that feeds you.

So although the Man Utd supporters in the short term might see a team built from the billions of the Murdoch group, ultimately they might just be cut high and dry. If the other nineteen Premiership clubs get their act together they could force football back onto terrestrial TV which would leave the Man Utd deal with SKY in an interesting position.

The Man Utd board is taking a big gamble which, if it pays off, will see the club dominate domestic and European football. If the gamble fails Man Utd could be left isolated on the fringe of English football.

So why rant about this on a Watford web page ? Well, if the worst things happen Watford FC will struggle. Let us get that clear from the start. The already tight financial constraints will become tighter. With less publicity, so less investment so the club struggles and the vicious circle grows. I would guess that well over half the clubs in the country could suffer as a result of the demands to compete. The game in this country will be changed forever and not for the best.

Football is changing and it, like most things, must evolve with time but this latest step in its evolution is a risky one and potentially a disastrous one. Yes, Man Utd's board become very rich BUT most fans of this great game will be left with memories of their team.