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United we stand...
By Ian Grant
When I was growing up in Watford, there were two branches of "Our Price" in the High Street. One at either end, strategically positioned for maximum temptation.

They were record shops. They sold records. They were full of records, all space occupied by racks of plastic-covered LP sleeves. They even smelt of records - the wonderful, enticing, unique smell that compact discs have long since banished from the nation's shopping centres.

And they were probably full of people with deeply pitiful lives. Like me. In those two shops, I lost my heart. I discovered the bands that would soundtrack my teenage years, from the Wedding Present's adolescent-friendly jangling to Big Black's monstrous roar, as well as the bands that would forever lurk shamefully at the back of my record collection. I spent hours, days, weeks of my life rummaging through racks that I already knew by memory. "Our Price" was my refuge.

Now there's just Virgin. Sheen replaces soul. Exactly the same in every town, no need to spend time looking through the racks in search of buried treasure. It's not a refuge from anything. It's not even a record shop, not at heart.

Record shops, football clubs. Lives are shaped by and built around such things.

For the romantics, this is a battle that has already been lost. The sudden fuss surrounding the Manchester United take-over, for example, is plainly ludicrous. You can't sell your soul to the devil twice. United have spent the last ten years operating as the most ruthless, arrogant, hate-worthy business imaginable; Murdoch's arrival cannot make them any more ruthless, arrogant or hate-worthy.

As symbolism, however, its potency is hard to ignore. The largest football club in the world is being used as a pawn in another, richer game. For all those who've spouted the "football is big business" cliché in recent years, reality bites - Manchester United's profits are simply rendered insignificant by Murdoch's vast empire.

If the truth of football's current infatuation with commercialisation is finally dawning, then it's not before time. As I've previously argued elsewhere, my personal affiliations, though undeniably emotional, are actually supported by economic reality. Fans have been blinded by science for too long.

Neither the proposed European Super League nor the Manchester United takeover will do anything to alter the course that football is taking. The trajectory, mapped out at the births of the Premiership and the Champions League, remains the same.

UEFA seem destined to make so many concessions to those threatening a break-away that the Champions League will become, to all intents and purposes, the Super League (the FA's utterly spineless attitude to the Premiership provides an obvious precedent), while Blair's government has no track record of standing up to Rupert Murdoch. We will have a Super League, in reality if not in name, and Murdoch will probably be allowed to buy Manchester United.

This is no revolution. The European Cup has already been butchered beyond recognition, the world's greatest club competition sacrificed to the gods of cliques and vested interest. Rupert Murdoch already has a strangle-hold on the British game. What we have here is acceleration, not fundamental change.

Outside of the boardrooms, away from the self-interest of businessmen and the dividends for shareholders (who, thanks to the wonders of stock market flotation, are now legally a higher priority than fans at Manchester United), there is no possible justification for any of it. Perhaps once upon a time (immediately post-Hillsborough), not any more. Tickets and merchandise become more expensive, grounds become quieter, kick-off times are shifted around to suit television companies, top players earn insane wages. You've heard all this, you're as bored of hearing it as I am. But - and here's what I'm trying to emphasise - none of the acceleration in football's commercialisation benefits active fans, those at the very heart of the game, at all.

Nor - excuse me for explaining the obvious - does it benefit non-elite clubs. The 'trickle-down' argument, once again wheeled out like a rusty cannon in support of the Super League, should be utterly discredited. The current situation within British football, with certain top clubs effectively printing money, offers proof - the effects, as ever, are a massive currency devaluation and out-of-control inflation. That's basic economics.

Many clubs, including Watford, have greatly increased turnovers as a consequence of the commercial growth within the game. Well, hurrah. Turnover matters little, I'm afraid, and many clubs, including Watford, have found that income from the economically stable outside world cannot possibly keep pace with costs within football. That is the reality of the 'trickle-down' effect.

So why are we endorsing something that does us no good? Fans, those most harmed by current trends, continue to play along. Like addicted gamblers, we beg for some money to feed the habit - only a million quid to buy a new striker and we'll be sure of that big pay-out. And, also like addicted gamblers, we seem completely unaware that we cannot win.

There is no big pay-out. It is as difficult to break even in the top flight as it is anywhere else. Promotion to the Premiership results in nothing more than increased turnover, a massive surge in income that's matched by a massive surge in costs. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow simply doesn't exist; the vast debts and sacrifices piled up in its pursuit certainly do.

So it seems to me that the choice becomes ever starker. As fans, we can continue to demand that smaller clubs hang on to posh coat-tails. We can continue to demand that they find absurd transfer fees and wages for second rate players, and we can pay ever-increasing ticket prices to watch those players. We can loiter uncomfortably like uninvited guests at someone else's upper class wedding reception.

Or we can look for our own future.