Sunday 23 October 2016

Tommy Conlon: Big sting exposes Fourth Estate's snouts deep in football's trough of swill

Tommy Conlon

Published 02/10/2016 | 17:00

Queens Park Rangers manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has also been named in the investigation. Photo: Steve Paston/PA Wire.
Queens Park Rangers manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has also been named in the investigation. Photo: Steve Paston/PA Wire.

The England manager, we were promised on Monday night, was only the tip of the iceberg in the investigation that would smash several other famous reputations.

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Since then The Daily Telegraph has exposed merely a few infected ice cubes in the sea of iniquity that is supposed to be modern-day English football: Tommy Wright, assistant manager of Barnsley FC; Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, manager of Queens Park Rangers; Massimo Cellino, owner of Leeds United, and already a proven crook anyway; and Eric Black, assistant manager of Southampton.

At time of writing therefore, it is starting to look as if Sam Allardyce is the tip, the middle and the base of the iceberg.

"England manager for sale," was the headline emblazoned across The Telegraph's splash. As always in these cases, however, it is actually the newspaper itself that is for sale. The latest scoop is just another remake of a story that has become a sort of staple Hollywood franchise for the British press since the 1950s: corruption in the football industry.

It is the story that keeps on giving, the golden goose that keeps laying the eggs. Which is why we are periodically reminded by the Fourth Estate that football is a trough with everyone guzzling the swill. But we the Fourth Estate have our heads in the same trough too. Last week it was just The Telegraph's turn. It almost choked on the feast, while of course roundly condemning the saps they had managed to bait for their banquet of headlines.

We were repeatedly reminded in their coverage that these revelations were the culmination of a "10-month investigation", the longevity of the enterprise thereby demonstrating their commitment to the pursuit of the truth.

But we are told that the newspaper's reporters held their first meeting with Allardyce and his associates on August 19, just over six weeks ago. By then they were also reeling in Wright, Hasselbaink, Cellino and Black. But without Allardyce, it wasn't exactly a stellar cast of fall guys.

Could it be that they felt the need to revert to a tried and trusted punchbag in the absence of any major new names? The England manager, after all, has always been a convenient standby for an orgy of public bullying. Like Prince Charles, he is an establishment figure who is routinely showered with both deference and cruelty by the squaddies of the newsrooms. He can always be pilloried because basically he can only stand there and take it. It is part of the job. And the sabotage of the England manager has long ago become part of the job for the national press.

Presumably The Telegraph would argue that they picked up on the scent of Allardyce because there was a smell off him already. The BBC's Panorama programme had been on his case ten years ago for alleged backhanders. An official inquiry by Lord John Stevens found in 2007 evidence of a "conflict of interest" in some transfer deals involving Allardyce, his son Craig and his agent Mark Curtis. Allardyce and Curtis are still under pressure about the transfer of Ravel Morrison from West Ham United to Cardiff City in 2014.

Allardyce has at times barely been visible for all the smoke swirling around him over the years. But no-one could find the fire. And The Telegraph couldn't find it either. The newspaper deceived him into meeting reporters masquerading as businessmen - and "Far East businessmen" at that, for added racial innuendo. They secretly recorded his comments. They threw leading questions at him. They dangled four hundred grand in front of him.

And still the best they could come up with was a disquisition from Allardyce on how to circumvent the rules around players and third-party ownership. Inappropriate? Definitely. Embarrassing, yes. Serious? No. It was talk, not doing; it was words, not action. It was Big Sam with his big swinging ego, at a table laden with booze.

When they went fishing again, with suggestions of clandestine payments, Allardyce was almost panic-stricken. He berated Scott McGarvey, the agent and long-standing friend who'd brokered the meeting. "I haven't heard that, you stupid man. What are you talking about? You idiot . . . You can't go there anymore. You can't pay a player, you can't pay a manager, you can't pay a CEO . . . You can't do it now. Don't ever go there."

There was evidence perhaps of Allardyce's past and present in those remarks: money couldn't be paid "anymore", it can't be done "now".

Big Sam grew up in the old culture. And as the saying goes, culture eats rules and regulations for breakfast. When the FA appointed him England manager, maybe they all should have just recognised this reality: his hands weren't clean, he was a product of the old school, but today was a new day and everyone was starting with a clean slate.

And the FA should have fought to hold onto him last week too. He had said some wrong things but he had done nothing wrong. He had been stitched up royally. But inevitably they melted in the face of the media machine, terrified of its power.

And with that, they have lost the best English manager of his generation. Given the chronic psychological frailty of England players, it was precisely his brand of belligerent self-confidence that they needed to galvanise them again.

Instead they have Gareth Southgate now, another Stuart Lancaster in the making, another calf for the crocodiles.

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