Monday 20 January 2020

James Lawton: Fumigation squad deserve thanks for tackling stinking pit of greed in beautiful game

George Graham
George Graham

James Lawton

In the 21 years since Arsenal fired George Graham for accepting bungs, not a lot has changed in English football, except for the discovery of an apparently inexhaustible mint.

Certainly not, it seems, the price for the kind of stench bequeathed by fallen England manager Sam Allardyce when he flew off to his opulent Spanish holiday mansion this week.

He complained, astonishingly and with that special, whining self-pity peculiar to the most ethically challenged, that he was the victim of entrapment.

Graham, a notably more significant manager, also mounted some bizarre self-defence. He said he had merely accepted "unsolicited gifts," presumably from a Norwegian football agent posing as a philanthropist hot-foot from Lapland.

The ensuing football inquiry found that Graham had gathered in £400,000 worth of illegal payments - precisely the amount on the table for Allardyce, at least he assumed so, for a speaking gig in the Far East and free advice on how to subvert the rules governing transfer deals.

The enduring trouble is that for all the posturing and outrage, Allardyce should not have been alone in the dock after the Daily Telegraph went public with its admirable sting. The entire hierarchy of the Football Association should also have been squeezed in.

For a measure of their neglect, it is probably worth recalling here a conversation with an official of the American NFL in the wake of Graham's professional demise in 1995.

He was appraised of the details of the Graham affair. He was told how an agent had acted for Arsenal, the selling clubs, the players and ultimately Graham. There was a long pause and then the NFL man said: "Say what? I can't believe what you're telling me."

This was because the NFL, while admitting a constant need for vigilance giving the rocketing value of gridiron stars, had long installed a stringent system of transfer supervision.

All player movement was closely monitored by a central office staffed by lawyers and accountants. An agent could act for only one party - his client the player. Each transaction was minutely inspected and no money changed hands until every detail was approved and then the agent received a single payment, from his client.

Twenty-one years on and such arrangements still seem to belong to an alternative universe.

Allardyce's cheerful acceptance of the illegal workings of football greed was one only one sickening aspect of this week's business.

Another was the effort of some in football, including former England manager Steve McClaren, and West Ham vice-president - and former Allardyce employer - Karren Brady, to dress the sacked England manager in the clothes of a victim.

McClaren claimed an invasion of privacy. Brady said it was "tragic" that a man had lost his dream job for "non-football reasons".

His dream, football's nightmare - one that underlines, though it was perhaps hardly necessary, that the game has become a bottomless pit of duplicity and greed.

When the fabled baseball star 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson was implicated in the 'Black Sox' World Series fixing scandal nearly a century ago, a street urchin was said to have called from the sidewalk crowd watching the accused file into the hearing, "Say it ain't, so, Joe."

Fixing isn't on the current charge sheet but the most cynical greed, the shedding of basic responsibilities and respect is.

The kid in the Chicago street wanted to believe his best view of his heroes remained intact. How many of his young successors in the world of football who understood some of the details of the disappearance of the England manager would have wished for a similar confidence this week?

As another weekend of the Premier League - the richest and most glamorous league in the world, we are constantly told - unfolds, the rest of us can only hope that some football men we have chosen to believe in prove to be as good as their word and their image.

Certainly it is understandable that some in the battered ranks of the FA are apparently holding a candle for the possibility that Arsenal's Arsene Wenger will eventually take over from the stop-gap appointment Gareth Southgate.

Wenger has amassed his share of critics in the years since his greatest successes but what he has never done is surrender the demeanour of a football man utterly committed to the good name of his game.

Wenger plays a game that is filled with passion. Yes, sometimes it overspills. Sometimes he loses patience with some of his rivals - and underperforming players.

But always there is a sense of a man who glories in the capacity of football to delight its followers, to provide colour and beautiful skills.

To have Wenger crown more than 20 years in the English game would for many give the national team something it has most needed since the disappearance of World Cup-winner Alf Ramsey 53 years ago.

This to say, an utterly authentic football man, someone with the wit and the knowledge to remind international players of some values beyond the terms of their last megabuck contract.

As it happens, the counting house of the Premier League is currently benefiting from a significant influx of such characters.

No doubt Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte carried a keen enough sense of their market value when they accepted the offers of, respectively, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.

But they also brought what appears to be a huge commitment to the development of major football teams. They seem to be saying that as far as they are concerned, the rich life is a bonus.

The heart of their lives is about drawing all they can from talented, and significantly motivated players, and that in this their lives' work they are not - unlike the former manager of England - for sale.

That, of course, was the label placed on Allardyce by the authors of his 'entrapment'.

Some are still saying that was harsh. Others, who want to believe that football isn't going to hell with a huge excess of pieces of silver, may well say it was the legitimate work of a football fumigation squad.

Irish Independent

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