You can tell the start of the season is imminent these days because of two key markers. i) The team return from an interminably long, energy sapping tour of North America or Asia and ii) Fergie starts making noises about being ‘happy’ with the players at his disposal, thus preparing us for the grim prospect of no new midfielder…again.
No. New. Midfielder. I’m writing this a couple of days before West Brom so there’s still a good two weeks of the transfer window to go…so plenty of time for Wesley Sneijder to arrive yet. This lad has been the source of that much speculation all summer, I don’t even have to check how to spell his name.
This time last year, Fergie promised ‘no more signings’ and then we made an audacious swoop (why are swoops always audacious?) for Bebe. Given he’s now been sent to Turkey, there’s little or no chance of anything that grim happening again. I’m not counting Gibson staying as I’ve already resigned myself to that.
Paul Scholes, reborn as Mr Chatterbox as opposed to Mr Quiet since the realisation dawned he had a testimonial and book to promote, made the comment that the prospect of schlepping round the states for weeks on end was one of the things he’d miss least about being a professional footballer. I think I understand where he’s coming from now.
It was so dull following the tour from this side of the Atlantic, I actually began to feel pity for some of those trapped within the inner circle. Apparently it lasted for three weeks, it only felt like much, much longer. Three weeks travelling around America with Rio Ferdinand and his kerazy antics would drive most normal people insane.
By the 3rd night of being holed up in some hotel and hearing “alright bruv, after the ping-pong tournament and twitter session…fancy a game of FIFA with me and Wazza?”, you’d be ready to jump out of the fucking window. The alternative to joining in with the lamentable banter would be trying to get through the tour Berbatov-style – this involves developing an appreciation of classical music, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and learning the rules of backgammon. Possibly.
Any of our American cousins unfamiliar with United and perhaps stumbling across the team for the 1st time, were being fed an enormous, fat lie. The United on show in the states was shamelessly presenting itself as anything but the surly, paranoid beast we experience week in-week out. United US-style were smiling, relaxed and happy – sweetness personified.
Press duties were fulfilled without so much as a grimace, much to the amusement of the British journos following the team out there. Open training days, Premier League trophy being hawked around shopping malls and beaches for impromptu photo-opportunities with anyone remotely curious, at one point Fergie stopped the bus to let a gaggle of Bulgarian tourists onboard for an unscheduled autograph session. You couldn’t make it up.
News of this came as no great surprise but nevertheless, all quite galling for those of us daft enough to dedicate years, rather than hours of our lives following the team. The US charm offensive highlighted the disparity between the club’s attitude to regular supporters and those being courted in new ‘territories’.
A tale often-recounted is that years ago, reds arriving in Israel for a pre-season fixture were met by one much revered director whose reaction was as if he’d just trodden in dog shit. Ditto at Dukla Prague away in 1983, travelling fans stumbled across a markedly unimpressed Ron Atkinson who legend has it, greeted them with an accusatory “what the fuck are you doing here?”
Despite holding a season ticket now costing upwards of £700 per year, if I had a bang on the head and woke up deciding I wanted a picture taken with the Premier League trophy taking pride of place on my mantelpiece, I’d have to pay to enter the museum then pay another £10 or so for the actual photograph. If I tried to pick the thing up, I’d expect to be escorted off the premises and threatened with arrest.
Had United visited the US determined to charge fans $20 a shot for a photo with the trophy, I’d wager there would have been embarrassingly few takers. In the land that wrote the rule book on global marketeering and public relations, they would be scorned and derided for taking the piss somewhat. The club, as always, continue to demonstrate they know the price of everything and the value of nothing regarding their dealings with fans…fans in certain territories, that is. Those of us at home who’ve been habitually fleeced for that long, most don’t even bother questioning things anymore.
This situation stinks of course, but nothing will change. The club would no doubt claim (if they did dialogue) that security proves less of an issue on tour, and the spirit of glasnost in evidence, though desirable, is impossible to replicate at home. I suppose that’s true to some extent, but then no-one is expecting United to stop the team bus outside Anfield or Elland Road. Though it wouldn’t really kill them to make such a gesture outside OT or Carrington on occasion, would it?
One man probably relieved to be out of the country in mid-July was Bryan Robson, away with United doing his global ambassador bit whilst a (very) minor furore was played out following his unwittingly starring role in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary ‘How To Buy a Football Club’.
The programme introduced the viewing public to the London Nominees Football Fund, a group that according to its website “provides investors with a unique investment opportunity in a multi-billion dollar industry as an alternative to traditional equity based asset classes.” Robbo was employed in an advisory role, a famous face providing credibility and an easy smile whilst CEO Andrew Leopard waffled on with the usual rhetorical bluster concerning ‘adding value’, ‘return on investment’ and ‘exit strategies’.
There was nothing particularly illuminating or shocking on view at all. Only a group of wealthy, well-connected men happily encouraging another group of what appeared to be staggeringly stupid, incredibly wealthy men (actually undercover, investigative journalists) to invest lots of money in an investment fund. All the talk of buying clubs was clearly instigated by the reporters, “We want to buy Sheffield Wednesday…and another one!” they claimed at one point. “It can be an idea” was the muted response.
The premise of the show was as shaky as the camera-work. “We were being offered a football club” a voiceover gravely informed us – no you weren’t you fuckwits, they just clocked you for the eager buffoons you were posing as, and were happy to play along on the premise you were going to give them that £15M quid you promised. Anything said that could have been viewed as slightly dodgy was repeated 4 or 5 times, multiple slo-mo shots of Robson grinning and putting a glass to his lips, back-rooms in restaurants, fat-cats smoking cigars, betting tips from Fergie, lingering shots of the club crest at regular intervals…it had more than a whiff of ABU about it.
I’ll admit that I’m not exactly impartial as far as matters Bryan Robson is concerned, the man was and will remain an absolute hero in my eyes for what he did during his career at United. True, the programme wasn’t his finest moment and the impact of any potential fallout was lost due to ongoing coverage of the NOTW phone hacking scandal…but I genuinely fail to see what was revelatory about it. The news that financial parasites infest the game is nothing new and as for the shocking findings that player loans and transfers can be dictated by ‘relationship driven’ club managers…well I never.
The most telling moment was the response of Football League chairman Greg Clarke when asked, “Are you confident you know who the owners are of every club in the Football League?” “No, I’m not”, was his straightforward retort. Not calling him personally as he’s only been in the job since March, but demonstrative of the decades of haplessly amateurish management from regulatory bodies that have barely evolved since the pre-war era. Fit and proper person tests? The self-appointed custodians of the game don’t even know who’s in charge of clubs now. That’s the real scandal – and the reason sharks like London Nominees see football clubs as easy pickings to begin with. Maybe the Dispatches team should try again. Oh and it’s Barnsley FC, not Barnsley Town. Do proper research next time, idiots.
Copyright Red News – August 2011