Tom Bower, whose investigations helped bring down Robert Maxwell, turns to football in his latest book, Broken Dreams. It left Harry Pearson screaming ...
A decade or so ago Paul Kimmage, who would later ghost Tony Cascarino’s autobiography, wrote a book about his experiences as a professional cyclist. A Rough Ride told of systematic drug use by riders in races such as the Tour de France. In Britain, where bike racing ranks alongside clay-pigeon shooting, Kimmage was rewarded with the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. In Europe, where cycling is big news and big business, however, he was denounced by everybody from fellow riders to sports journalists as a fantasist and an embittered loser. The Irishman had predicted this would happen. There existed, he said, a code of silence within the world of cycling when it came to drug taking, extending from the mechanics to the upper echelons of cycling’s ruling bodies, from the team masseurs to all branches of the media.
Ten years after A Rough Ride was published, a Belgian named Willy Voet who worked for the Festina team, cycling’s answer to Arsenal, was stopped by French customs officials. They found a stash of drugs that would have stunned Shaun Ryder. Within 12 months, cycling’s silent conspirators were babbling away like budgerigars to the French police. Now the only charge that could be laid at Paul Kimmage’s door is that he hadn’t known the half of what was going on.
It would be nice to think that a few years from now something will occur to vindicate Tom Bower. His book about the shady finances of our national game, following acclaimed investigations into Robert Maxwell and Richard Branson among others, has certainly been greeted by football with a rare and intense silence.
Bower is not a football fan and sometimes it shows in the spelling of players’ names and the fact that he lets David Mellor pass through the chapters dealing with the Football Task Force without even once resorting to personal abuse, but he writes with great clarity and concision about murky business dealings. The result is a book that skewers the game’s malfeasance with a precision and lucidity that even a fiscal-illiterate such as myself can easily comprehend.
Broken Dreams does not make happy reading. It conjures up a world in which greed, arrogance, stupidity, egomania and profligacy meet with stunning force. Underpinning it is a network of conflicting interests so complex it would make even the most dedicated Byzantine dizzy. In transfers, agents represent the player, but also the buying and selling clubs; FA officials own stadium seating companies; managers buy shares in players’ agencies which also employ their sons (“Nepotism is not a crime,” one agent opined recently. The idea that illegality and immorality may be separate issues has not penetrated football) and so it goes on.
Every few pages, as I read how Rune Hauge had somehow pocketed £600,000 for his part in the transfer of Rio Ferdinand from West Ham to Leeds despite the fact that he wasn’t Ferdinand’s agent and was in the middle of a FIFA-imposed ban at the time; or discovered the FA paid £103 million for Wembley despite their own independent valuation pricing it at £64 million; or that Liverpool’s Rick Parry, confronted with demands that the Premiership do something about the activities of agents, replied “We’ve got to leave it to FIFA” (ah yes, Sepp Blatter, the very man to root out fiscal malpractice); I had to stick my head out of the window, breath some fresh air and scream.
Despite griping about how they are being cheated, Premiership chairmen resist any attempt at regulation. It is tempting to suggest this is because a corrupt society inevitably favours the rich and the unscrupulous and there are plenty of people running football clubs who answer that description. (Unfortunately our libel laws also favour the rich and the unscrupulous, which may explain why occasionally Bower delivers non-sequiturs that require some interpretation.)
Unwilling to rock the boat, especially one that guarantees them so many junkets around the globe, the FA seem as resistant to the idea of regulation as the chairmen. The result is the FA Compliance Unit, an investigative body made up of one man, former police detective Graham Bean, with limited legal and financial power. The Premier League chairmen deride the Yorkshireman with a wince-inducing snobbery (“Just another sergeant,” says David Sheepshanks dismissively). It is like Dixon of Dock Green trying to take on the Russian mafia with a truncheon and a whistle.
To make Bean’s task even more difficult, his employers are reluctant to act on any evidence he provides. The only action against a club the men from Lancaster Gate/Soho Square ever seem to have pursued with any vigour was against Tottenham. In that case, though, they were motivated less by a desire to clean up the game than to punish Alan Sugar for his “Cloughie likes a bung” affidavit (a document that had the unwelcome effect of compelling them to act) and the fact that his abrasive manner had offended the otiose Graham Kelly.
Unfortunately when Bean has met with success, such as at Chesterfield, Hull City and Boston Utd, it has been turned into propaganda by the Premiership. To men like Ken Bates, recently heard on Channel 4 gallantly defending the Compliance Unit’s record, Bean’s success in the lower divisions is proof that no malfeasance is present at the upper end of the league.
Meanwhile, Labour politicians whose election manifesto promised to tackle problems within football seem more intent on proving Napoleon’s maxim that “It is by titles and baubles that men are led”. Any hope the Football Task Force had of reforming the game, or that Wembley had of being built for less than the gross national product of a cluster of emerging nations, are scuppered by battles between senior government figures, many of whom seem to enjoy the kind of relationship Roy Keane shares with Alf-Inge Haaland.
In the face of this mix of silence, incompetence, complaisance and petty vendettas it is hard to see how to rectify the situation. Certainly the chances of a Willy Voet moment are, as boxing promoter Don King is fond of remarking, slim to nil, with slim having just skipped town. Drugs are more easily tested for than corruption. And even when the latter is detected, people within the game seem unwilling to take any kind of moral stand. Switch on Sky and there are Frank McLintock, El Tel’s delivery boy, and George Graham grinning out at you.
I have searched long and hard for a pithy summation of Broken Dreams. In the end the phrase that keeps bobbing into my head is the strapline on the posters for Wayne’s World: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hurl.”
From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month