At the conclusion of the football season, with Walsall only just surviving in League One and a few very wealthy clubs continuing to dominate the Premier League, perhaps the most significant victory of the season was for a pub landlady in Southsea.
Way back in 2005, Karen Murphy of the Red, White and Blue pub near to Fratton Park, home of Portsmouth FC, screened a live game between Wigan and Arsenal. Nothing unusual in that, but within days the full legal might of the Murdoch empire and the Premier League descended upon the back street boozer. Mrs Murphy had decided not to pay £7,200 a year to BSkyB and instead spent £800 on a decoder imported from Greece. Rupert was not amused.
There is much in the beautiful game that has become repellent. Racism on the terraces is still prevalent in spite of decades of anti-racist initiatives. The comments of Messrs Gray and Keys confirms an ingrained Neanderthal misogyny within the game and football fans have taken to sending a club manager letter bombs and a bullet and others have assaulted him on the touchline. You have to get your retaliation in first, as one old time manager observed. Imagine the crowd trouble if goal ace Jesus Christ transferred from Bayern Munich to FC Roma or, indeed, the other way round.
Violence and the threat of violence is not confined to “supporters” divided by minor theological differences in what is basically the same religious cult. Physical attacks by players on Sunday League refs and linespeople are on the increase and even some rather deranged dads and mums have been abusing match officials at games played by under 11`s. A passion for football is no excuse for a professional foul or even common assault.
Being competitive is integral to sport and a desire to win is part of human nature. But winning by any means devalues the very definition of competition. The actions of a shrill “soccer mom” in a local park are no different than the actions of Premier League club owners or the decisions of the men who rule over the game. The only difference is the size of the bank balance.
The extraordinary allegations made by my Lord Triesman against FIFA are worthy of a plot by Graham Greene. Shadowy south and central American potentates demanding knighthoods and vast amounts of cash in return for their favour would seem utterly preposterous if you believe that world sport is about playing the game rather than making money. Corruption, greed, money and anonymity make a formidable back four in world football’s defensive line-up.
Football seems to be awash with money, most of which is not generated by gate receipts. Television, merchandising and corporate sponsorship is the engine that drives success. BSkyB have paid an astonishing £1.6 billion for the rights to screen Premier League matches up to 2013 and they, as Karen Murphy is finding out, demand value for money. For owners of wealthy clubs, winning cups and titles is not about glory, but is a means to an end in getting their teams on television more nights per week than Coronation Street. To do so, big bucks have to be spent on “quality” players and the accompanying agents, lawyers, publicists, stylists, wives and street walkers. A global fan base does not come cheap.
The big four, or is it now five or six, have dominated the Premiership by having the resources and spending power to buy rather than play their way to the top. Backed by some rather unpleasant overseas adventurers bored by sub-prime banking and hedge funds, the power wielded by these clubs is ruining football, particularly in the lower leagues.
Walsall FC, having battled against the odds to avoid relegation, now face uncertainty over the hallowed turf at Bescot with money, once again, being the cause. The unfathomable financial dealings of the club may necessitate the sale of the freehold. The excellent Up The Saddlers blog gives the perspective of the die-hard, loyal supporters and reports on the proposal that Walsall Council should buy the freehold on behalf of the people of the borough. This seems a rather elegant idea that could safeguard the future of the club, restore some civic credibility and pride and make a bit of money. But true to form our council leader, now without an electoral mandate, said a firm and immediate “no”.
Upon reflection, the thought of council involvement with the Saddlers is probably a bad idea after all. Given the track record of closing things of value and the antics of those near to local power, the first home game of next season would be played on the car park against the bandit traffic wardens, hydroponics installed and the pitch dug up and replaced with a healthy crop of laughing lettuce.
It is unlikely that a Russian oligarch, an American venture capitalist, an oil sheik or a far eastern gangster is currently eyeing Walsall FC as the latest acquisition to an investment portfolio but hope may lie in the experience of Karen Murphy.
Having bought the decoder from the Greek broadcaster Nova to show Portsmouth away games that Sky were not screening, BSkyB took Mrs Murphy to court for breach of copyright in 2006. Sky lost the prosecution and Karen of the Rovers carried on showing the footy. But Sky came back for a replay and this time won. After being fined five grand, she appealed only to have the fine increased to eight grand. Murdoch must have thought that he had gotten his money after all.
However, he and the Premier League under estimated the tenacity of football’s most formidable central defender. She took her fight to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and had the convictions overturned. The implications of her victory is likely to shake the very foundations of televised football, the wallets of club owners and the reputation of the rapacious businessmen in charge of the Premier League. Her defence was simple but effective.
EU law provides for the free movement of people, goods and services, capital and labour across national borders within the EU. How delightful that legislation that brought star players to football stadia should also bring a decoder to a pub in Southsea. Lawyers will undoubtedly challenge the decision, but if upheld, the ruling could change football. BSkyB profits would nosedive, club broadcast revenues would fall and ridiculous transfer fees will be reduced to below the cost of building a new hospital. This can only be good for football, especially in the lower leagues.
On the eve of the FA Cup Final, a match once the high spot of the English season but now an irritation to the big clubs with more lucrative Champions League fixtures in Barce, Juve or Munich, big spenders Manchester City take on hard up Stoke. Whoever lifts the cup, we should all raise our glasses to Mrs Karen Murphy for the most important victory all season.