Is English football rotten?

The John Terry scandal has engendered a flood of obloquy on English football. Columnists of many kinds have fervently joined in the abuse, some with a knowledge of the realities of the game, however bleak, some, like the right wing political columnist Simon Geffer, who “hate soccer” with almost comical outrage. He seems for example to believe that today’s wealthy footballers — the average annual wage in the Premier League is a massive £1.2 mill ion — swan around in Rolls Royces, when the young plutocrats would favour nothing so square. For them, the costliest Ferraris and their luxurious like.

The news that Terry, after his manifold excesses — it is now believed that he’s bought the silence of his French amour of some £400,000 — has been succeeded as England’s captain by Rio Ferdinand is hardly a blow for morality. Some years ago Ferdinand, and another stalwart of the England team, Frank Lampard, were revealed to have taken part in an orgy when on holiday in Cyprus, which they duly and somewhat ill advisedly filmed.

Then, crucially, there was the day when, obliged to take a drug test at the Manchester United training ground, Ferdinand drove blithely away, insisting afterwards that he had simply forgotten, and had to go into Manchester to buy articles for his home. This didn’t convince the FA and he was duly suspended from the game for eight months. Had he been an athlete, it would have been two years.

Steven Gerrard? Another possible candidate for captaincy. Not long ago, he appeared in court, accused of punching a part time disc jockey late at night in a local club. He admitted that punches had indeed, as they say, been thrown, and insisted that he was acting in self defence. He was duly acquitted, raising the interesting possibility that the hapless disc jockey had attacked Gerrard’s fist with his face. This summer, Gerrard’s contract with Liverpool will end, and you wonder whether, this time he will leave Anfield. It seemed all done and dusted in the recent past, when he seemed booked for Chelsea but suddenly and strangely changed his mind. It was rumoured that it was changed for him by the threats of local gangsters.

In these assaults on contemporary football and its supposed immorality, you often hear the word “greed”. Not without reason. Indeed when, in 1992, the Football Association, under Graham Kelly — Ex chief executive of the Football League — made common cause with the leading clubs to form the so called Premier League, I christened it The Greed Is Good League and, across the years, have seen no reason to change my mind.

It seemed to me at the time a shocking betrayal by Kelly and the FA of its historic trust: to look after English football at every possible level. Now, with the satellite television money due to flood in, it meant a huge and ever increasing gap between the Premiership clubs and the rest. Any club which dropped out of the top division into the so called Championship: alias the Second Division. clawing their way back again would be sorely difficult and expensive.

As if this were not enough, we have also had the influx of wealthy, or supposedly wealthy, foreigners. Chelsea and Manchester City, indeed, have been bought by men so rich that money is simply no object and the balance of the game is distorted accordingly. In the case of Chelsea, it had been the Russian so called oligarch, Roman Abramovich, who has poured immense sums of money into the London club, enabling it to buy players at the top of the market. Chelsea’s colossal debt was no more than a mirage, since recently and almost casually, Abramovich converted it into equity!

At Manchester City, we now have the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi whose enormous wealth has enabled them to buy player after player.

The hero of an Edwardian novel by Arnold Bennett, “The Card”, Denry Machin, when he took over a club in the Midlands, told his wife, “Why you silly goose, didn’t you know? Football has to do with everything!” So, for better or worse, it still does. If you think it deplorable for leading footballers to earn what they do, with the often resulting excesses, perhaps we should get it onto proportion. If such players are overpaid now, their earnings, compared with those of pop stars and film stars, are still relatively modest.

Secondly, and historically, it might be said that the balance has simply tipped, however, vertiginously. At the start of the Great War in 1914, the maximum wage for footballers was £9 a week. This, of course, meant far more in value than it would today. At the end of the War, the Football League cut the maximum to £8 a week and there it stayed, till after the end of World War II! It took till 1961 for Jimmy Hill, ex Fulham and Brentford, and his Professional Footballers’ Association to have the maximum wage, then standing at £20, abolished. So, in due course, to the Greed is Good League with its colossal rewards and its enormous financial pressures on clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham, whose various owners have been reckless with the money they have spent.

What should, however, be emphasised is, as Denry Machin suggested, that football is the reflection of its own society. If greed pervades the English game, then so it surely does in English society at large. The behaviour of young, immensely rich, footballers, in building horrible houses in the provinces, hanging out in West End night clubs — rather than the mere pubs favoured by their poorer predecessors — picking up the “groupies” who swarm round them and sometimes maltreating them, they are merely expanding and exaggerating what have long been the “traditions” of the professional game.