x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Football losing its soul to lawyers

Sport has taught me some valuable lessons over the years, not least that it was unlikely I was ever going to make it as a professional footballer and it might be advisable to have an alternative career plan

Sport has taught me some valuable lessons over the years, not least that it was unlikely I was ever going to make it as a professional footballer and it might be advisable to have an alternative career plan. I mean, I was not a bad Sunday league player, although at times my football was a little too similar to my politics - hanging around on the left wing not doing very much - but it was apparent early on that the necessary talent and dedication was conspicuously absent. And there is the first lesson of sport: disappointment goes with the territory, whether as a participant or supporter.

But it is a lesson in danger of being forgotten as clubs increasingly turn to legal and quasi- legal procedures to try to put right the wrongs they feel they have suffered on the pitch. Bad decisions by referees, questionable tackles, even the odd case of corruption, have always been part of football, but in the past, aggrieved parties were content to grumble to the media, and fire off a few letters to ruling bodies in the vain hope matches might be replayed or decisions reversed.

What has changed recently is the involvement of armies of lawyers determined to explore every legal avenue, leading to appeal and counter-appeal, claims for compensation, and fat fees, of course, for m'learned friends. Perhaps this was inevitable given the huge financial rewards for success in Premier League football, not to mention the compensation culture prevalent in wider society; but if the end result is the unseemly wrangle between Sheffield United and West Ham over the London team's survival in the Premier League at the end of the 2006-07 season, it is surely time for clubs to be reminded of what sport is all about.

It is the glorious uncertainty - and, yes, the occasional cruel injustice - that makes sport such a necessary adjunct to real life. We fans do not love the Premier League because it is the richest in the world; we love it because of the artistry of the players, the speed of the spectacle, the uncompromising defending. Lose sight of that, and it will soon cease to be the wealthiest league in the world. We will go elsewhere for our escapism. If we want everything reduced to balance sheets and the bottom line we might as well spend the afternoon with our accountant.

Those who wish Sheffield United to buy back their Premier League status via an arbitration tribunal rather than winning it on the field are less football fans, more - to borrow words from politician Aneurin Bevan - desiccated calculating machines. I can understand an individual player, whose career has been blighted by a bad tackle, seeking legal help to gain recompense for the fortune he will now not be able to earn. But Sheffield United, their lawyers, and their expert witnesses, are seeking to put a monetary value on the contribution one improperly registered player, Carlos Tevez, made to West Ham's survival.

An FA tribunal have decided that Tevez on his own was worth three points to West Ham, and suggest talks about compensation to their Yorkshire rivals start at the £30million (Dh195m) mark. West Ham, already fined £5.5m by the Premier League, are reluctant to pay, and have been trying to persuade Sheffield United to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, set up in 1984 by the International Olympic Committee to settle Olympic disputes. The chances of Sheffield United agreeing to this are only slightly less than mine of being asked to star with Scarlet Johansson in her next movie.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole affair is a report that some members of the Sheffield team who went down are now taking legal advice to see if they can sue West Ham for loss of earnings as a result of relegation. We all know football lost its innocence some time ago, but should that happen, it will be time to dig a big pit and consign its just twitching corpse to the beyond. @Email:martin.kelner@yahoo.co.uk