x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Working-class heroes

Newcastle and West Ham, who play each other tomorrow, are not designed to let go of their roots for cash.

Alan Curbishley, left, and Kevin Keegan were expecting to wield power like the managers used to.
Alan Curbishley, left, and Kevin Keegan were expecting to wield power like the managers used to.

The English football fixtures are supposedly arranged by computer before the start of the season, but you sometimes wonder if there is not a guiding hand fiddling about with the Premier League's software to ensure extra piquancy in the weekend's matches.

Take tomorrow's match at Upton Park between West Ham and Newcastle. True, it is unlikely to have much bearing on the destination of the title, or even the European qualification spots, at the end of the season. In fact, if it is not too cruel to say so at this early stage, it looks suspiciously like a relegation six-pointer. But notwithstanding Manchester United's showdown with Chelsea, it is a match to which many football supporters' eyes will turn. It is arguably a clash to determine Britain's most chaotic club.

Football in the UK is going through cataclysmic change. Big sums of money, often from foreign investors, are pouring into British clubs, forcing a shift in attitudes and often a rethinking of the whole structure of the club. To understand why this process is proving so problematic - particularly at West Ham and Newcastle - you need to know the way football used to be run in the days when the two recently departed managers, Alan Curbishley from West Ham and Kevin Keegan from Newcastle, were players.

In those days, the football club was the manager's fiefdom. He had control of every aspect. The directors were usually local businessmen, fans essentially, with a few pounds in their pocket, whose investment bought them little more than good seats at the ground and the chance to join the club captain for a post-match drink. They did not command a great deal of respect around the football club. One player, Len Shackleton - a Newcastle United player in the 1950s, as it happens - famously wrote a chapter in his autobiography entitled The Average Director's Knowledge of Football, which consisted of an entirely blank page.

These days, football directors may still not have an intimate knowledge of how to employ a midfield holding player or an attacker playing in the hole behind the main striker, but they do know that they have bought into a global brand, and are understandably keen to protect their investment. Conventional wisdom appears to be that that is not best achieved by employing one of those ego-driven oligarchs who used to strut around the stage of English football, like Brian Clough, who not only had complete control of all football matters, but was not above bawling out the catering manager if the snack bar ran out of Wagon Wheels (a chocolate biscuit without which, mystifyingly, English football would have ground to a halt in the 1970s and 1980s).

Cloughie was a highly effective manager, of course, winning the European Cup with Nottingham Forest, but in an era when he was not exposed to multi-media scrutiny and the vagaries of global money markets. While neither Curbishley nor Keegan is a Clough-like figure, each left his club because he felt control was being taken out of his hands. Neither was happy with the system under which a director of football buys and sells the club's assets - the players, that is - leaving the manager to concentrate purely on coaching matters. The fans have broadly sided with the managers on this issue, even though Curbishley was not universally popular among West Ham followers.

The key, for new owners of football clubs, would appear to be consultation. At Arsenal and Manchester United, for instance, I am sure Wenger and Ferguson are kept fully informed of any changes. It helps that at the Emirates stadium and Old Trafford, trophies are realistic aspirations, while at West Ham and Newcastle, they are wild dreams, which two passionate sets of fans have somehow translated into non- negotiable demands.

But then, Tyneside and London's East End are two old-fashioned working-class areas, where historically the will of the people is very important. Given the very powerful voice - and the impossible dreams - of these fans, it is unlikely West Ham and Newcastle will ever be what you might call thoroughly modern football clubs. They will always provide entertainment, though - on and off the pitch. martin.kelner@yahoo.co.uk