These Attacks at Football Are Nothing New

Another week, and another example of football being under attack. Last week, social media sites were buzzing with the upcoming revelations on that night’s Dispatches programme. The programme looked at drug use amongst footballers, and all the talk was about it naming a top, top player who had been suspended for drug use and then sold on without the buying club being made aware of his murky past.

It’s all par for the course though, as we’ve been here before. Hard-hitting exposes that hit us with the force of a small sponge dropped onto a blancmange, leaving you to say “is that it?”
Sites such as Twitter promote the feeling of anti-climax – rumours spread, and the truth is never as exciting as the rumour,  in the same way that journalists tweet of upcoming breaking news (AND IT’S BIG FOLKS!) and then you read that Inter Milan might, at some point in the future, make a bid for Gareth Bale, and you feel cheated. And they never bid anyway.

TV producers know the obvious, that football is big business, and investigating it and unearthing scandal could be a ratings winner. And like any multi-billion pound, global business, there will be plenty to investigate, as it will never be whiter-than-white. How could it be? But have these programmes really told you anything you didn’t know or at least suspect already?

If you watched the Dispatches programme, did it prompt much discussion? Are you still thinking about it? Can you remember a single footballer named in the programme? Dispatches knew they weren’t dealing with the biggest players, so had to embellish descriptions with “full international” and “tipped to be a premiership star”.

The fact is that of the 2000 or so footballers plying their trade in this country, the law of averages and the forces of human nature (especially when large amounts of money are at hand) will determine that some will misbehave. Some will crash cars, get up to mischief in nightclubs and some will obviously take drugs. I am betting some cricketers have taken cocaine too, and some rugby players. How about a programme exposing cocaine use amongst badminton players? Guess there’s not much of a call for that.

The programme followed familiar lines – lots of stern to-camera pieces from the presenter, lots of arty camera angles and concerned faces. The presenter sat in a converted loft surrounded by computer screens and stomped round various venues looking shocked and appalled. He started by discussing Kolo Toure’s drug ban and the length of his suspension – no new news or revelations here – the programme makers managed to find someone who thought the ban wasn’t severe enough – well I never, hold the front pages.

The programme’s main contention was that clubs and football authorities are complicit in keeping failed tests for recreational drugs out of the public eye, with 21 positive cocaine tests since 2003, most of which had not been disclosed to the public.
A cover up, or an FA policy not to report recreational drug use and that these drugs do not enhance performance and thus the players have some sort of right to privacy? The scandal is that players aren’t being named. This isn’t much of a scandal – it might be wrong, but it isn’t a scandal. Players not being suspended would be a scandal.

The alleged case of Garry O’Connor – described as “one of the brightest talents in Scottish football” – was given plenty of coverage (so bright was his talent that Barnsley subsequently released him). But how big a revelation was this anyway? The Daily Record reported O’Connor’s arrest on suspicion of possession on May 17 this year. He was in court as recently as September 5 over the charges, with the case deferred until the end of the month. So Dispatches’ shocking revelation was to repeat openly available news. If you didn’t already know about O’Connor’s antics, like most if us, it’s probably because you’re not really that bothered.

Another feature of the programme was asking members of the public their opinion – the ultimate in padding (and irrelevant). A TV programme is always in trouble when it has to ask members of the public for opinions – apart from the fact that if you asked enough people you could get someone to agree to anything, (that Paul Merson is a great pundit!), these vox pops add nothing to what the programme is trying to achieve. Leon Knight appeared to make unsubstantiated allegations that cocaine use was rife and that he had seen players at one of his former clubs snorting it. He could be telling the truth of course, but it’s hardly compelling television, as the evidence is not there. As a final act of desperation, we heard the claim by one expert that a player on coke could flip out and hurt somebody in a tackle (a leap of faith having been taken that players were snorting lines of cocaine during the pre-match team talk).

This was just the latest in a long line of “football scandal” programmes of course. In September 2006 Panorama showed a documentary called “Undercover: Football’s Dirty Secrets”, which alleged payments in English football contrary to the rules of the Football Association, involving then Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce, and his agent son Craig, for taking “bungs” from agents for signing certain players. Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp is secretly filmed discussing the possibility of buying the Blackburn Rovers captain Andy Todd with agent Peter Harrison, which is against Football Association rules. And whilst it may be against the rules, it is hardly earth-shattering stuff. Either way, allegations of Redknapp and his transfer dealings were hardly new, or surprising. Rumours have been rife for many a year. And if you wanted full details of such allegations against Redknapp, you could already have read a whole chapter in Tom Bower’s book Broken Dreams. Chelsea director of youth football Frank Arnesen is secretly filmed making an illegal approach or “tapping up” Middlesbrough’s England youth star 15-year-old Nathan Porritt.
Tapping up eh?  Wow, I can’t believe that happens, I’m going to have to sit down and regain my composure after that bombshell.

On 29 November 2010, three days before voting for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Panorama aired an in depth investigation into bribes by senior FIFA officials. But then we knew this already didn’t we? If news that FIFA was a bit bent surprised you, then you’re probably not aware that bears like to defecate in wooded areas or the religious persuasion of the Pope. The timing was predictable for getting the best ratings, but its main effect was probably to damage England’s chances of hosting the World Cup, if any chance existed in the first place.

Donal MacIntyre, given his own series MacIntyre Undercover on BBC One in 1999, covered his exploits among a gang of football hooligans, the Chelsea Headhunters. To sound like a broken record, it told us little new, though was a superb piece of investigation by MacIntyre.

And in July this year Channel 4 showed a documentary about wealthy businessmen and consortium buying football clubs in England – a Dispatches programme once more. “How To Buy A Football Club” featured an undercover reporter claiming to represent a wealthy group of investors in a journey that took the reporter to the brink of buying a League One football club. It showed Bryan Robson as a front for the groups London Nominees and the Football Fund, two investment groups, and whilst he may not have come across that well, there was no evidence of dishonesty or fraud from him.
The broker of deals was a Bangkok bar owner called Joe Sim, a man who claims connections across the football and had the number, and shared company of a certain Alex Ferguson. But once more, there was little substance behind the news. Ferguson distanced himself from Sim, and there was no proof of any wrongdoing on his part, except choosing the wrong friends. Again, a programme showing foreign businessmen trying to buy clubs and get round competition rules is no small deal, but hardly surprising, and most football fans have known about these strange consortiums in recent years. We’re still trying to work out who owned Notts County, who owns Leeds, and a whole host of other clubs with a rather eclectic board set-up.

The programmes are well-made (sometimes) and show good investigative practices – I don’t want to appear to be completely dismissing them as garbage – they are not, and I understand fully why they were made, and why they were hyped up. They add a little meat to the bones and reveal a few new stories we may be unaware of. The issues they dealt with are not to be dismissed or treated lightly. My point is, they didn’t really shock or surprise most of us. We know most of it already. We football fans might turn a blind eye if a Thai dictator with a winning smile takes over our club, or if a player has a mystery “virus” for 6 months, but we know the score. Football inevitably attracts bad people, and bad things happen on and off the pitch. Some of the worst practices have happened further down the football pyramid, where clubs have been virtually destroyed by bad practices and unscrupulous owners and operators. The producers of Dispatches might be better served investigating the truly great scandals of the game’s recent history – but there might not be as many viewers to be earned by doing that.