Mickey Blue Eyes
Last Sunday at 9.00 pm BBC 2 broadcast an hour long TV programme titled Lord Sugar Talks Football. I
t was made by somebody called Dan Trelford; it featured former Tottenham Hotspur owner Alan Sugar shedding crocodile tears over the financial state of professional football in England. At the time of writing you can still see it on BBC iPlayer by clicking here:
I tuned in half expecting what eventually I did see, which was mostly a pile of near-unmitigated shite from a programme producer, Trelford, who didn't know his subject from his arse or his elbow, and a one-dimensional barrow boy talking head, Sugar, who yet again demonstrated that self made men can be merely an example of thick-headed unskilled labour. I say "near-unmitigated" because of course the programme contained some home truths and financial figures it could scarcely avoid without making itself a complete laughing stock. It was also a minor pump primer for Sugar's sado-narcissistic TV sewage, The Apprentice. In total it was a comically unintentional illustration of everything wrong with a demoralised, sullen society riddled with legalised institutional capitalist corruption. Trelford simply didn't have either the knowledge or intent or cultural courage to say so. Perhaps he was afraid of falling foul of the BBC's most recent right wing tabloidesque controllers.
On the face of it you would think Sugar would be the right choice as programme front man. After all, in 1934 Franklin Roosevelt appointed Joe Kennedy chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a rat to catch the rats after they had eaten their way through the economy and caused the Great Depression. Maybe likewise Sugar's insider knowledge would not only demonstrate publicly how football finances really work, but, crucially, he would have some formidable suggestions for injecting decency into the body football. After all, he was Tottenham's owner during the period 1991-2001 when he did a deal in tandem with Terry Venables, who became CEO. Two years after buying the club he sacked Venables on the eve of the FA Cup Final and ended up in a losing court battle with him. He sold his last tranche of shares in Spurs in 2007. In the programme he said he bought the club for £8 million and sold it for £50 million, a mark-up of £42 million. According to an article in The Times of 5th June 2009 he described his time at Tottenham as, "a waste of my life," a phrase he came near to repeating in the TV programme.
Trelford used a format where Sugar interviewed leading personalities in the areas of: Premier League (CEO Richard Scudamore), national/continental association (David Triesman and Michel Platini), club owners (Eggert Magnusson, David Sullivan, David Gold, David Whelan), club administrators (Karen Brady), managers (Harry Redknapp, David Pleat), players (Alan Shearer), players agents (Jerome Anderson), accountants (Dan Jones) and investigative journalists (David Conn). David Morrissey did a voice over link. At the end Sugar produced "A Game Plan." It sounds impressive. Actually it was a rusty bucket of decayed tripe and onions you couldn't sell at Sarfend. Not only did it repeat things we have known for many years, Sugar's "Game Plan" was exactly what you would expect from an "entrepreneur" who knows the price and profit of everything but the value of nothing. Altogether it was a cheap shot programme with the depth of a rain puddle and the kind of production values that wouldn't even find a way into module 1 of a media course from Chingford Correspondence School, second floor, Norman Tebbitt House.
Twenty minutes into the show it became obvious everyone involved was going to shrug and say, "What? Who? Me, guv? Nah....." Fingers pointed everywhere except at themselves. Sugar was the worst of the lot. Plainly still smarting from the ownership experience - he broke down in self-pitying tears during the court case versus Venables - he was at his most belligerent when faced with someone with the same kind of persona. Early on you knew what was going to be the prime target: players wages. Sure enough, he and Dave Whelan agreed there would have to be a wages cap. Indeed Whelan said it had already been discussed between Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn. The implication was all the clubs were considering it.
Shearer said wages were nothing to do with players and only a few were motivated by the money. Redknapp said he didn't even know what his players earned. Sullivan and Gold, previously owners of Birmingham City, said West Ham are still paying off debts incurred because of inherited excessive wages. Anderson denied agents had much of anything to do with the financial state of the game. Sugar said a club should be allowed to die if it didn't pay its way; Scudamore, to his credit, said there was more to it than that, a sense of community.....but seemed more afraid of mass fans demonstrations outside his office window. Sugar could do little more than talk of "brands" and "business models" and how "the fans have to learn" - by which he meant go along with his definitions. Magnusson and Brady were inconsequential make weights. David Conn, a worthy and honest perceptive man, scarcely got a look in. Fans groups weren't considered and were only shown in grainy library footage as a snarling mass wielding impotent banners and incoherent rage at the Glazers or Hicks and Gillette or whoever owns Portsmouth. And of course there was no real consideration of the media role in distorting promotion of the sport, except for brief mention of the TV deals with Murdoch's despised Sky TV.
Trelford, you felt, like most contemporary BBC people, actually likes looking through the wrong end of a telescope. In this case he saw no ships except a small HMS Sugar-in-a-bottle and would doubtless plead he is just a miniaturised crew member anyway; he too ended up saying by implication, and with less excuse, "Not me, guv, not me." Maybe he even kids himself he kidded Sugar into exposing himself; in which case he hasn't done his research because it was all known years ago and has never been forgotten by informed supporters. Uninformed supporters don't really give a toss one way or the other. Trelford had a chance to make something much more useful and profound and simply ended up being part of the system.
Unintentional humour came into play when Sugar openly boasted how he had sabotaged a free-to-air TV deal with ITV in favour of a satellite subscription TV deal with Murdoch's Sky TV. This, while his company was selling satellite dishes to Murdoch! He was quite incapable of seeing how this made him look a a hybrid of Mister Magoo and Arfur Daley pushing a barrow through the East End. Nor did his £42 million profit on the sale of Tottenham merit anything more than an apparent sense of satisfaction. You couldn't help but wonder what on Earth he thinks he sees when he looks in his shaving mirror. But to be fair to him he is true to his type. No matter how ludicrous it is he likely sees himself as "a creator of wealth," or even, in Tom Wolfe's unforgettable tag in The Bonfire of the Vanities, "a Master of the Universe." Probably it is easy to delude yourself thus when you have £730 million.
In fact Sugar could deliver no more than your average tedious barrow boy shtick, the standard garrulous nonsense you can also hear from estate agents and second hand car salesmen. The nearest he got to considering community interests was the creation of a central fund, the kind of idea your averagely intelligent sixth former would come up with after maybe ten minutes of discussion. Even then it was left hanging, no substance at all, dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Interviews throughout were interspersed with meaningless shots of match play and stadia. Then again, Sugar's "Game Plan" only appeared at 47:50 minutes of 58:58. The first thing his "Plan" "considered" was, yes that's right, players wages. This took up two minutes. Next, he "considered" clubs bought through borrowed money. This occupied one minute and twenty seconds. Then he "analysed" penalties for financial failure. This lasted for one minute and forty seconds. Then he "examined" the football creditors rule for one minute fifteen seconds. The last part of the "Plan" was a proposal for a football trust fund that took up one minute thirty seconds. A summary followed in the remaining four minutes twenty eight seconds. Therefore his "Game Plan" was expressed in seven minutes forty five seconds. The fans weren't consulted or even considered in it; during this time the biggest attack was on the players wages. Administrative salaries, shares dealings and owners profits were ignored, including his own profit made during his involvement with Tottenham Hotspur. The final overall assault was on the level of delusion in the game. His unconscious irony was palpable, even laughable.
All in all the programme was a typical product of the current tabloid/textspeak era. This has reduced TV to the kind of cheap public humiliation (see: The Apprentice) that appeals only to the dumbed-down. It has the ersatz sensitivity of supermarket muzak. It encourages nothing but glazed eyes and numbed minds. In fact Trelford's programme was as vibrant and informative as a copy of The Beano, circa 1953. The facts it used were already known to most football supporters. The subject required a media essay that took the issues to the next level, not to stare into the navel of a thoroughly discredited, near-bankrupt system. Sugar's "Game Plan" was nothing of the sort. It was a charter for a TV soap opera based on the same lousy plot, and Trelford merely helped with the script. It was a sad waste of an hour of valuable broadcast time.
It comes as no surprise that nobody would take responsibility, including Sugar. After all, that is the way the system and its motivation is designed. Everything revolves around what an individual gains from it, even including the match result. Once various administrative components and individuals are isolated from each other, each can disclaim responsibility for the other. Trelford and Sugar looked at none of the implications of this. It enabled Sugar to blame the players, fans and agents and completely leave out the responsibility of owners in a shares dealing system that acknowledges only the raw power of majority ownership and the financial institutions who back them. It is indeed absurd and delusional......but not in the way claimed by Sugar.
According to him, he trousered £42 million and walked away and left Tottenham with.......what? David Moores did the same thing at Liverpool. Martin Edwards did it at Manchester United. Doug Ellis did it at Aston Villa. Peter Johnson did it at Everton, and no doubt the present owners will do the same when they too sell on. As we all know, there are many others. Virtually everybody is in the same boat. And Alan Sugar thinks this can all be solved by allowing a few famous clubs to go bankrupt, capping players wages and creating a trust fund? What complete and utter one-dimensional nonsense!
What he and Trelford chose to ignore was what most informed fans have been banging on about for years: make the game majority community owned, level the playing field up not down, eliminate greed as the controlling factor. Nobody acquainted with human nature thinks greed can be completely eliminated but it can be controlled and minimised in a new socially responsible system. Germany has shown the way. If the system is made universally equitable and transparent, wages and expenditure will adjust accordingly. It won't be perfect, but it will be considerably better than the disgusting mess we have now. Unlike Sugar I don't want to see any club or individual trashed - that is the failed economics of Milton Friedman and the Chicago Gang, the rotten-to-the-core organised spivvery that brought us to the present horror. There are alternatives. There are better ways. Sugar, it appears, wouldn't acknowledge them if he tripped over them.
Once upon a long ago time one entertained brief hopes for the BBC. But over the years these have slowly evaporated with the appointments of ex Murdoch employees Andrew Neill, Kelvin MacKenzie and Laura Kuenssberg to add to weasel-eyed Nick Robinson, the vacuum that is Andrew Marr, stick-up-the-arse David Dimbleby and steadily eroding weirdness in Jeremy Paxman. There are others. What has happened to the BBC is a clear warning that even public trusts can be corrupted. These days you can get more information and entertainment watching Russia Today propaganda, which is worth it if only to hear the talking head say, "And here's Dimitri with the sports," or Max Keiser going off on a fabulous expectorate rant against Western capitalism while ignoring the sickly Russian version. No, these days the Beeb is ITV without the ads, diluted right wing pap, nothing more; likely even that difference will disappear soon enough. Meanwhile we get Dan Trelford and Alan Sugar and the rest of the London-based barrow boys. Unlucky us.