Is football in terminal decline? Should Ferguson be talking sheep, not cows?

October has been the month football news made it to the front as well as the back pages of newspapers. It’s also the month in which wool producers tried to get publicity for their products. To my mind these two entirely different industries are not entirely unrelated.

First came the news that a bid to take over Liverpool Football Club, the mighty reds of the Seventies, was being blocked by a court in Texas – a legal ruling thrown out by the judiciary here.

In case you haven’t been following the story, despite its history and name, despite cabinets full of (old) trophies the club was (and is) millions of pounds in debt and on the brink of going into administration unless a white knight with armour-plated deep pockets could be found. Such a champion, who may yet have to pawn his charger if things go wrong, came forward, but the existing “owners” (for which read “debtors”) felt so aggrieved that their, ahem, beloved, club was going to be taken off their hands, they sought a court injunction in their native Texas to stop the proceedings. Since the Football Association penalises a club that goes into administration by docking league points and fining it, the question on my lips was, in whose interest was it to block the takeover?

The latter half of this week the news has been dominated by the growing stand-off between the talented Manchester United‘s more than talented manager, Sir Alex Ferguson and one-time wonderboy Wayne Rooney.

I’ve no doubt the club’s coaches and players know the reality behind the headlines, but with Ferguson talking of cows and greener grass and Rooney apparently doubtful of United’s ability to help him win medals, (I choose that way of putting it deliberately), the rest of us are bemused.

Rooney has found the transition from wunderkinder to pressurised adult less than easy, but then again, great privilege brings great responsibility and one look at his bank balance should have told him all he needed to know about his club (and country’s) expectations. No ordinary working man who has saved his hard-earned wages for three years to watch England play in the World Cup should have to listen to highly-paid footballers bleating about “pressure” in the aftermath of a disappointing and lacklustre performance.

Which brings me to another point. Fed up with the Rooney-Ferguson-United news headlines, I jokingly suggested on Twitter today that rather than talk about cows (as Sir Alex Ferguson was this morning) he might like to consider investing in sheep. I’m well aware my mind is rather prone to flights of fancy, but it wasn’t a completely random remark on my part.

With all the radio chat and newspaper column inches written about football this month, you may not have noticed that last week was the first-ever British Wool Week, an effort by the British Wool Marketing Board to promote this natural product.

Turn the clock back a few hundred years and wool was a highly sought-after, extremely lucrative commodity. My home city, Norwich, second only to London in medieval times, was built on wool money – and very fine it is indeed. Norfolk and Suffolk’s vast and plentiful churches stand testament to the amount of cash in the two counties’ economies. The Cotswolds were founded on wool, the Lord High Chancellor sat on it, Highlanders lost their livelihoods and lives because of it.

Who would have thought, by the turn of this millennium, that wool prices would be so low it would cost more to shear a sheep than a farmer would be paid for the resulting fleece? The BWMB is determined to make us see what we’ve been missing, or perhaps, what we once knew, but have forgotten. That wool is a natural, ecologically sound, versatile, product. Is the campaign working? Well, wool prices were at an all-time high this year, so maybe its star is ascending.

Which brings me back to football again.

I can’t help thinking that football is in terminal decline. There’s a growing feeling that footballers are paid too much, ticket prices are too high and some of the biggest matches are a disappointment. I might be talking through my hat, but if, 500 years ago, I’d suggested to a wool merchant that his ancestors would be calling on the future King of England to promote their failing industry he’d no doubt have drummed me out of his town. If I’d said to tulip growers in the 1600s that a single bulb wasn’t worth ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman, they’d have ignored me or said I was out of touch with the times.

I won’t be around in 100 years to see how future generations view today’s footballers’ inflated pay in the light of their club’s mounting and increasingly unmanageable debts, but somehow I hope common sense will prevail. I doubt footballers will be revered and rewarded in the way they are at the moment. Maybe we’ll get back to sensible wages and performance-related pay that reflects clubs’ bank balances.

So if there are sheep grazing on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford and Anfield in the year 2110, I hope it won’t come as too great a surprise to our children’s children. As far as I’m concerned the game is up and it really is all over now.

*Since writing this post earlier today, it’s been announced that Wayne Rooney has renewed his contract with Man U and plans to stay for another 5 years. How much money has changed hands hasn’t been disclosed. I think it’s interesting that the fans interviewed on the radio don’t appear to be jumping for joy.


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