Mark Douglas: Power brokers are avoiding scrutiny

They wouldn't stand for it in Bulgaria - so why should we? Mark Douglas looks at direct action in the Premier League

Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action
Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action

They wouldn’t stand for it in Bulgaria.

Levski Sofia’s self-styled Ultras would not just sit there and accept the indignity of a Vincent Tan, a Mike Ashley or a Venkys mocking their loyal support.

When they stormed the press conference of new manager Ivaylo Petev, a candidate who was appointed in spite of suspicions that he was sympathetic to arch rivals CSKA Sofia, they forced him to take off a shirt bearing Levski’s crest. He resigned the next day, having never even met the playing staff.

Direct action has its drawbacks. Bulgaria is a European footballing backwater; England’s Premier League is a vibrant, brilliant force for good. Hooliganism continues to blight the Bulgarian Super League – thankfully, arrests at English football have dipped to negligible levels.

But it was difficult not to feel a pang of solidarity with that angry mob in Sofia as the latest farce to be visited on the Premier League began to play out in South Wales.

Cardiff City’s owner – a man who has taken the success of the patently decent Malky Mackay as a green light for him to march into the dressing room whenever he pleases – has suspended the club’s respected head of recruitment Iain Moody.

He has done this in order to appoint a 23-year-old with no prior experience in football. Alisher Apsalyamov is the son of a friend of the owner. Mackay, with four years left on his contract, pledges to finish the job he started but alarm bells should be ringing by this point. We all know how this one plays out.

The problem is that Cardiff’s supporters – like the rest of the Premier League – have already put up with it. When Tan proposed to switch from Cardiff’s historic and instantly recognisable blue home kit to a blood red on the spurious grounds that it was “lucky in Malaysia”, there was a brief burst of outrage followed by acquiesce.

On Saturday, fans were mingling outside in the new red strip; £45 they retail for, which is a nice little racket for the Cardiff owner: trample on a club’s history and then get the people who cherish that sense of identity to fork out to play a part in that process.

Tan must have surveyed the stadium (before kick-off, at least) and been encouraged. To paraphrase the Manic Street Preachers: if they’ll tolerate this, then the manager must be next.

It is often a charge labelled at Newcastle supporters: they’re not rebellious enough, not prepared to take direct action. A new group – Time4Change – will protest before the Liverpool game but the jury is still out on whether it will be a success. Scepticism stalks their best efforts.

My argument is that supporters shouldn’t have to make these kind of stands. Too many are being forced to decide whether putting up with it is a price to pay for their enduring loyalty.

The Premier League should never have allowed it to happen. Checks and balances should have been put in place. The soul of English football should not have been sold down the river to people who don’t understand that their investment comes with responsibilites.

Part of the problem is a lack of accountability. Managers are routinely subjected to press conferences which are enforced by the Premier League but this is an old-fashioned concept. “The gaffer” is now boss only on the training ground: quite often the decisions are being taken elsewhere.

Take Tuesday’s press conference at Sunderland, for example. Gus Poyet quite happily laid out his plans for the next two years but Roberto De Fanti, the man who “masterminded” the Paolo Di Canio appointment and the unprecedented squad overhaul in the summer, was nowhere to be seen.

It is a fair question to ask how many days De Fanti has spent on Wearside since he worked for Sunderland (officially or unofficially). Would it really be too much to expect him (or Ellis Short, for that matter) to subject themselves to a bit of openness?

The attitude at the clubs seem to be that these millionaires are too busy and too important to answer questions. Yet Ashley and Short go to games, and seem to relish making controversial appointments that jar with supporters. You wonder what goes through the minds of people like Tan. For the ridiculous Malaysian read Mike Ashley and his hare-brained appointment of Joe Kinnear, a step that simultaneously infuriated and alienated Newcastle supporters in one foul summer afternoon.

It was once mentioned to me that Ashley, who did not take easily to the rigorous corporate governance required when he first floated Sports Direct, simply enjoys the fact that he can make big decisions without referring them to anyone else.

It is his club and if he wants to employ the bloody-mindedness that turned his leisurewear business into one of the biggest retail concerns on the high street, he will do so. It worked there, he might reason.

The problem is Tan and Ashley don’t seem to realise the power of the people. Harness them, like they have done at Swansea, and the sky is the limit. Cross them and the job of creating or sustaining success becames infinitely more difficult.

Back in the summer rival fans laughed as Kinnear spluttered over his words on that Talksport interview but perhaps now they are shuffling nervously in their seats. In a new era where mini-dictators rule with little regard for their people, any of us could be next.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer