Shame of the three wasted years over football's 'dirty' secrets
Andrew Caldecott QC is a formidable fellow. Described as 'cerebral and persuasive', he is one of the most successful libel lawyers at the English bar. Such an advocate would surely have enthralled his audience at the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow morning. Alas, it is not to be. For after almost three years and many thousands of pounds, Kevin Bond, the assistant manager of Tottenham Hotspur, has dropped his libel action against the BBC's Panorama programme. And, although it dares not admit it, the game is mightily relieved. In a week when the public has been transfixed by the mountain of money moving from Madrid to Manchester, the cancelled fixture at the RCJ has attracted only passing attention. And for this, too, the national sport appears truly thankful. For football sets such store by its image that even the suggestion of corruption is deeply damaging. And Panorama's programme, Football's Dirty Secrets, went a great deal further than mere suggestion. Sam Allardyce, then the manager of Bolton, was accused of accepting illegal transfer payments. Chelsea's sporting director, Frank Arnesen, along with Liverpool officials, was accused of unauthorised approaches to young players. Four agents were unequivocally accused of corruption. And Bond, then Harry Redknapp's assistant manager at Portsmouth, was accused of being prepared to consider taking payments from agents. When the programme was transmitted in September 2006, it provoked uproar. Although it failed in its attempt to film one Premier League manager physically accepting a suitcase full of banknotes - for which it received a blast of self-righteous abuse from the rest of of the media - it brought a renewed sense of urgency to the task of cleaning up football. The accused were predictably outraged. Several threatened to sue, although only Bond pursued his case and the various authorities promised immediate action. Within 24 hours the FA were demanding that the BBC produce all the unused tapes 'as a matter of urgency' and promising a joint investigation with the Premier League. Lord Stevens' Quest inquiry - then meandering towards its expensively inconsequential conclusion - showed a passing flicker of interest in Panorama's revelations. Even Bolton Wanderers announced that they would launch a 'thorough and robust' investigation. They also promised not to 'over-react'. Three unproductive years later they appear to have kept their word. But if Bolton's response was derisory, then nobody else seems to have done very much more. Nobody has been charged with a serious offence and my information is that precious few of the people mentioned in the programme have actually been interviewed by the Football Association. Sources indicate that the BBC handed the FA a large amount of material but retained much of their Bond evidence until the libel case was concluded. I understand that the relevant information is now available. How they choose to use such information is a matter for concern. There is a widelyheld impression that the FA, while genuinely anxious to do the right thing by the game, is hopelessly in hock to the confederation of vested interests which is the Premier League. These are people for whom every answer is to be found in the bottom line, people who believe that the only relevant test of a fit and proper person is the size of his offshore account. Asking them to combat corruption in football is like asking Sir Fred Goodwin to clean up the banking industry. Much better to spin things out until the dust settles, until another footballer is sold for £80million and the public at large forgets what all the fuss was about. But it won't do. You see, Panorama made a number of serious, solidly-researched allegations. They were the kind of charges which exposed them to legal reprisal. But, apart from Bond, those reprisals were not forthcoming. All, no doubt, had reason for their collective reaction. But the fact remains that they chose to put their heads down and wait for the storm to pass. And now, virtually on the courtroom steps, Kevin Bond, too, has chosen the path of least resistance. It is a costly option, since the BBC have stated that they made no apology, paid no damages and handed over not a penny of his legal fees. It is also an unsatisfactory outcome, not only for the admirers of the cerebral and persuasive Andrew Caldecott QC, but for all those who wanted to see facts examined, attitudes challenged and truth established. And yet all may not be lost. Over the past three years, certain FA and Premier League placemen have argued that Kevin Bond's ongoing litigation made it impossible to judge the issues raised by Panorama. It was always a preposterous fig leaf and now it has been stripped away. For the facts are simple. Serious allegations have been made against a number of prominent football figures by a reputable BBC programme. None of those concerned has elected to have the matter tested in a court of law. It, therefore, follows that the FA, the body charged with upholding the honour of English football, should instigate its own rigorous inquiries.
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