Tag Archives: Graham Poll

How Premier League CEO Scudamore Blew the Gaff on Man Utd Bias – by Rob Atkinson

Pet lip:  Premier League CEO Scudamore misses those Man U days of success

Pet lip: Premier League CEO Scudamore misses those Man U days of success

As a Leeds United fanatic, a card-carrying cynic and someone with no faith in the football authorities these days to run a fair and disinterested league competition, I have written many times on this blog about my belief that the Man U domination of the game in this country after 1993 (the FA Premier League début season) was deeply suspicious. The last season or so’s steep decline, with a squad not at first markedly different to the one that romped home in Taggart’s final season, begs the question: what’s really different? It has appeared ever since The Demented One left that the change of stewardship is behind this relative failure. But was Alex Ferguson the sole factor in the unprecedented success enjoyed by the Pride of Devon over the last two decades?

These days, following a series of revealing comments over the past year or so from people who should know whereof they speak, it appears that at least a couple of other factors have been at play throughout that twenty year period. I have said over and over again in Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything, that the Fergie years have been trophy-laden for three well-defined reasons, none of them all that adjacent to the quality of their playing squad. They may be summed up as: Ferguson, match officials and the rulers of the game itself. These three influences conspired over two decades to exaggerate the success of Man U out of all proportion to the abilities of their playing and coaching staff in that period, many of whom have gone on to enjoy sustained mediocrity elsewhere. Add into the mix the drip, drip, drip effect of blind, unquestioning media adulation, spearheaded by Murdoch’s Sky empire and endorsed by lapdog attitudes from the terrestrial broadcasters who know which side the commercial bread is buttered, and you have what is technically known as a “Scum-friendly environment”.

This may to the unwary sound like just another conspiracy theory.  But you only have to look at the unprecedented before and after picture of Man U’s record pre-Murdoch as compared to their success under Uncle Rupert. After all, we’re talking an almost total domination of the Premier League era here, by a club that – for the 26 years immediately preceding the league reorganisation – couldn’t buy a title. Seven times Champions in their whole history prior to 1993, and then thirteen Premier League titles in the first twenty years after Rupert Murdoch bought the game.

That’s such a sharp delineation between failure and success – it’s not coincidental that the demarcation line is the inception of the Premier League, the changing of football in this country from a sport to a brand – and the new understanding that the game was now about markets and money to a much greater extent than it had ever been before. Man U were the new brand leader, and they had better succeed – or the Premier League product might not fulfil its immense potential for dominating the world in terms of TV audiences, syndication and merchandising. And that would never do. So the game leant the way of the Man U scum – as we at Leeds United fondly refer to them – and the pressure applied by Ferguson to match officials was allowed to take effect. Professional sport is a matter of extremely fine margins; a slight bias over a long period will skew outcomes to a massive degree – and that’s exactly what has happened.

Naturally, none of this has ever been acknowledged. It’s been of paramount importance, after all, that the Premier League should at least retain the appearance of being a fair competition, on the proverbial level playing field. But now – Ferguson has gone, Man U are failing, the referees are not by any means as intimidated, opposing teams are not scared any more; not, as they used to be, beaten before they took the field. And now people are speaking out, very revealingly – and in some cases that is clearly intentional, in other cases less so. Ex-referee Graham Poll is one who has made his views known quite deliberately; he has spoken out about the feelings of a ref in the Fergie years, how the priority was to get off the field without having made any close calls against Man U – and, ideally, with them having won the game. What is the cumulative effect of that kind of insidious pressure over twenty years? Self-evidently, it’s significant; look at the trophy records, the penalty for and against statistics, the time added on if Man U weren’t winning – and so on and so forth.

Poll has also written about the unprecedented scenes when three penalties were given against Man U in a home game against old rivals Liverpool. Even though things have changed in terms of the favourable decisions enjoyed by Man U, these were the first penalties awarded against Man U as the home team since December 2011 – well over two years without conceding a home league penalty. Poll’s observations on that make for interesting reading for anyone who, as I do, strongly suspects that Man U had it easy from match officials in the Fergie years.

And then, to put the tin lid on it, we had Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore sounding off, in earnestly worried tones, about how the Premier League “brand” is being adversely affected by the difficulties Man U were having last season (happily, it’s carried on in pretty much the same vein this time around). It’s difficult to believe that he was quite aware of the import of what he was saying – this was a tacit admission, after all, that the supposedly disinterested rulers of the game actually have a vested interest – as I’ve been saying long and loud – in the regular success of Man U. “It’s a double-edged sword,” said Scudamore, at the time. “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.” The hapless Peter doesn’t identify the other edge of that sword, but he’s clearly perturbed by the prospect of a future with Man U as the also-rans they’ve been this last two campaigns.

Speaking in greater depth about the ethos of the Premier League, as well as its duty to fans around the world, Scudamore went on: “There are lots of fans around the world who wish Manchester United were winning it again. But you have to balance that off against, generally, we’re in the business of putting on a competition and competition means people can compete.” The wistful tone of that last sentence was massively telling. Other clubs will insist on competing, particularly now that Ferguson is history. How very inconvenient and bad for business. What a deuced bore.

The FA Premier League mandarins at a high level clearly see even competition, where any old Tom, Dick or Manuel (or even Jose) can win the League, as their cross to bear, something that will inhibit their ability to market their “brand” around a global audience in thrall to Man U. But they have made a rod for their own back in allowing the creation of that trophy-winning monster, under the inimical sway of a tyrant from Govan, to become so all-consuming in the first place. Now they’re reaping what they have sown – in pumping up the bubble of unrealistic success for one favoured club, they have left themselves without a Plan B for when that bubble bursts – as bubbles inevitably will.

For real football people – the fans out here, the people who have always gone along to the match, with little if any thought of global markets and syndication deals – this new reality of genuine competition has come as a breath of fresh air. There’s a new top four out there, of varied make-up which usually excludes Man U, and they’ve all played wonderful football and succeeded on their own merits.

We’ve also seen less of the media-beloved “mind games” which are so tiresome to the fan in the street. We’ve not missed that old curmudgeon, railing at authority whenever he gets any less than his own way and intimidating anybody who gets in his way. Football seems fresh and new again; Man U were seventh last time – which is probably about where they should have finished the season before. The first twenty years of the Premier League can be seen as a statistical blip, the product of a tyrant dominating and bullying the people charged with the responsibility to see that the game is run fairly. The evidence is there; listen to Poll, listen to what Scudamore is actually saying. Look at the results and standings this season and last.

We’re so very sorry, Mr Scudamore, if your product and your brand are suffering from the failure of “your most popular club”. Perhaps you should take the view that popularity is there to be earned by whichever club can succeed on merit? That it’s not something to be inculcated by the favourable treatment of one chosen club, amounting to institutional bias over twenty long years. Perhaps you can learn that – and then all we will have to regret is the two decades when, aided by Ferguson and a terrified cadre of referees and officials, you – blatantly and with malice aforethought – sold the game down the river.

How Ex-Ref Poll Lifted Lid on Myth of Man U “Dominance” – by Rob Atkinson

Ferguson: intimidation

Ferguson: intimidation

As a Leeds United fan, the twenty year period between the start of the Premier League era and the departure from Man U of Alex Ferguson was for me a two-decades long spell of misery and disillusionment, relieved only by occasional peaks when some other team got a chance at the game’s major honours.

Man U monopolised the action to an extent unprecedented in modern history; to an extent, what’s more, unheralded even by their own respectable record prior to 1993. It was as if, with the inception of the Murdoch-backed elite top flight, a switch had been thrown to activate a Man U winning machine and reduce all rivals to the status of also-rans.

It was a modern phenomenon – but, as it now turns out, it was all a myth, all smoke and mirrors. This was aptly summed up by the present-day Man U struggling, with most of the same personnel and all the same financial advantages, against League Two basement boys Cambridge United. This was the reality masked by that twenty year bubble. Man U are relatively ordinary – the Taggart years were a myth. What we were watching over those two decades was nothing more than an over-long retelling of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – and we’re now some way past the part where the clear-sighted little boy has blown the gaff.

Thousands upon thousands of pissed-off football fans could tell you their own tale of a refereeing injustice sustained by their team, to the benefit of Man U. I have a variety of my own where Leeds United have been denied – a penalty given two yards outside the area at the Gelderd End, the disallowing of a Wes Brown own goal (for offside!), the failure to dismiss Man U keeper Fabien Barthez after he had conceded a penalty so crudely that it had had to be given – only for him to remain ludicrously undismissed and poised in goal to save the spot kick when he should have been taking an early bath.

Many other clubs will have similar anecdotal evidence. Tottenham’s “goal” at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, two yards over the line but not given, Barnsley’s non-awarded penalty at the Beckford End when the foul was so blatant that even the commentators swore it should have been awarded.  There are many, many more. It’s happened time and again, over the whole history of the Premier League.  A notorious statistical study found that, over an extended period of time, 87% of all fifty-fifty decisions went the way of the Pride of Devon.  In a game of fine margins, as any top-level professional sport is, that is a deeply damning statistic – and it makes a vital difference.

Over this whole period, naturally, official reassurances and denials of the obvious were as bland and unctuous as they were patronising and insulting to the intelligence of fans everywhere.  The media were complaisant in this, and the commercially-driven circus travelled on. At any slight sign of rebellion or disagreement with the party line, Ferguson himself would make a choleric proclamation; damning whichever referee had failed to decide in his team’s favour, or pouring Govan bile over whichever media organisation had dared think the unthinkable, or presumed to print heresy. One of the most familiar of radio sports headlines was “The FA have confirmed that Alex Ferguson will face no further action over [insert blatant transgression of rules here]”. It was tiresome, it was depressing – but it was the norm and, over time, a weary acceptance crept in that this is how our game now was.

Graham Poll - admission

Graham Poll – admission

Sooner or later, though, there was bound to be someone intimately involved with all of this, who would finally break ranks and confirm what we always knew: namely that two decades of unprecedented success have been founded upon bullying and intimidation to influence the game’s authorities both on and off the field, and to ensure a smooth passage in the print and broadcast media.  Then, finally, ex-referee Graham Poll came out in print and admitted how it was to be officiating in that era when Fergie’s word was law and referees (together with their support officials and governing body) were under immense pressure to rule on matters in a manner favourable to Man U.

“All the refs wanted in a Man U game,” said Poll, “was to get the match over, without having made any controversial decisions against Fergie’s boys – and ideally with Man U having won.”

Damning stuff, straight from the horse’s mouth. Again, we’re back to those fine margins. At the top level of any sport, it doesn’t take much to destroy the balance upon which depends true competition to ensure a reasonably level playing field.  It turns out that the playing field was as skewed as Yeovil’s legendary sloping pitch of giant-killing memory.  But at least at Yeovil, both teams got to play with the slope for half a game each.  Poll’s evidence is that the slope was in favour of Man U for 90 minutes plus however many were needed to ensure the “right” result.  Man U have won all those Fergie years honours with the aid of loaded dice.  So much in control of the game were they, it redounds to their shame that they didn’t win absolutely everything, every year.

Don’t take it from me.  Why would you?  I’m a Leeds fan with my own instinctive dislike and contempt for that over-blown club, that media-inflated false legend built on a well-marketed tragedy.  But just think back over all those incidents going back all those years.  Look at the watershed of the Premier League being founded – how the game was suddenly all about commercial interests, flogging satellite dishes and replica shirts.  Look where the biggest market was – all those plastic Man U fans in Devon and Cornwall, all of those merchandise-hungry fanatics who never saw a match day but shelled out for tacky Man U tat.  Look at the record of the Man U club prior to 1993 – seven titles in all their history.  And then 13 titles in twenty years after Murdoch bought the game and gift-wrapped it for Man U.  That’s quite a before and after picture, isn’t it?

The insistent pressure was extended beyond its mere effect on referees, too.  How many times have you seen Sky TV lingering lovingly over some Man U performance where the opposition simply caved in and rolled over to play dead?  And they’d win, 7-0, 9-0 even. Because they weren’t a bad team, and over the course of those twenty years they may well have won four or five titles, even if the game hadn’t been bent out of shape in their favour. See, I can be realistic about these matters. But ask any sports psychologist about the drip, drip, drip effect of relentless media propaganda. How many times do you need to be told you have no chance, before you begin to believe it? Teams went there psyched-out, expecting to lose, knowing they’d never get a penalty and would more than likely concede one or two and maybe end up with ten men too. Sometimes, they would even rest important players for a game they had a chance of winning a week later. They’d naturally sink to a defeat they acknowledged as inevitable, and Man U’s title rivals could do nothing but grind their teeth. And so the whole basis on which league football is predicated was blown out of the water, all to the inevitable benefit of Man U.  Fine margins and psychological edge – it doesn’t take much to warp the whole shooting match hopelessly out of shape.

What Graham Poll has done is to admit – in so many words – just what a relief it was to get off the pitch without having made any significant decision against a victorious Man U – because he knew what would follow as Ferguson would bitch about it in the press, and nobody would hold him to account.  There are plenty of examples of referees making the “wrong” decision, leading to the “wrong” result – and then not being awarded another high-profile game involving the Pride of Devon for literally months.  It was freely bandied about that this or that ref had been “banned” by Taggart. Meanwhile, the refs who “behaved themselves” – and we all know who they are – were regular fixtures at Old Trafford games, or in away matches featuring Man U.  It was all so frightfully, disgustingly cosy.

Now Ferguson has gone, and Poll – possibly tongue-in-cheek – was “worried” this time last year for the tyrant’s successor David Moyes.  He warned Moyes that he has “no chance” of pulling off the same kind of influence that he cheerfully and willingly admits Ferguson exerted over the game’s arbiters.  Some may well have noticed attempts on the part of the pitifully inoffensive Moyes to act like some Fergie clone, blustering his way into some pallid imitation of the Beast of Govan. But really, it was to very little avail.  And, inevitably, Moyes paid the price as Poll clearly foresaw. It just wasn’t the same for Man U without Ferguson to tyrannise the game, and still isn’t the same feeling under the almost equally baffled van Gaal, for whom the cracks are now starting to show in the shape of tetchiness and intolerance on camera. The Beast is gone – for the moment anyway – and with him has gone most of the edge of intimidation granted to Man U for so many years.

The thing is, this will come as news to not all that many people.  Figures within the media will profess astonishment and cynicism, preferring to dismiss even such compelling testimony as a storm in a teacup.  You still hear, week after week, commentators doing their best to sound surprised when another Man U foul goes unpunished, another good penalty shout goes un-awarded.  In tones of wonderment, they will observe “Well, the ref seemed to have a good view of that, I can’t quite understand why he’s not given it…”  Week after week, month after month, year after monotonous year.  But the fans know – and the fans, other than those with a vested interest and an armchair in Milton Keynes, will be totally unsurprised over those admissions of Graham Poll.  They will not be startled by what he has said – maybe just at the fact that he chose to say it. All of this has been so ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ over the Premier League era.  But the fans have known, alright.

It explains why, whenever a fan answers the question “who do you support” with “Man U” – and despite all those trophies, all that dominance – there is no gasp of respect, no acknowledgement of success.  It’s much more likely that they’ll be laughed at, and there’s no greater tragedy than that for what was once a name respected throughout world football – even if they HAD gone 25 years without the Title.  Ultimately, this will affect the way in which a famous club is regarded by history.  Nobody needs to tell a Leeds United fan about that – and there are more reasons to damn this United from just outside Manchester than there ever were to damn our own beloved United of Leeds.

It’s not clear why Graham Poll chose to come out and confirm what so many of us have known for so long.  Maybe it was a warning ahead of a possible return for Ferguson should even Louis van Gaal suffer Moyes’ fate and be cast adrift as the failures and defeats pile up. There is a precedent for this. Busby returned briefly when Wilf McGuinness, his hapless successor, found he’d inherited a poisoned chalice.  But that was 40-odd years ago and there was no Premier League to warp the game out of shape for pecuniary considerations. And Ferguson, it goes without saying, is no Sir Matt – he is unfit to lick Busby’s shoes, never mind fill them. Our game is far better off without his malign presence and influence.

Could Graham Poll, resentful of the pressure he had to work under as a ref for Man U games, be trying to warn the current batch of officials not to go back to their cowardly old ways if Ferguson DID make a comeback?  Could he belatedly be recognising where his duty to the game should actually be leading him?  One thing’s for sure: it’s out in the open now – and it’s the job of everyone with the interests of football and fair competition at heart to make sure that’s exactly how it stays.