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Last Updated: Friday, 11 April, 2003, 23:56 GMT 00:56 UK
Playing a part in football's future

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

Alan Keen is well equipped to lead an inquiry into the future of football.

The Labour MP for Feltham and Heston can speak with some authority about the highs and lows that come with being a passionate football supporter.

From the first time he saw his beloved Middlesbrough in the early 1950s he was hooked - despite seeing the team give away a three goal lead to ultimately draw 3-3.

Liverpool v Leeds
The inquiry will be led by "proper football supporters"

Now the chairman of the parliamentary football group is to lead a six-month inquiry into the way the game is heading, with football's finances at the top of the agenda.

It is a new departure for the all-party group, which has about 130 members from the Commons and the Lords - "all proper football fans" - and is one of the largest in Westminster.

And while it won't carry the authority of a select committee report, Mr Keen hopes it will help to forge a common view on the future of football.

"There are so many worrying things about in the game at the moment, particularly in terms of football finance and we think there is a part we can play," he said.

We are not here to support the football industry - we are here as football supporter and lovers of the game
Alan Keen

The group, which will set up a panel of MPs to conduct the inquiry, hopes to hear evidence from people involved at all levels of the game, from administrators and broadcasters to players and fans.

"There is a kind of rivalry between football administrators what with there being the Football League, the FA, the Premier League, the Conference," said Mr Keen.

Alienation

"There is not one football body so I think we can play a part by bringing all parts of football together."

Alan Keen
Alan Keen: "Football is more than a business"

The views of supporters will be key, the MP believes, amid a sense that many are becoming alienated from the game.

"The money in the game comes from supporters through matches, television subscriptions, merchandise or the licence fee - in all sorts of ways. But it's still our money."

Mr Keen says there are a number of issues which provide cause for concern - a breakaway European league, for instance, would be disastrous, he believes.

"That danger is still there and the more PLCs you get running football, the more dangerous it becomes," he says.

"They tend to take a medium term view, they don't look long term. We want football to last for generations."

There is concern about the future for smaller clubs if European Commission suggestions that individual clubs should be able to negotiate their own deals for television rights come into force.

And one subject which particularly concerns Mr Keen is the decision by the owners of Wimbledon FC to move the club's ground to Milton Keynes - more than 70 miles from its original home.

Lucrative

"If you allow financiers to just shift clubs around for their own financial aims you are going to kill football as we know it."

If you allow financiers to just shift clubs around for their own financial aims you are going to kill football as we know it
Alan Keen

There are also issues over how cash raised through broadcasting rights is distributed, sky-high wage bills, the increasing number of clubs in financial difficulties and the plight of smaller clubs frozen out of lucrative TV and marketing contracts.

In all this, the football authorities are to a degree hamstrung by their inability to impose rules on clubs.

"The game has made great strides forward as a spectacle in recent years and broadened its supporter base from the old working class traditions," says Mr Keen.

"But there are serious financial problems at the professional end of the game.

"And there is concern that the grass roots could be affected as well as the long term future of the professional game itself if the wrong decisions are made."

The role of government in promoting the game will also be examined.

Mr Keen says the inquiry will be conducted by 12 MPs and peers who are football fans and with strong connections in game, while remaining independent from football's administrators.

Rankles

"We are not here to support the football industry," he says. "We are here as football supporter and lovers of the game. Football is more than a business."

TV rights will be examined

Of course, this comes from someone whose passion for the game is clear: he has supported Middlesbrough for more than 50 years - indeed, a disallowed goal in the first match he attended still rankles.

"The ball went into the goal and out of the bottom of the net at the back," he says. "I was right behind it - it was a goal."

His devotion to Middlesbrough also led him to write to the club in the late 1960s to offer his services as a scout, mainly assessing the tactics of future opponents but also keeping an eye out for up and coming players.

"There were 12 teams within 120 miles of London so I wrote to the club and offered," he says. "They took me up on it and I did it part-time for 18 years.

"I would have been in this place (the Commons) sooner if I hadn't done it - but I wouldn't have swapped that experience for anything."

'Getting better'

He claims credit for Middlesbrough signing a young Graeme Souness when the Scotsman - now manager of Blackburn Rovers after an illustrious career at Liverpool, Sampdoria and Glasgow Rangers - was struggling at Tottenham Hotspur.

As for his own playing career, he is a stalwart of the parliamentary football team and is eyeing with relish the prospect of a game at Old Trafford against the Dutch Parliament this summer.

The 65-year-old says he is "still getting better", having now moved from a midfield role to full back.

He still watches Middlesbrough as often as possible, and talks with passion about his favourite ever player - the Brazilian Juninho, now in his third spell with the club.

Such is this passion that on 1 April this year, wife Ann - also an MP - woke him with the news that the player had been injured.

"I realised the date pretty quickly," he says. "But I still checked on Ceefax."





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