Why the future belongs to more Etuhus

RICK WAGHORN Question - what do Richard Branson, Stuart Pearce and Robert Green have in common?Well, they have all caused waves in the world of football in the last 72 hours.


Question - what do Richard Branson, Stuart Pearce and Robert Green have in common?

Well, they have all caused waves in the world of football in the last 72 hours. Branson merged his Virgin Mobile company with cable giants NTL in a £962 million deal; Pearce followed David Sullivan's lead and waded into his players in furious fashion after Manchester City's miserable home defeat by Middlesbrough over the weekend; Green, of course, opted to engage in a robust debate with the City supporters over just how often he deigns to throw the ball out to feet.

Three figures - one global, one national and one local.

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For many in this neck of the woods, there is only one debate that matters - the little, local difficulty this week between the City keeper and sections of the supporters who see his hit-and-hope high punts forward onto the head of Robert Earnshaw as summing up just what's wrong with the Canaries. It's not the Norwich way; Norwich pass the ball.

For me, however, all three individuals are inextricably linked.

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To understand the small picture that is Green and his throws, you have to see the big picture - you have to glimpse the future to grasp the present.

Start with Branson. What does the deal between Virgin and NTL mean? It means, according to NTL chairman, Jim Mooney, that the newly-merged firm was looking at bidding for Premier League football through a new Virgin Sports subsidiary and brand.

It is looking, in short, to out-bid Sky Sports in the forthcoming battle for the next Premiership TV rights deal. And what do Virgin see in that? The chance to download live Premiership games onto the next generation of mobile phones.

That's the future. This summer there is every possibility that the more mobile phone-minded of you will be able to watch England's World Cup games on your telephone.

What does Virgin Sports entry into the TV rights arena mean for the Premier League? That Christmas has come early.

In the one corner they have Richard Branson and Virgin Sports, in the other they have Rupert Murdoch and Sky Sports - two of the biggest media players on the planet bidding against each other for the rights to Premier League football. Bingo.

What does that mean for Premier League managers like Stuart Pearce? That with the next TV rights deal promising to dwarf the current one, there will be even more money swilling around the top flight of English football. The trough will be even deeper; players and their agents will, in every likelihood, be paid even more.

You hand an 18-year-old £10,000 a week now; you'll be paying the next generation of 18-year-olds £30,000 a week in two or three years time. And won't they be fun...

“I thought we showed no moral courage whatsoever,” said Pearce after this weekend's no-show.

“The buck stops with me, I'm the one who takes the flak, but, with the exception of my goalkeeper, I've told the other players to go home, look their families in the eye and ask: 'Has daddy earned his money today?' No one did.”

Problem is, does daddy care?

And so to Robert Green and his throwing. Because for Pearce's counterparts in the Premier League - the likes of Sam Allardyce at Bolton and Mark Hughes at Blackburn - given the even greater rewards to be had courtesy of Branson's entry into the market, will they become more open and attacking in their play?

Or will they become even more brutally efficient? Close people down even quicker? Will they play bright and breezy 4-4-2? Or play tight and terrier-like 4-5-1?

They'll go brutal efficiency every time. And if they can't beat them, everyone else will join them.

That was the most interesting line to emerge from Green's Radio Norfolk post-match chat - how he'd love to throw the ball out and “play like Arsenal”. But the fact of that matter is that when even Arsenal “play like Arsenal” they don't win in the Premier League.

They get battered by your Boltons and your Blackburns.

They're too big, too strong, too quick to close people down, too quick to deny Jens Lehmann the chance to throw the ball out to feet.

Playing 4-5-1, they swarm all over you; deny Arsenal the time, the space and the width that their whole passing game depends on.

And where the Premiership leads, so the Championship follows. Reading aren't big and brutal; they are, however, hugely well-organised and a high energy outfit that will play simple patterns and run, close and harry all day. Stevie Sidwell will go box-to-box from first minute to last. Sheffield United are big and brutal and so, to more or lesser degrees, it carries on down the table. The Championship's nearest equivalent to playing the Arsenal way are Crewe Alexandra - and they're bottom of the table.

All of which means unless anyone wishes to turn back the clock and stop Branson, Murdoch and Co from pouring in their billions at the top of the game, so Norwich keepers will always find it difficult to throw balls out to feet on a regular basis.

People will swarm all over them; opposition teams will run all day and close down all day; they will stop you playing. In the Premiership, they stop Arsenal playing. That is football in 2006 - big, brutal and efficient. And it's not pretty. Playing pretty doesn't keep your nose in the TV trough.

That's the reality. Teams that the likes of John Bond, Ken Brown and Mike Walker taught to pass won't survive. Teams that Ron Saunders taught to run might. And here's the other bitter pill that some of you are going to have to swallow.

In every likelihood, the future of English football belongs to the likes of Dickson Etuhu - players who are big, brutal and strong. Either Etuhu or Andy Hughes - players who will run all day for you. Close, harry and swarm.

That is the nature of the English football beast. And you're going to have to get used to it - whoever the Carrow Road manager might be. Because that's the future; that's what you've just bought with your season ticket. Ask a Bolton fan.

If they want entertainment they go to the cinema on a Saturday; if they fancy 90 minutes of 1-0 efficiency, they go to the Reebok.

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