Always a reckoning


Tomorrow's Championship Playoff match at Wembley is billed as the highest-stakes match in the football world.

The prize is £170 million and Premier League membership, rising to closer to £300 million if the club avoids relegation at the end of next season. That works out as between £1.88 and £3.33 million per minute.

So expect a nervous and possibly titanic clash between Aston Villa and Derby County. Villa lost last year's final to Fulham but could pass the relegated Cottagers on their way up. Derby's outstanding 4-2 away win at Leeds in the semi final means Marcelo Bielsa stays outside the Premier League again and the Frank Lampard for Chelsea rumours remain stoked.

Veteran Ashley Cole, loanees Mason Mount and Fiyako Tomori and assistant coach Jody Morris are all ex-Stamford Bridge men too, while Villa loanee Tammy Abraham and assistant coach John Terry complete a very Chelsea-flavoured final.

Villa did the double over Derby in the league this season, but so did Leeds before the Rams won the match which counted most.

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Leeds could become the first English football acquisition of the state of Qatar, according to London's Financial Times.

"Qatari Sports Investments will be entering English football, " said the FT's source, "and Leeds is the club of their choice."

QSI, who already own PSG, are reportedly negotiating to buy a controlling stake from Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani, although the club says various offers are on the table.

Financial Fair Play rules mean Leeds could not go straight into a PSG-style spending spree if they receive a cash windfall but could start buying other clubs and swap players to get around the rules.

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Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City are another team who acquire players from myriad sources and feeder clubs but the Blues might still fall foul of financial fair play rules.

For now their dominance of the English game looks unlikely to be toppled. The manner in which they demolished Watford in the F.A. Cup was worrying. Cup finals should be struggles, not 6-0 drubbings which resemble pre-season cricket scores between ill-matched clubs.

Yes, Liverpool did not treat the FA Cup as seriously this season because their mind was on other trophies but equally because they do not possess City's strength in depth.

Watford were no mugs and were worthy finalists, stronger than some of those clubs who have made the final this century since the UEFA Champions League diluted the FA Cup - Millwall, Cardiff, Stoke and Portsmouth.

So the manner of their demolition should ring alarm bells at FA headquarters if they hope the world's oldest football contest can retain any credibility as a competition going forward.

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While the mega-millions swirl around the Premier League, FIFA and UEFA, former Premier League side Bolton Wanderers appears on the point of collapse.

Relegated from the Championship this season, they will begin League One in August with a 12-point deduction for having gone into administration, if they are still afloat.

The club owes £1.2 million in taxes, which is chicken-feed to most EPL sides, and players have not been paid for two months. Non-playing staff received no wages in April too and a food bank was recently set up at the club, accepting donations for their employees.

Founded in 1874, the Wanderers are one of the founder members of the Football League, have won the FA Cup four times and were in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup as recently as 2008, beating Atletico Madrid and drawing away at Bayern Munich en route. Nat Lofthouse is their greatest player.

With a fine stadium barely 20 years old to boot, it would be tragic if such a historic team were to bite the dust at a time when money is overflowing in English football. The problem is of course it flows mostly into a few pockets.

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As if anyone were in any doubt about how the love of money is poisoning the beautiful game, one needs only to look at the farce of this year's UEFA Europa League final.

In its wisdom UEFA chose Baku as the venue, despite the fact there are visa restrictions for tourists and no regular flights from London, Western Europe's largest city.

As if the mischief-maker of the Norse gods Loki himself had planned it, two London teams reached the final.

Faced with the Herculean task of even getting to the game, most Arsenal and Chelsea supporters will stay in London and the clubs are set to return unsold seats from their already paltry 6,000 allocations, an extraordinary situation. There are set to be barely 3,500 Gunners fans in Azerbaijan and only 2,000 from Chelsea.

It was revealed by The Guardian this week that both clubs have only sold a single pair of tickets for wheelchair-bound fans.

The icing on this despicable cake was the news that Arsenal's Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhiytaryan will not be travelling to Baku because of safety concerns as Azerbaijan does not recognise his passport.

UEFA's cack-handed choice of venue has interfered with team selections, let alone inconvenienced thousands of fans. We all know why oil-rich Baku was selected, the same reason Qatar was chosen for the 2022 World Cup, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Singapore for Formula One races.

If only Arsenal and Chelsea could come together with the FA, refuse to play in Baku and then see whether UEFA had the balls to exclude clubs from their biggest market England, from next season's competitions.

Now, more than ever, it is time to take a stand against the greed in the game. Everyone agrees Baku was an insane choice so why are we going along with it?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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