FOOTBALL CLUB FOR SALE: ONLY THE VERY, VERY RICH NEED APPLY; BEAT THAT: Robinho's Record Signing Sets the Premier League Benchmark

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Byline: Daniel King

THE richest men in the Premier League locked horns yesterday as the Chelsea of Russian oligarch and multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich took on Manchester City, the soon-to-be-acquired plaything of Abu Dhabi's trillionaire oil barons.

But in contrast to the mood of bottomless coffers and boundless optimism at 'Middle' Eastlands, just down the M62 at Liverpool and over on the other side of the country at Newcastle United, fans turned out to demonstrate publicly against the rich men running their own muchloved clubs.

For the reality is that in the 'Greed Is Good' Premier League, it is now not enough simply to be rich. To succeed, and to keep the fans happy, you need to be very, very rich, indeed.

It is coming to something when a man as wealthy as Mike Ashley, who collected close on a billion pounds when his sportswear company went public, cannot give the Newcastle United fans what they want.

The owner, who, sources indicated yesterday, has decided that the time has come to sell up and run, had wanted to instil a culture at Newcastle of slow growth for long-term success rather than rapid spend for instant results.

But that was never going to satisfy fans starved for so long of meaningful success and now approaching desperation after yesterday's 2-1 home defeat by Premier League newcomers Hull City.

Falling out with the man they call the Messiah, however, was not the wisest move Ashley could have made and he tried in vain on Friday night to coax Kevin Keegan back to Newcastle to head off yesterday's fan protests.

Ashley told the man who walked out on the manager's job last week that he is ready to announce that he wants to sell the club because of the fans' attitude to him and the prohibitive cost of buying success and popularity.

It is also surely only a matter of time before Liverpool's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett jnr, find their positions to be similarly untenable, because of the credit crunch and the hostility towards them which supporters vividly displayed in a march before yesterday's lunchtime kick-off and their team's eventual 2-1 triumph against Manchester United.

The Dubai royal family, who nearly bought Liverpool before the Americans moved in, remain keen to sink the Premier League's first billion-pound investment into buying the club and building a new stadium.

What Ashley, Hicks and Gillett have found themselves up against is the contradictory attitude many football fans have to the financial forces which now govern the game.

The public dissent outside St James' Park and Anfield looked like a display of fan power, but the true lesson of what has happened at Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester City is that traditional, match-going supporters as opposed to armchair fans have less and less influence on the management of their clubs and the sport as a whole because of the money slushing round the game from foreign investors and media companies.

WHEN the England fans launched surreal chants against Setanta and for the BBC during the World Cup qualifier against Andorra last weekend, they were attacking the wrong people.

It was the Football Association's decision to sell rights to England and FA Cup matches to the highest bidder Setanta and ITV and in insisting on a high price for highlights of the Andorra and Croatia games, Setanta were only protecting their investment in the same way as any company would.

How many of the supporters who sang 'We hate Setanta' might have sung 'We hate BSkyB' back in 1992, or 'We hate the BBC and ITV' at the start of the 1985-6 season, when there was no league football live on television at all? More to the point, how many of them would curse the commercial forces which deprived millions from watching England's fantastic 4-1 win in Zagreb with one breath, and then welcome the arrival of their own sugar-daddy with the next? …