Steve Partner: Stars shouldn't have to pay for this

When the cream of this country’s match anglers line up on Vicario Reservoir for the 2010 World Championships, the level of expectation will be as high as the soaring June temperatures in this desert-like region of central Spain. England, it’s safe to say, expects. Medals are given ¬ the only issue is the colour.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Up until 1984, when Dick Clegg was appointed manager, the nation had endured 30 years of hurt, rarely going close to the sought-after team gold. Despite featuring the likes of Kevin Ashurst and Ivan Marks, success was a commodity in short supply.

But things change. When Stan Smith made way for Clegg, fortunes turned sharply skywards. Dramatically so. Within a year the team had taken top spot on Italy’s Arno and over the ensuing years until his retirement as boss in 2000, the Barnsley man had presided over six team and nine individual gold medals. The new regime ¬ led by the Marks Downes and Addy ¬has continued the winning momentum but few would deny it was Dick who provided the impetus.

So, all that considered, why is it then that our current team of superstars, this trend-setting outfit of world-beaters, this brilliant line up that others follow and fear is now forced to scrape together every penny it can, just to make it to Spain?

Why is it that despite consistently out-performing the other, more glamorous but distinctly less successful of this country’s sports, fishing has to routinely rely on the benevolence of sponsors? And, especially, why does the man responsible for making England’s matchfishing team great have to traipse around the industry with a begging bowl? That, whatever your views on match angling, simply cannot be right.

For those who missed last week’s story, let me explain. The annual problem that faces Dick Clegg ¬ now England’s international events director ¬ has raised its ugly head once more and a funding crisis that not only threatens England’s men, but each of the other teams due to represent their country this summer, looms large. To put no finer point on it, angling has no money to send them. The cupboard is bare, the coffers empty, the sport financially bereft.

So Dick has been forced to do what he’s done for the last few years ¬ invest his own time, free of charge, to go cap in hand to the angling trade to raise what he can.

He’s auctioned days with each of the England team on Ebay, raffled tackle he’s blagged from those generous enough to donate it and used whatever contacts he’s built up over his 71-years to lever cash from external sources. But even with the healthy contributions from the senior team’s chief sponsor, Drennan, together with that of Sensas and Subfish, it’s not enough. Not nearly.

The upshot is that certain teams simply won’t be able to compete on the international stage. Remember, England has never sent representatives to fish in the under-14 category and our disabled anglers have missed out on occasion too.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, members of the senior team ¬ the same senior team that delivers success on an almost yearly basis ¬ are expected to part-finance their inclusion.

A few years ago Stu Conroy admitted that appearing at the World Champs personally cost him £3,000, and each of those picked this year will have to contribute £1,000 to the kitty.

I know the analogy is a bit strained, but can you ever imagine David Beckham having to pay for his plane ticket to South Africa this summer?

Someone, somewhere, should be deeply embarrassed that this has happened.

The gut reaction is to blame Sport England ¬ the body set up to distribute both Lottery and government cash ¬ for this financial paucity. But despite the temptation, that is misplaced. It might make great headlines to point to the imbalance in the hand-outs (we have been allocated £1,561,906 for the years 2009 to 2013 while, for example, Judo got £10,241,001 for the same period) but the truth is rather less straightforward.

Sport England only allocates money to the grass roots. Yes, fishing can argue the sum it receives isn’t enough but even if were trebled, it would only be used for coaching ¬ and not funding our national teams.

Fishing doesn’t fall within the remit of UK Sport ¬ the organisation that authorises payments to the elite ¬ either. Because angling isn’t an Olympic sport, it doesn’t qualify for funds.

And I guess, ultimately, that is what lies at the heart of this problem. Is match angling really a sport?

You could argue, as Dick Clegg once did when I met him in 2004, that it is the ultimate in sporting tests. Not only are you competing against the next man, you are also competing against nature’s elements and, of course, a wild, thinking and totally unpredictable creature. But I’m not convinced.

There are technical elements to fishing that, just like many other pastimes, require great ability, but there is still too much that relies on luck for it be considered a true sport. The draw bag, I’m afraid, is just too decisive on the outcome. A match can, and often is, determined by which peg an angler picks and even the best in the world can’t catch what’s not there.

No genuine test of skill should rule out so many of the field even before it’s started.

You could, I suppose, try and turn it into a sport. Much like shooting swaps the wild for the inanimate at competition level, angling could do the same.

Distance casting, for example, could be accurately judged but that would measure only one technique ¬ and could hardly still be labelled ‘angling’.

You could even, in the interests of complete fairness, have anglers fish in designated and contained zones, each holding a set number of identical weight fish. But surely by doing this you would remove the one thing that captures the very essence of what makes angling so magical ¬ the unknown.

Matchfishing works because of ¬ and not despite ¬ that element of surprise. Matchmen are gamblers, and to remove chance is to remove the key motivating factor in this branch of fishing. Why else would thousands still turn out on tough canal venues in winter when the likelihood of weighing more than a few pounds is as rare as hen’s teeth? 

So if government bodies aren’t going to stump up the readies, what’s the answer?

I suppose, borrowing a soccer analogy again, if the Football Association pays for the national team to travel to international tournaments, so fishing’s governing body ¬ the Angling Trust ¬ should do the same. But that is a naïve call. The Trust is still in its infancy and with individual membership hovering at around 13,500 it hasn’t got the financial clout to throw tens of thousands of pounds behind our national teams. It could happen one day, but not in the foreseeable future.

Dick’s answer is to put a levy of up to £1 on the rod licence, with the proceeds (currently that would amount to around £1.4m) going directly to the Trust. In principle I agree, but the logistics of setting up such a scheme would take years.

External sponsorship remains one avenue, but since tobacco advertising was banned, and Embassy’s support withdrawn, finding a consistent supporter has been nigh-on impossible. Despite its potential, fishing has never sold itself very well. 

Realistically, then, what you are left with is the angling trade ¬ and the anglers who support it. Even given the issue of Drennan’s involvement (the chief sponsor of the men’s team is hardly likely to relish the prospect of sharing exposure with another angling brand), there’s not a queue of would-be benefactors knocking down the door. In the midst of a global recession, survival is the sole motivation.

So that leaves anglers, the likes of me and you. Dick reckons he needs around £30,000 this year to ensure all our teams compete but, in an ideal world, that sum can be doubled if we really want to do things properly in the future.

So, while we grapple with a long-term solution, I urge you to dig deep. Do it for England’s collective match teams, whose continued success acts as inspiration to thousands of young anglers every year.

Do it for the feel-good factor that permeates from the top down when we step up on the podium as winners. But do it most of all for Dick Clegg, MBE, OBE.

A man who has achieved so much for his country deserves more than being reduced to the role of bucket-waving fundraiser.