Blogs, on most subjects, tend to be full of the writer espousing his theories on the issues of the day, and I guess that’s particularly true with football articles, where everyone has an opinion. So, this time, I thought I’d take a different track and ask a few questions instead, whilst at the same time requesting a few changes of headgear!
Firstly, here’s a question with a complicated, or perhaps more accurately, a diverse set of answers. ‘What’s more important to a football club, money or glory, profits or pots, brass or silverware?’ If you’re reading this – and I hope you are, otherwise I’m simply talking to myself – you’re probably a fan of a particular club and will have opted for the latter of the options in each of the three queries offered. Now however, just for a lark, take off your fan’s hat, and instead don the headgear of a club owner, or a CEO having to answer to an owner. To further illustrate the picture, let’s imagine the owner in question isn’t a Sheikh Mansoor or Roman Abramovich who bought clubs merely to indulge rather expensive hobbies. So, with your new hat on, let’s consider the question again. I know what you’re thinking. Winning trophies creates more wealth, therefore you can have both. Ah, you see, this is why I framed the question as I did. For clarity however, I’m going to rephrase it slightly. As an owner or a CEO having to report to an owner, would you rather have made £3million profit and won the Carling Cup, or £8million, and finished with an empty trophy cabinet? Come on, now. We all know the answer if we’re being honest don’t we?
It’s an interesting little exercise I suppose, but not totally irrelevant to any examination of the nature and prospects of the English game at the moment. This season, Europe’s premier competition has rapidly become a Premier League-free zone way before any dreams of glory have coalesced into anything remotely resembling realistic aspirations. Liverpool didn’t make it out of the group stages after being found to be ‘fawlty’ by Basel. In the last sixteen, Chelsea failed to overcome ten-man PSG at Stamford Bridge, and both Manchester City and Arsenal were doomed after defeats in the home leg of their ties. Now, with your fan hat on again, if your allegiance is to any of these clubs, the English game in general or perhaps Everton, Spurs or Hull City who bit the dust in the tangled web of tours around eastern European backwaters, it’s a more than mildly depressing scenario.
Here’s another question. Do you remember the days of the early part of this century, when English clubs appeared that dominant in the Champions League that there was talk of the competition being distorted? In the five finals between 2005 and 2009, over half of the ten finalists were from the Premier League. In the modern era, it was a domination previously unseen. European football was crying ‘foul’ as Premier League clubs, stoked on debt or the largesse of billionaires simply steamrollered their way to glory. The essence of Financial Fair Play was a direct consequence of this scenario, although it’s effect has been to lock in any inequality, rather than eliminate it. A bit like the two officials who parade on the goal-line if European games these days, that whole charade seems pointless.
It appears however that any such measure was unnecessary anyway. Since 2009 however, there has been a perceptible change as the English hegemony has ebbed away. Chelsea were the last Premier League side to secure the biggest prize in club football, but it seemed like a last defiant hurrah for the English game they buked the trend of retrenchment with a run all the way to the final penalty shoot-out that owed more to belligerence and fortune than to skill and finesse. So here’s another question. Who will the next English winners will be – and when?
It’s often said that what makes you strong is also your greatest weakness, and that particular cliché may just have a relevance for the current state of the English game in Europe. The huge financial forces that funded the English domination in the early years of this century can now be seen to be the cause of its demise. The recent television deal that granted the Premier League in excess of £5billion has been greeted with both acclaim and condemnation in fairly equal measures, but for all the brouhaha about how this should mean cheaper tickets for fans, or an increase in the quality of players, very few commentators have latched onto the theory that the development of the game that attracted such huge amounts of money is the same characteristic that is leading to the retrograde performances in European competition. Simply put, the Premier League ‘product’ that is so marketable, is a rough and tumble, 100 miles per hour, pillow fight. It’s the pantomime, full of custard pies and buckets of water, compared to the sophisticated theatre experience of continental football. Yes, it’s enough to fund millions of satellite dishes and a broadband battle between BT and Sky, but is not the stuff of success on the playing field at the highest level. A bit like the WWE, it’s running away from the true tenets of sporting endeavour, solely in favour of the pursuit of money, with ‘entertainment’ as its key driver.
Now, I can hear some arguing that Real Madrid and Barcelona are the richest clubs in the world, and the Teutonic efficiency of Bayern Munich’s organisation only leaves them a short way behind. The question therefore arises as to why these clubs haven’t apparently been corrupted by the pursuit of money. I’ll answer that one myself if you’ll permit me. The point about the demise of the English game isn’t that some clubs are rich, it’s about how the game as a whole – broadly speaking how the league itself – has committed itself to a style of play that sells well, but achieves little.
In the wake of the announcement of the television deal, it was said that the likes of La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga would be envious of the drawing power of the Premier League. I wonder about the validity of such sentiments. As the Champions League wends its way on waving goodbye to English clubs, entering the quarter-final stage, it’s surely likely that one of those three leagues will supply the European champions although, Barcelona aside, it’s unlikely to be one of the clubs that vanquished the English sides.
OK, it’s time for another question. Which piece of news would you think caused the most stir in the boardrooms of Premier League clubs up and down the country, the £5billion television deal or the failure of any English club to progress beyond the last 16 in Europe’s elite competition? Headgear of the boardroom elite required here, please. Yes, I agree with your answer. That however, for the long term good of the game, may be seriously bad news. The point is that both items may well the same story. They may merely be two sides of the same very expensive coin. If this supposition is correct, and the two events are inextricably linked, Premier League football may be locked into a ‘love unto death’ embrace with the lure of lucre it seems to need to satisfy its voracious appetite.
I’m pretty sure that no fans ever go on a stadium tour to view a trophy cabinet displaying a bank statement. No fans have ever chanted, ‘We’ve got a better Balance Sheet’ than you and there’s never been an open top bus parade to show off a Profit & Loss account. If money is to be the measure of success for our clubs moving forward however, here’s a final question. What future is there for the game?