I can fully empathise with those who have no interest in football, sick of its domination of so much sports and general news coverage. But the game is our national sport, and one of our major modern cultural exports. It must rank alongside the Royal Family as a major reference point for Englishness and our identity around the world. But like the Royal Family, has it become something of a profitable product that has outlived its use?
First, it must be recognised that the Premier League is regarded as the world’s best. But, what does best mean? It is acknowledged as the third highest gross earning sports league behind American Football and Major League Baseball and by far the biggest earner among European leagues. Does this make it good? It is extremely popular in that it is broadcast worldwide and attendances are higher than ever. But does its success in commercial terms make it a fantastic product, but less able to function as a sport?
Many of us have always taken great pride at the strength of the Premiership along with the overall popularity and depth of football culture in England and Wales with clubs in the lower divisions regularly attracting large crowds comparable to the top divisions in other countries, and the big clubs numbering three or four times those in other nations. Indeed today the second tier, the Championship, is acknowledged as the fourth biggest league in Europe. But, there is much debate this season about the state of competitiveness of the Premiership, and not just because current runaway leaders Manchester City are seemingly head and shoulders above the rest. There is great concern that, in effect, there are two leagues within the Premiership, rendering it less competitive. In the modern era there has always been an elite group of clubs, usually consisting of Manchester United and Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton, Arsenal and Spurs. But these were gate crashed occasionally by others, notably Aston Villa and Leeds. The rise of Chelsea, the downfall of Manchester City for years until recently and then Leicester’s glorious smash and grab of the title two seasons ago, gave hope that there would always be some toing and froing amongst the elite.
This season, though, much has been made of the difficulties that the bottom ten or so clubs in a twenty club division have of competing with the rest. Not only for the top places, but in competing on a match-to-match basis against the top sides. As a supporter of newly promoted Brighton and Hove Albion, I have direct experience of this. It is a fact that we really do not expect to get any points against the top six clubs. Managers of all bottom clubs – and that means now the entire bottom half of the Premier League – have been accused of negative tactics by merely limiting the damage, rendering games over once the first goal has been scored by the dominant club. Managers of these also rans are often resting their top players against top clubs to save them for games against similarly placed clubs they have a more realistic chance of beating. Ex Liverpool player and current pundit Jamie Carragher recently slammed the Premiership as a joke, after watching Newcastle lose in what he believed was such a lame manner against Manchester City. “The teams at the top are so far ahead that the teams at the bottom are accepting they are going to lose,” he said. This acceptance of losing by a club with such impeccable heritage and massive support as Newcastle in front of 50,000 of their own fans is concerning.
At this time of year there is also the romanticism of the early rounds of the FA Cup, revered worldwide as the world’s greatest knockout competition, yet it is increasingly seen as an irrelevance by many Premier League clubs. The top clubs treat the early rounds with disdain, often fielding almost a second team, as their priority is qualification for the top four places in the league, which enables them to reach the Champions League of top European clubs the following season and what is a further land of milk and honey. Champions League matches again take priority over domestic fixtures. Even the teams in the bottom half of the table, like Brighton, often need a cup run like a hole in the head, as injuries and extra stamina-sapping games can affect their ability to fight successfully against relegation, to maintain their own status as Premiership club with its inherent massive financial profitability. Money from a cup run, which used to be seen as an earner, pales into insignificance given the riches of the Premier League. Even clubs in the Championship eying promotion are wary of a cup run and may also field weakened sides.
There is of course the argument that it is, after all, only football, a sport, so what does it matter? But the Premier League itself, as well as the clubs, are not shy of telling us how much they contribute to GNP and local economies – and who could deny this, the stats speak for themselves. The charitable arm of a club is probably able to reach out to many that local authorities are increasingly unable to. So, yes, it is hugely profitable – but does this mean it is indicative of Britain as a world power of sporting excellence? In national terms this has to be “No”.
Britain’s interational teams have not won a major tournament since 1966. Being so long ago and smack bang in the Sixties has enabled much mythology to develop around the era and perhaps Britain’s cultural power, or cultural baggage: Swinging London, the Beatles, the British pop invasion of America etc. Is it really symbolic of our downfall as achievers in the world, the old problem of major economic and cultural downfall from economic and Imperial top dog to second rate, trying to find a role, but still judged to be in the top echelon – and yet losing to Iceland in the last major tournament, the European Championship.
Much, too, can be made of how English, or how British, the Premier league actually is. This can be examined using three examples: the owners, the managers and the players.
As far as ownership is concerned, in the Premiership, currently only Burnley, Huddersfield, Brighton, Newcastle, Stoke, Tottenham and West Ham are not foreign owned (and Tottenham’s owner is based in a foreign tax haven), while the number of foreign owned clubs in the second tier is increasing. But is this a bad thing? Is it a bad thing that many foreign companies own our utilities? Is this the same as being concerned about foreign labour and skill shortages?
What about the managers? Only eight clubs in the Premiership have British managers and none are among the top clubs. There is much concern that because the clubs are now so big they can trawl through an international pool of talent, British managers lose out and hence this is reflected in a lack of achievement at international level, and just unfair. This is not to accuse foreign owners of being biased, but is there an almost cultural inferiority complex amongst society that associates flair and style automatically with foreign coaches and managers, while English and Scots managers are often labelled dour.
Is there an element of truth in this? Everton manager Sam Allardyce was quoted as saying “If my name was Allerdici I’d be a top four boss,” the implication being that his pedigree should have ensured that he was employed at bigger clubs. I often wonder if Arsene Wenger, who has brought so much to football management in the nation, would have been given as much time to bed into the Arsenal job had he been British. A soberly attired, bespectacled book lover would surely have been mocked by the media. Years later England manager Steve McClaren was derided as the “Wally with the brolly” merely for sheltering under an umbrella pitch side in a downpour.
So what about the players? 69.2% of Premier league players are foreign, the highest of any European country by far. Is this stifling English talent? Youngsters who would be have been fit to grace the top division in years past are now no longer getting the opportunity. The sheer earning power of staying in the Premiership and competing in European competitions means that perhaps less risk is taken on introducing new unproven talent rather than buying in established players. Why risk a 20-year-old coming up from the youth scheme when you can purchase a safer bet with a 30-year-old from mainland Europe who has achieved elsewhere. And even the youth schemes are sourcing talent from abroad.
Many pundits suggest that this impacts on the lack of top class English players and lack of success in international tournaments. The wages are astronomical, yet very affordable providing Premiership status is maintained. And even if a club is relegated there are ‘parachute payments ‘ guaranteed for four years, which, although a drop from Premiership earnings, outstrip revenues of the other clubs in the championship, thereby perpetuating almost a monopoly of clubs able to afford promotion back to the top.
Are we witnessing a very English phenomenon, an excellent cultural product, popular at home and exported to worldwide admiration, but underneath which lurks a less wholesome business that could be spoiling competitiveness and quality for the future?