Finishing seventh in the Championship, as seems likely, when the Premiership is in sudden urgent need of six new teams is, perhaps, the most Reading FC thing ever. Although, with Sheffield United already relegated, there is a clear argument to extend the requirement for new teams actually to seven…
I joke, of course: I’m fully in line with every other man, woman and dog in the country that thinks the ‘European Super League’ is the worst idea since, well, they came up with this thing called the Premiership. With only three countries (so far) represented, and without specifically the big German and French teams and with a surfeit of English ones, it is neither ‘European’; neither is it ‘Super’, given that several of those involved would struggle to make it on current form into even a top twenty of European sides; and neither is it a ‘League’, since there is no relegation from it or promotion to it (other than on the principle of who has enough finance to force a bid to join the club).
This is not, however, a post about how greed and financial engineering is ruining football, or about ‘the day football died’ – that happened nearly thirty years with the establishment of the Premier League based on clubs’ desire to maximise income from TV broadcasting rights. Essentially, therefore, the same justification as now except in that the broadcasters were then UK-based; and, now, they are global and with their global ‘fan’base in mind for those clubs which have self-elected themselves to the proposed league. With my own club declaring losses last week for 2019/20 of an eye-watering £42m, up from the previous year’s £30m loss, as well as a rise in gross debt from £68bn to £87bn (for those interested, there is a twitter thread from Swiss Ramble and also a podcast from The Tilehurst End looking at the numbers in more depth), it is quite clear that the scramble for a share in the money as clubs try and get to the table of riches is bankrupting clubs throughout the Championship (and below) while leaving those in League 1 and 2, barring the odd player sale which is also now more difficult than before as clubs hoover up talent and then farm it out to the lower leagues, ever further away from being able to mount a decent challenge.
Players have done very well out of this, of course, but careers are short and it is an entertainment business – although the biggest argument in favour of the good wages that can be had (bearing in mind the percentage of players who actually make it is tiny) is that it is the players (the workers) who are serving all this up (and who bear the opprobrium of social media when things go wrong). Agents’ fees and the player merry-go-round as agents maximise their own income, now extended to managers too – well that’s a very different matter; and the person who first came up with the correlation between wage bills and final league position has a lot to answer for.
The question is, of course, what is to be done about all this – and that’s a significant question, or set of questions, too sizable to be tackled in one blog post. A government enquiry, to be headed by Tracey Crouch MP (an ex-player and an FA-qualified coach), is a decent start, although it remains to be seen just how ‘fan-led’ this turns out to be, and it seems that the beady eye of the Competition and Markets Authority is also beginning to be opened up to the plans. At the very least, ensuring proper fan representation – the reason why the German clubs cannot get on board with the proposal – is a suggestion very worthwhile pursuing to ensure the rights of so-called ‘legacy’ fans. When clubs lose sight of the importance of their fans and the contribution their fans have made to their communities from which they spring, we need to remember that it is the available riches that make this possible. Money has indeed trumped sport – and wriggling out of that mess is tricky, although it is good to see FC United of Manchester, a fan-led operation set up when the Glazers took over, get some publicity this morning, while similar attention needs also to be turned to the success of the fans of Wimbledon FC who lost their club to a franchise operation. Their successes – based on hard work and a shared dream – of such phoenix operations need to be better publicised and understood. It is clear it isn’t ‘jumpers for goalposts’ – these are hard-edged, professional (as opposed to amateur) operations, no doubt – but they do offer a model for how football can be rebuilt away from chasing Premiership riches while still dreaming of earning the right to play them one day. Like a lot of other things, things can only be re-built from the bottom-up.
Abuse of players, particularly black players, on social media needs also to be tackled and we certainly need to ensure that homophobia, particularly in the men’s game, needs to be addressed.
More immediately, it’s clear to me that clubs joining the proposed league must, at the point that competition gets underway, forfeit their place in domestic competitions. With the rumoured additional £300m on offer for participation, they cannot simply swan back into the country at the weekends and demand the ball. That does, however, hurt the fans of such clubs as well as those who aim for their clubs to be playing them one day – and it also raises all sorts of contractual issues not least as regards the existing TV rights deal, which runs until 2022. I suspect that reality will prevail and that nothing will actually be done, should this new proposal survive the scorn now being heaped upon it, as regards sanctions until that runs out – and, while bidders will (rightly) want clarity before any new auction process starts, I can’t see them being happy to bid much for a competition from which the ‘greedy six’ are excluded. That will, of course, have a knock-on effect throughout the game and will, over a fairly short period of time, lead to a sizable shake-up in which more clubs (on top of Bury) are likely to go to the wall. That, plus the fanbase of the big clubs who recognise the issues at stake, highlights the need for a strong, and unified, fan voice about the issues now being raised. Should the proposal die the death it deserves, this doesn’t mean that nothing needs doing: football still needs rescuing from itself and, more especially, from the gamblers and financial engineers.
Players of the clubs in the new proposal should not be barred from representing their country: it is not them at fault – they have had no say in any of this and can control absolutely nothing of whatever schemes their clubs decide to engage in and, while contracted to their clubs, have little realistic chance of mounting any concerted opposition to them. (It does depend on how things work out but I can see the potential for a few restraint of trade arguments.) They are indeed workers with next to no say. With this in mind, I was a little disappointed in the PFA statement which looks somewhat anodyne although, as a trade union, there does need to be time for consultation with members and representatives before anything more definitive, in proper defence of the interests of all those interests who are members of the union, can be raised.
A country united on something, and sufficient to cause an immense distraction – well that’s a rare enough event these days so it is no wonder that this government is all over it. Whether that cause survives the short-termism, the ignorance and the political scheming inherent in anything this government gets its hands on is a different matter.