Thursday, 22nd February 2018
The questions they don't want you to ask
Filed: Wednesday, 4th October 2017
"Jim stops and gets out the car, goes to a house in Emperor's Gate
Through the door and to his room, then he puts the TV on
Turns it off and makes some tea, says "Modern life, well it's rubbish"
I'm holding on for tomorrow"
- Blur, "For Tomorrow"
Those plucky underdogs win again
The Premier League clubs are meeting today, with a view to taking a decision so momentous it has the possibility to change English football forever. I had originally planned to write a series of articles laying out my proposals to make modern football fairer, and less rubbish, but time passed by and now we're here on the day of the vote. As such I've slung this together and I'm hoping for the best. A little like Slaven Bilic and his West Ham squad.
You may know about this vote, but if not this is a primer. Put simply, the self styled "Big Six" (Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool for those who aren't immediately sure) want a bigger slice of the TV income to reflect their belief that they are the primary reason for such riches.
That money is currently shared equally among all the Premier League teams, which those at the top somehow have the temerity to label as "unfair".
Equal sharing of revenue is unfair. It should be divided on "merit".
Spurs last won the league in 1961. Liverpool in 1990.
I have questions.
And these are questions they don't want us to ask.
What, I wonder, is the point of being a modern day fan of a smaller Premier League club?
The Premier League makes much of it's competitiveness, but my team cannot win it. For those fans of the select few clubs at the top of the money tree it promises to be a season of great excitement, and for the rest of us it will be the customary race to 40 points and praying for a decent cup run.
For this privilege we get to pay...the same ticket prices as everyone else.
Why, I wonder, do we so meekly accept this?
West Ham splurged plenty of money this summer, with their customary lack of planning and "darts into the Panini album" style of scouting, and yet would have to spend another £300m to even dream of nudging their way up against the top four. Everton spent heavily and will most likely finish seventh again.
This is not enough for The Big Six.
It's not even a case that there is an established cycle of success and we smaller Joe's just need to wait and bide our time to get good again. European football doesn't work that way. Nobody even pretends that it does.
And still we come, in our droves, to watch our teams playing in a competition that doesn't even pretend to be equitable or fair. We have become so used to being cannon fodder for the rich that we have succumbed to a footballing Stockholm Syndrome where Phil Thompson and Paul Merson stare balefully at us and tells us we've had a great year if we come 8th.
Not for me, Jeff.
How, I wonder, did we all come to accept this as perfectly normal?
By now I'm sensing a few furrowed brows. Am I suggesting we all just give up and go home? No, I want to end the dominance of Big Clubs™. Let's fix modern football. And by "fix" I mean "mend" rather than conspire to rig it in favour of certain teams. That's pretty much the problem as it stands now anyway.
For you see, there is a cancer at the rotten core of European football. An environment has developed in which an elite cabal of teams have, with UEFA's blessing, carved up the modern game for their own ends. Money, players, sponsors, success - they all flow firstly to this small group of clubs, and then trickle down to the rest of us.
The Champions League - a misnomer right up there with the People's Game - was the seismic shock that changed the game irrevocably. Suddenly, those elite teams who already ruled Europe due to their huge fanbases and commercial advantages, were now being subsidised by UEFA. With every passing season, and every £30m cheque from the continental governing body, those teams separated themselves yet further from the rest of us.
The prize money for simply being big enough to qualify for the Champions League then became the guarantee that ensured that qualification forever more. It was a beautifully circular arrangement, supplemented nicely when the UEFA Cup was reconstituted into the Europa League, a competition so arduous and difficult to win that it rendered those clubs on the cusp of the Champions League unable to take the extra step up to the Promised Land.
There were lots of near misses, and many a team has nearly destroyed themselves in the pursuit of such riches. But the elite have largely survived, with another large cheque arriving each summer to allow them to buy those players from any teams genuinely threatening the arrangement.
And when the likes of Manchester City and PSG arrived, with oil revenues dripping from their pockets, the Financial Fair Play rules were drawn up to try and enshrine the principle that the only allowable way to be good was to be rich, and the only allowable way to be rich was to always have been rich.
What a bunch of charlatans.
What, I wonder, were we thinking when we let that happen?
For fans of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern, Dortmund, Roma, Juventus et al it is probably hard to understand what I am saying. There's will be a belief that their teams have earned their dominance and supremacy. After all, to paraphrase the wonderful Marina Hyde, nobody wants to accept they were born on second base when it's easier to believe they hit a double.
This is the upshot of privilege.
So now, as the rest of us stare in bemusement as Manchester United genuinely try and convince Swansea to give up their TV revenues so that United can better compete with Barcelona, we have to remember that this is the simple outcome of allowing such privilege to go unchecked for so long.
Manchester United can't understand that we want to keep the Premier League competitive because in reality it never has been. So why not just accept that they will always finish in the top four and give them a better chance of winning the Champions League? This seems to be a genuine part of the argument.
And this stranglehold has conspired to make football smaller for the rest of us. We aren't allowed to measure our success in terms of league titles and instead our aspirations have had to be revised downwards. For us it is now the small triumph of avoiding relegation or a once in a generation cup final appearance. The simple thrill of our players being in international squads or the emergence of a decent young player.
Put simply, we don't matter as much as them.
This is the upshot of privilege.
But, what can we do?
And folks, I know that none of this will ever change. There is too much power and too much money tied up in the current structure to ever allow the likes of West Ham, Getafe, Lorient or Padova the chance to dream of winning the league or making Champions League finals.
This is little more than the ranting of an angry and frustrated man, watching in utter disbelief as Chelsea bring a begging bowl to our doorstep and ask the rest of us to give them money to have a better chance of beating Bayern.
The state of it.
If we take the creation of the Premier League as an entirely artificial starting point for "modern football", then we can see that the major European leagues have been won as follows across that twenty five year span:
England: Man Utd (13); Chelsea (5); Arsenal (3); Man City (2); Blackburn (1); Leicester (1)
Germany: Bayern (15); Dortmund (5); Werder Bremen (2); Kaiserslautern (1); Stuttgart (1); Wolfsburg (1)
Spain: Barcelona (12); Real Madrid (8); Valencia (2); Atletico Madrid (2); Deportivo La Coruna (1)
Italy: Juventus (11); AC Milan (6); Inter (5); Roma (1); Lazio (1)
(*) No title in Italy in 04-05 due to the Juventus match fixing scandal
(**) I have excluded France for the moment as their resurgence is more of a recent development, although Lyon and PSG still account for roughly half their titles in this period.
So of the last 99 titles awarded in the main four European leagues, 51 (52%) have been won by the single most successful team in that country. That number rises to 75 (76%) if we include the second most successful team in each league.
To lay that out starkly, eight clubs have won 76% of the main European league titles for the last quarter of a century. As far as entertainment goes, this doesn't strike me as being terribly, well, entertaining and instead seems a bit more "Ed Sheeran headlining Glastonbury for the next seven years".
Man Utd are on the telly again
And what about that prize money? Well, in 2014-15, UEFA paid out a cool €1.08bn to the 32 participants in the group stages of the Champions League.
Of that, a stunning €543m went to Juventus, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Dortmund, Man City, Roma, Bayern, PSG, Barcelona and Chelsea. A third of the clubs trousering half of the money. That's some nice work if you can get it.
Particularly galling was Liverpool taking home €33.5m for getting knocked out in the group stages, whilst Porto received €27m for making the quarter finals. This was due to UEFA rules favouring teams from countries with bigger TV deals and giving a nice insight into what it must be like for Hollywood actresses when they try and negotiate their pay.
What's great about this is that you'll remember that the Big Six want a bigger slice of the English TV money because they "merit it". But when they play in Europe they feel they should just get more money for the simple fact that they come from a country where BT Sport were stupid enough to shell out a billion quid for the rights to the competition.
Worse still, is the latest development whereby part of the Champions League prize money will in future be distributed with the amount being dependent upon the historic success of the club involved. That's right folks, we're now giving more money to Real Madrid because they were good in the past.
IT'S LIKE A FUCKING BOND VILLAIN IS WRITING THESE RULES.
At some point I feel I have to ask fans of these clubs...is this actually fun any more? What kind of mental gymnastics are you having to perform to convince yourself that winning is actually an achievement for you? You're cheering for the Empire to beat the Rebel Alliance. You're screaming for the house in a casino. You're standing at the side of the road lauding the naked Emperor. Don't look now guys, but you're in Slytherin.
I'm not being facetious when I say this, but I honestly don't understand how being a fan of one of these clubs can be as enjoyable as supporting a smaller team. Our victories are fewer, but they aren't earned with loaded dice.
I'm Just A Killer For Your Love
But, I hear you say, why does any of this actually matter? We've had imbalance for years and stadiums are still full and the great God television continues to rule all. If this was all so unfair then why has this construct persisted for so long?
Well, it matters because when we pay for our tickets, or buy our Sky subscriptions nobody is giving us a discount because our teams won't win anything. In fact, they love us right up until it's time for us to take our seats, at which point we immediately become less important than Liverpool fans. And that's a club that haven't won the league at all in a quarter of a century, although it's not for the want of UEFA giving them money.
The table below, which I've picked up from a Daily Mail article, highlights the point. West Ham and Spurs fans are paying way more at the top end for their tickets than Manchester United and Manchester City and yet neither have won the league in this time. In fairness, Spurs are giving it a good go right now, but are well behind rivals Arsenal in terms of actual silverware over this time span, and yet had the second highest average ticket price in the league in 2015/16. West Ham, meanwhile, are just incompetent.
West Brom though. Still a rip off.
Of course each club has it's own financial model and supply and demand, metropolitan location and demographic all play a huge a part in what clubs charge their fans. But the broader point is this; football fans are treated identically in every area except one - expectations.
If you are a fan of a Big Club™ you are entitled to expect success. Manchester United not challenging for the league for two seasons is considered a genuine issue by the British press. It takes up a lot of time on Monday Night Football and Sunday Supplement.
But compare the prices shown above for Manchester United and Southampton and see if you can figure out why one set of fans are "entitled" to demand success and why the other must be content with getting a good price from Liverpool for their players.
It feels to me like paying money for an Odeon annual cinema pass but being told I can't see the 3D releases, unlike other customers who are also paying less than me because they once won a competition thirty years ago. We are in a curious thrall to a world order that was created either many years ago by old money (Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal) or on the whim of billionaire new money investors (Chelsea, Manchester City).
There Are Too Many Of Us
It also matters because there are more of us than them. If you take the Big Six then they comprise about 44% of last year's Premier League attendances. That percentage drops hugely once you factor in the entire football pyramid - particularly well supported clubs like Newcastle, Aston Villa, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday - and it's amazing how often those fans are ignored completely.
At no juncture in this latest power grab has it ever entered the discussion that concentrating more money in England's six biggest clubs might be detrimental to the wider game, despite the fact that the vast majority of those who attend football games in this country don't watch the Big Six.
Man Utd 1,430,502
West Ham 1,082,464
Man City 1,026,358
Crystal Palace 478,052
Big Six: 5,993,136
As you can see, the Big Six have big attendances - it's almost as though they are resident in huge metropolitan areas with a massive population base to call from - but they aren't the majority. And, sure, they have big followings on Facebook and Twitter, but the notion that armchair supporters of Arsenal are more important than fans who actually attend games at Bournemouth isn't one I'm prepared to accept.
So yeah - the "Big Six"? More fans don't watch them than do.
No Distance Left To Run
What all of this does is to bring in to focus the existential questions I raised above. Put simply - why do the majority of us still bother to follow our football teams?
For some, simply asking this question is treasonous. We follow because we are, and we are because we follow. The team is part of our blood, and we a part of theirs. It is simply not a question that one asks. A bit like when my daughter tells me about her favourite YouTubers and I ask the unaskable by saying "What do these people actually do?".
Crucially, the very absence of winning anything is worn like a badge of honour because it proves our worthiness as fans. We look down upon those Surrey based Man Utd fans who pretend their fathers were from Stretford in order to attach themselves to a winning club. We measure our mettle as supporters not by the number of Cup finals we have attended, but instead by miserable, unsuccessful away trips on frozen midweek nights when lesser men or women would have simply given up. And when we do make a Cup final we are told that we are “tinpot” for caring at all. This is our lot.
But to me, that badge of honour is a symbol of stupidity. We all have a neon sign saying “idiot” writ large upon our breast. We buy our tickets that are more expensive than those sold to Man City fans, we buy our TV subscriptions that cost the same as they do for Arsenal fans and we wear replica shirts sold on the same rack and for the same price as Chelsea’s and we still accept it as a central core of our fandom than our teams do not have any right to compete with those same Big Clubs™ because of history.
To The End
So, with that context offered and those problems identified, how exactly is it possible to make football fairer? Well, look, I have lots of ideas about that and at some point I plan to get round to publishing them. I have them drafted and some great other writers lined up from other teams to tell me why they will or won't work, but ultimately this vote got here before I could finish up. Veyr simply they involve limiting squad sizes, limiting loans, fairer distribution of income and probably abolishing Chelsea.
But let me be clear - opposing this is important for all English football fans irrespective of any future changes. It isn't a West Ham thing. It's a football thing.
Put simply, I think Richard Scudamore should be fired because his dumbass plan is predicated upon making his six biggest members more successful in a different competition to the one he is responsible for.
Put slightly less simply, here are the reasons this proposal must be rejected:
1. The Premier League has convinced the world it is more competitive than other leagues, and foreign audiences seem to agree. The act of taking £15m a year income from Bournemouth and giving it to Liverpool will inevitably damage this, although it would be helpful if Bournemouth stopped doing this themselves voluntarily, ahem, Jordon Ibe. Once the league becomes even more utterly predictable than it is now, and the Big Six enshrine themselves in the top six places, those TV rights will no longer be as valuable because the league will no longer be able to sell the idea that anyone can beat anyone.
2. The counter argument that having more than two big clubs will always make the league more attractive than La Liga is bullshit. It's been thirteen years since one of Liverpool, Spurs or Arsenal won the league. The table above shows that having more big clubs hasn't changed the balance of power in England.
3. Leicester wasn't proof of parity. I can't explain Leicester other than to say I think it was the perfect confluence of luck, planning and every good force in the universe coming together at once. A 5,000-1 shot winning the league doesn't strike me as great evidence of equality, however. And the very fact that the Big Six now want more money to stop another Leicester should tell us all we need to know about how much they value competition.
4. They already play in a European Super League, so they aren't going to create another one. Liverpool won't give up playing Everton. Spurs won't give up playing in the FA Cup. And there won't be room for all six of them anyway.
5. English clubs are disadvantaged when playing in Europe, they tell us. Fuck 'em. They've rigged it so the rest of us can't qualify and now they want us to care? Don't let the door hit you on the way out, lads.
6. The West Ham board think this is a good idea. This should give anyone in support of this pause for thought.
7. When foreign fans tune in to watch Burnley play Manchester United, they actually are tuning in to watch Burnley. Otherwise, it would just be a Manchester United training session. Competitions need, you know, competitors.
I suspect this proposal will be rejected, even though Everton, West Ham and Leicester are allegedly in support, but the very fact it is on the agenda is bad news. We will now hear the rumblings of discontent for a while until the next power grab.
But, in the meantime, we need to make ourselves better heard. We, the fans of the majority of English clubs, need to stop silently acquiescing to the idea of our own inferiority. These clubs take the money, the players, the power and now they want the very soul of the game.
So, ask the questions they don't want you to ask.
And then demand some answers.