A Question of Class

This article about the entrenched predictability of the English Premier League was published in Inside Sport, October 2007.  Sadly, nothing has changed.  And as the AFL is now finding, more clubs actually equates to less competition.  But calls to introduce a two-division promotion and relegation system as a solution are also misguided.

Is there any chance of a serious challenge to Manchester United and Chelsea’s dominance?

Twenty years ago English football’s turnstiles were a magnet for the hostile. Premier League is now arguably the most successful global force in sport.  The hooligans are all but gone and the world’s stars have come to play.  But behind a fat bottom line and slick marketing, is the word ‘competition’ a misnomer?

The ‘world game’ is purportedly the most inherently democratic and socialistic sport, for on the field everyone is equal and anyone can make it big, no matter what their background.  Indeed, but find me a sport more fiercely capitalistic in its execution.

Attracting many of the game’s best entertainers saw interest in the EPL surge but spare a thought for Brits brought up following the wrong football team.   Well may fans around the globe proudly don the latest Manchester United garb or hitch onto Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal’s bandwagon.   It’s a good thing Poms boast a renowned sense of humour and stiff upper lip for they may as well save themselves the masochistic torment of following anyone outside Premier League’s ‘big four’ (Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea).

Sure, a stodgy brand of football may have been replaced by a more attractive higher scoring model but so is the type of basketball played between the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals.  Some still find that charade entertaining but at least it’s an acknowledged mismatch played for laughs.  One survey showed 89% of supporters believed only the wealthiest clubs will ever win the title.  The other 11% are perhaps England’s last remaining optimists.

Although Liverpool once owned a mortgage on the title, an eclectic mix of clubs at least had a decent crack in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  Since the advent of Premier League in 1992/93, 39 teams have tried their luck in the top division.  Cross town rivalries and games impacting on qualifying for other competitions may add spice from time to time but filling the TV schedule is as much as most clubs will achieve.  Even the FA Cup, a knockout competition made for Hollywood against the odds triumphs, perpetuates the power of the high rollers.  More than ever the trendy EPL resembles the mysterious British class system, the game less accessible and more tediously predictable than ever.

                     Premier League (since 1995-96)  FA Cup (since 1995/96)

                                       Titles              Runners-Up   Titles              Runners-Up

ManchesterUnited        7                            2                         3                               3

Arsenal                              3                             5                         4                                1

Chelsea                              2                              2                        3                                1

Liverpool                         0                              1                         2                               1

Other                             0                               0                         0                               4

Many clubs plod along without the means to claw their way onto the dance floor proper, yo-yoing between First and Premier Division with the arse threatening to fall out of their shorts.  Others appear content with mediocrity and averting the Grim Reaper of relegation.  Sadly, some with immense histories such as Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday may be just that – history.

Those enjoying the lofty heights might argue that the best managed clubs drawing the most money and ultimately players should reap the rewards. The argument loses traction when a rich benefactor or ownership consortium can bankroll huge losses in the pursuit of success.  When Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea as his new play thing, an average club quickly became a powerhouse through prodigious expenditure on superstars such as Lampard, Drogba, Ballack and Shevchenko.  Spending may be obscene but Abramovich is not doing anything different to anyone else, just at a new unprecedented level (€115m a season).

So what’s to be gained being a small fish in a big pond?  Money of course – TV rights are astronomically lucrative.  Profits for EPL clubs total in excess of €200m, total revenue around €6b – the GDP of Macedonia!  Derby County’s elevation to Premier League this season is said to be worth £60 million to the club in increased TV revenue, gate receipts and sponsorships.  Looking at the whole scenario from afar, it seems that for most clubs their very raison d’être is no longer the near impossible pursuit of becoming the best team in the EPL.  The average Premier League club’s revenue is five times that of a First Division entity.  Financial gain for players, managers, administrators and other hangers-on and the economic boost for Premier League towns is surely the new modus operandi.

For fans, is merely competing with the big boys enough to hold their devotion? Curiously, attendances and ratings seem to say ‘yes’.  Despite inflation busting prices and the competition’s anti-competitive nature, crowds this decade are at a level not seen since 1970 and significantly improved stadiums have been filled to over 90% capacity for the past nine seasons.   So how does one reconcile following a team that has never and is unlikely to win the title in their lifetime?  A season stretching over 40 games must be Chinese torture for Wigan, Watford and West Ham.  Avoiding relegation is a dubious motivation to fork out 150 quid to watch your team play.

Conversely, for followers of the rich and powerful, what pride is there in beating up on your metaphorical kid sister?  Their biggest challenges rest in managing players’ egos and overcoming the communication barrier of a hand picked United Nations squad.    Literary Arsenal tragic Nick Hornby now pines for the days when winning was truly savoured, not expected and observed that clubs are looking abroad for real competition.  Dominant superclubs aren’t exclusive to the EPL.  AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona are in a class of their own and no club has broken Scottish League’s Rangers-Celtic duopoly the since 1985.

Changes in the status quo appear unlikely in the short term for the Premier League is the strongest component of a €11.6b European industry and the elite clubs are doing just fine, thankyou.  Wealth begets further wealth and success and with minimal FA intervention, the class divide widens.  Of the £1.5bn generated by the EPL, almost half is shared between just the top five clubs.  Remarkably, the poor relations don’t threaten to form a united front or a breakaway league.  Maybe the national cricket team has them well trained in dealing with disappointment.

One might suggest the expansion of the current European club championship to a ‘European League’ featuring the clubs that have outgrown their market has merit.  Maybe the concept of giving the battlers a chance of real success is a fanciful concept?

Alternatively, for the EPL to bite the bullet first and employ a salary cap now would bid au revoir and ciao to many of its stars.  It would need UEFA to enforce realistic limits across all European leagues.  New UEFA boss Michel Platini, with his traditional football values, does want to level the European playing field.  This may not go far enough – possibly a global commitment required to avert a mass exodus of talent to the US or Asia.   A cap may be set too high for struggling clubs to meet it anyway, thus rendering the exercise futile.

The whole moral question of a team earning a king’s ransom needs addressing, especially in light of the abject poverty suffered by some of these mega rich players’ compatriots.  To have Wayne Rooney (as good as he is) earn $A17.2m a year for kicking a ball around in a gifted fashion is capitalism gone mad.  A new TV contract will see £900m shared between English clubs this season and a cynic would suggest that players and managers will be reaping the spoils (rather than fans enjoying reasonable ticket prices).

English football’s doldrums during the Thatcher years rested largely with tragic and disgraceful incidents of spectator violence imbedded in fierce tribalism and a boozy, brainless underclass.  Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, fans have felt relatively optimistic that an excursion to the football won’t wind up in outpatients.  A new age of prosperity dawned on English football with a new fan base remarkably prepared to sell their first-born in order to see their team in the flesh.   Whilst rogue supporters nearly destroyed the game, the EPL might do well to recall Joe Public is also the basis from which it was built and is now so commercially successful.  A challenge faces many Premier League diehards to maintain the faith as they pour their money into an elite private party.  If one’s team represents a bizarre love tryst, then the last decade has tested this devotion like never before.

So, as the EPL season gathers momentum, is there any chance of a Cinderella story challenging the competition’s inglorious certainty?  For the poor folk of Fulham, Derby County or Portsmouth, one can only hope so.  It would be a massive shot in the arm for the game.



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