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A butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker: local businessmen out to make a bit of a name for themselves were traditionally the owners of league football clubs. Sure, they were sometimes a bit crooked in their intentions, but at least they were our crooks. With roots in their communities, they owed a degree of loyalty to the club, its fans and traditions – and failing that were vulnerable to popular pressure.
The game’s appeal is rooted in its easy accessibility and the passion of fandom. But the relentless drift of modern football could overwhelm both these factors. The top division once had an era of unpredictability – Manchester United and Chelsea could get relegated, for goodness sake – but since 1995 the league title has only been won by Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. The ‘best league in the world’? A better description would be the most overpaid and predictable.
After the last minute shock as the early season transfer window slammed shut, Manchester City now find themselves taking the place of Chelsea as modern football’s whipping boys for all that’s wrong in the game. The morality behind the club’s former ownership by an ex-prime minister of Thailand, who was on trial for corruption and subject to well-founded charges of human rights abuses, was neatly summed up Manchester City chief executive Garry Crook: ‘Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things.’ Now there is another new owner, and the Thai millions available to the club to spend have suddenly multiplied into Abu Dhabi billions.
Is this what football has come to? A plaything of the global rich, hopping from one club, sport or continent to the next in their search for brand awareness and tax-deductible losses? Complete with a brief flurry of badge-kissing to bestow some authenticity on their investment, deep pockets for the manager to plunder, and, if they’re lucky, some silverware to add some glory and prestige to their otherwise low profile outside the closed world of the international mega-rich.
It began with the rebranding. No longer satisfied with a first division, we now have a ludicrous Premiership, Championship, Leagues One and Two. Presumably ‘Division Two’ doesn’t sound good enough to attract the necessary corporate sponsorship and advertising revenue. Then legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein’s maxim, ‘Football without fans is nothing’, was sacrificed by forcing kick-off times and days to match the needs of television programming – the channels were saturated with football every night of the week, with three or four matches on a Saturday and Sunday.
Clubs knocked down historic grounds, built magnificent new ones and promptly named them after brands of crisps and airlines. The core of our teams, once scouted from local schools and parks and happy enough to stick at the one club for the best part of their career, were replaced by players bought and sold with the flash of a £100,000-a-week salary cheque and a chance of a shot at greater glory.
That glory is increasingly defined by, and restricted to, the Champions League, which, with four guaranteed places from the English premiership, has not only delivered a near impregnable predictability but also destroyed the finest cup competition in the world, the European Cup. The unpredictability of the European Cup’s knockout format threatened the market share of advertising and sponsorship revenue of the biggest clubs, who in turn forced the change to the easier to qualify for – and survive in – Champions (and rich runners-up) League format.
Against modern football? What this version of money-driven change is creating is a breakdown in the loyalty and passion that underpins football. It won’t disappear overnight of course, and it might take new forms, but the sport that was once proud to call itself ‘the people’s game’ is in danger of becoming more concerned with us sitting down than with what football once stood for.
Mark Perryman is a research fellow in sport and leisure culture at the University of Brighton. The ‘Against Mod£rn Football’ t-shirt (pictured left) is available from www.philosophyfootball.com