Winners and losers

Dave Woodhall writes about proposals for the European Super League.

It was about twenty years ago that I was talking to Mark Ansell, then-financial director at Villa, about new ideas that were being proposed in European football. I forget the exact context – it might have been when the Champions League was extended so that four clubs from the leading nations could qualify. Mark’s response that it was a bad thing because the competing clubs would get more money and therefore competition would be unfair. I asked him how it was different from the Premier League, which had been set up a few years before with the intention of getting a bigger share for its members and he replied that it was fine for twenty clubs to share the money out but not four. Hairs have been split finer, although not much; the real reason of course was that Villa were one of the twenty, but at the time had little chance of being amongst the four.

And therein lies the real opposition to the European Super League proposals we heard about at the weekend. I can’t remember so much opposition to any proposal ever put forward before. Politicians of all shades, fourteen Premier League clubs and all right-thinking supporters at every level are united in their opposition to this latest example of football avarice.

And while I don’t doubt that the majority of genuine supporters are sincere in their opposition, I’m equally certain that the same proportion of Premier League owners are, let’s say, somewhat less hard-line. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that their main objection to the ESL isn’t the fact that it will kill off competition, or deal a fatal blow to clubs that are already struggling to survive, it’s because they weren’t invited to the party. We’ve already seen a fair deal of hypocrisy since the news broke. Gary Neville criticised it – that’s the Gary Neville who helped bankroll Salford City from Step Four to League Two. The PFA have also condemned the proposals, although their members haven’t gone as far as turning down the sky-rocketing pay rises they’ve received since the Premier League was formed.

These developments don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Football sold its soul long ago, even before the year zero of 1992. A few years before that the McGregor Doctrine of sharing gate receipts with the away team had been quietly scrapped and ever since then top-level football has been ruled by the overwhelming fear that someone, somewhere, has a spare pound that the Premier League hasn’t yet been able to get their hands on.

By most standards, the Premier League has been a resounding success. Money comes flooding in, some people get exceedingly rich and if there have been a few casualties amongst the clubs who spent money they couldn’t afford in an attempt to either get or stay on the money-go-round, too bad. It’s a sport; ergo to have winners you must always have losers.

Just look at the profile, and look at the attendances. Villa and Norwich finished second and third in 1992-93, the first Premier League season. Their average gates were 29,594 and 16,154 respectively. Last season the same clubs finished seventeenth and twentieth. Pre-COVID those attendances had increased to 41,661 and 27,025. Since 1993 hundreds of thousands of people have discovered that they love football. But never mind the club down the road with its century of history and passionate supporters; it’s the Premier League for me. Mr & Mrs Hunter wouldn’t dream of letting their lad Glory bother with anything else – where’s the fun in watching players you’ve never heard of and supporting a team who might go two years without winning a trophy? That’s not proper football.

The Premier League is the big kids who took your ball off you over the park and now they’re complaining because some bigger kids have taken it off them. Pounds, euros, dollars, yen. They’re all out there, just waiting to be hoovered up. In hindsight the pandemic might prove to be the best thing that ever happened to the glory boys. Much as we know that football doesn’t really need supporters, we did at least kid ourselves that they needed us to provide the atmosphere for the big occasion. Matches played behind closed doors have nailed even that fallacy. Audiences still watch, advertisers still advertise. Football without fans is, well, it’s much the same as it’s been for years. The Hunters will still sit in front of the TV wearing the latest replica shirts, Glory’s older brother Attention will still have banter on social media, put his acca on and watch a succession of matches all weekend with his mates at the sports bar.

The ESL might not happen after all. The authorities might, for once, put the spirit of the game above income streams and warn the Dirty Dozen off. There might be some form of compromise along the lines of clubs being allowed to strike their own TV deal or guaranteed entry to the Champions League. But whatever happens now, it’s almost certain that something similar will be formed sooner rather than later. Bankers such as JP Morgan do not get involved in such a controversial idea for the good of their health, or without cast-iron guarantees that they’ll be well compensated for any bad publicity that might come their way.

And while football gets bigger, glitzier and ever more detached from the real world, those of us who have been with it from birth will sigh, and carry on as we always have done. We’ll still support the same teams, have the same hopes that this season will be different, then more than likely suffer the same grim reality that we’re enduring the same shite we always have. That’s football, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And if it was up to me, when Manchester City (average gate in 1992-93 24,698, five years later they were in division three) turn up on Wednesday night the gates would be locked.