For someone who spent the first 18 years of his life following football like it was a religion, the move towards ‘not caring’ about it anymore is one that’s more than tinged with sadness. This blogpost follows on from Can we have our game back please?
I’m not going to pretend that everything was brilliant in ‘the good old days’ – they weren’t. The money that has come into the game – in particularly since the early 1990s has been something of a double-edged sword. The quality of the pitches and stadia, along with crowd safety has improved significantly. The season when I started watching Cambridge United regularly was the season they became champions of the old third division. Have a look at the pitch when the United thumped Sheffield Wednesday 4-0 at home in the FA Cup.
Yes, that is Dion Dublin. The scorer of the second goal – Lee Philpott used to play for the local boys team I played for when I was at primary school. You could say that small transfer fees, small wages and local links helped bind clubs to their local communities. One of the other things that I noticed watching Cambridge back in those days was the work rate. It had to be high when playing ‘long ball’. The players that were the most popular (with the fans) I recall were the ones that were seen to work the hardest. At the same time, the parents of one of my friends from primary school every so often would speak about how at various times Pat Jennings and Ray Clemence lived down their road. Jennings played for Tottenham then Arsenal, playing in 2 world cups for Northern Ireland (1982 and 1986), while Clemence was capped 61 times for England. Can you imagine a similar scenario today?
In those days too it was possible for teams to work their way up from the very bottom to the very top. Wimbledon did it during the 1980s, going on to win the FA Cup in 1988 having reached the top flight. Cambridge came perilously close in 1991/2 having spent much of that season at the top of the old second division only to slip back into the playoffs to be knocked out by Leicester at the semi-final stage. I watched the first leg at the Abbey Stadium where United drew 1-1, only to be thumped 5-0 on the return leg. Leicester were then defeated by Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon Town in the final at Wembley.
The impact of the Premier League – and the money that came with it has had the effect of making the jump between it and the lower leagues, significant. Not only that, many top players no longer live within the communities that provide their core fan base. The mock tudor mansions have replaced the semi in suburbia. The West End nightclubs replacing the local pubs. The relationship with the press even more adversarial, along with much greater levels of scrutiny – especially with the advent of dedicated sports channels. There is also the issue of the impact of the “Bosman” ruling in the mid 1990s. Prior to that ruling, in European football teams were limited to three foreign players – hence Manchester United taking a beating from Barcelona in 1994/95 in part because Schmeichel and Cantona were ruled out. It was this ruling that in part helped create the global brand that is the Premier League. Football fans from all over the world are understandably interested in where their country’s top players play. In the early 1990s Channel 4 launched “Gazzetta Football Italia” on the back of the transfers of Paul Gascoigne and David Platt to Lazio and Bari respectively, which generated greater interest in Italian football in the UK in the early-to-mid 1990s.
The changing structures of both domestic and European football has played into the hands of the bigger clubs. Until the 1990s, what we now call the Champions League (but before then was the European Cup) was a European competition where the winners of the domestic league of each European country was invited to play. Today, the bigger countries get more places while the smaller countries have to play through more qualifying rounds to get in. This increases the likelihood that the bigger clubs from the bigger countries are more likely to get more money from this set up – or are less likely to miss out – at the expense of smaller teams from smaller countries.
To make the jump from top flight domestic football to top flight European football (and to succeed in the latter) takes a huge amount of money – something that bankrupted Leeds United FC. The same is broadly true for any club making the jump from the lower leagues to the Premier League.
This structure I think is anti-competitive. It entrenches the position of the established clubs, elevating them to a level that makes it almost impossible for other clubs to break through without a huge benefactor with seemingly endless pockets. (Think Blackburn in the early 1990s, or Chelsea & Manchester City more recently).
Both the Premier League and the Champions League are now global brands, with the top players having profiles similar to Hollywood movie stars – and the potential earnings that go with it. Hence in part all the trappings of ‘celebrity’ that go with it. Sports stars and movie stars you could say are part of a global entertainment industry – again, with all of the trappings that go with it. And it’s a bubble. I’ve seen what such bubbles look like – I spent several years in the Whitehall one – one that feels completely cut off from the rest of society.
What effect does this bubble have? Well, for me it’s similar to how people describe politicians: They’re not like the rest of us. Just as politicians have become institutionalised by the public school, PPE at oxbridge, political hack, special adviser, MP, minister route, has a similar thing occurred with the academy system for young footballers? Just as we could ask who is there to keep politicians ‘grounded’ in society, can the same be asked of top footballers in their early 20s who get paid more in a week than many earn in a year? This is not a criticism of individual footballers or politicians, it’s a criticism of the system.
And when things go wrong? It’s all played out in full view of the media. What may seem like ‘normal’ – even ‘acceptable’ behaviour inside the bubble may be anything but outside of it. Think of the senior bankers getting their bonuses in the next few weeks and how such money is spent. Over the years the newspapers have been full of stories of bankers blowing tens, even hundreds of thousands on expensive drinks in West End and City nightclubs. Inside their bubble this might be normal and acceptable, but outside of it? The economic crash has brought a huge and harsh spotlight that has made some executives feel very uncomfortable with this level of scrutiny.
When the playing field is no longer level and the system is structured against you, what’s the point? What’s the point when following a team becomes more and more expensive while at the same time the chances of your team making it all the way to the top – Premier League or even Champions League champions, is made all the more remote year on year? I remember the pride many of us youngsters felt when Dion Dublin made his move to Manchester United in the summer of 1992 – as well as Lee Philpott who moved to Leicester City. It showed that players from lower league clubs could get spotted by the big clubs and make names for themselves. Today, it’s the opposite way round, with big clubs ‘loaning’ young players to lower league clubs for the season to gain experience. Amongst other things this model (along with the transfer windows) reduces a vital source of income to cash-strapped lower-league clubs. Cambridge United know all about this, having been in administration recently and having had to sell their ground in controversial circumstances.
Finally, onto international football. When not on high salaries, mistakes and poor performances were slightly more forgivable – even though Bobby Robson famously got it in the neck for Euro 1988 and Graham Taylor at Euro 1992 & the failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup – a bitter disappointment at the time. But after Euro 2000 when it became clear that such highly paid players couldn’t string two passes together (along with the riots), I thought “What is the point?” The talent that England had at its disposal at the World Cups of 2002 & 2006, along with Euro 2004 should have been enough to have won those tournaments. Despite stupendously superb levels of support that few other teams could match, on the pitch the team seemed to go out with a whimper at those – as well as in its failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and the debacle that was the World Cup 2010.
In the domestic league structure I see a system that is skewed against competition and the free flow of teams up and down the divisions on merit. I see an entire cohort of people in what is now an industry that is ‘cut off’ from the supporters that they are there to serve and entertain. I see a governing body that is not fit for purpose – one that has been lurching from crisis to crisis, devoid of any competent leadership.
At an international level, I see a group of individually talented sportsmen who for some reason seldom become greater than the sum of their parts – if anything they even fail to reach that level. Despite the huge sums of money and significant resources thrown at them in terms of preparation and top managers, we still do not know why the international team underachieved over the last decade. None of this is helped by the governing body the game is cursed with.
Finally, I’ve never really had anyone to play football with since leaving school. There used to be something quite nice about playing football at lunchtime at a weekend before watching a game on telly later that afternoon. Or even playing football in the playground before either watching a game on TV on a weeknight evening or listening to the crackling sound of Mike Ingham and co on the medium wave. (How do you explain the concept of non-digital non-stereo radio to those brought up in a digital age?)
Football used to be a major part of my life. It isn’t anymore and hasn’t been for some time. A structure that is subtly but significantly skewed against what I feel is any notion of fairness, a top flight so cut off on a day-to-day basis from the supporters that sustain them, and the ever-increasing expense that it costs to follow a team made me ask what the point of it all was.
I can still follow football with the best of them. Some things you learn in childhood never leave you. The offside rule is one of them – for me anyway. Just don’t ask me to get excited about the beautiful game anymore. I can’t.