Can Football ‘Build Back Better’?

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The calling out of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and their attempts to set up a European Super League may have been right – but there was a whiff of hypocrisy and a healthy springling of self-interest in some of the criticism. Much more than stopping this elitist project needs to be done to rescue ‘the beautiful game’ according to Downtown boss Frank McKenna.

The football clubs who pioneered the European Super League this week, the shortest ever competition in the history of football, have inevitably been criticised for being money-grabbing, greedy, mercenaries.

I get that, and I certainly wouldn’t be at the front of the queue in trying to defend the ‘dirty dozen’ for what was a rather grubby attempt to feather their own nests at the expense of their peers.

However, it is for the birds to suggest that, certainly since the establishment of the Premier League, football in this country has been anything other than a business, rather than a sport.

As fans, like it or not, we have bought into that. We criticise a Prime Ministers salary of £100,000 per annum but slaughter our football teams’ chairman if he won’t give our star player £100 grand a week. We celebrate when the club announces a major new sponsorship deal, whether it be with a brewery or a gambling company but bemoan the idea of clubs trying to take advantage of the global reach of the game through an initiative such as the 39th game. And we fume when Sky Sports subscriptions increase every year but expect club owners to break transfer fee records every season.

As customers, we have every right to be contrary – but some of the references to a bygone time of Shankly, Busby, and even Sir Alex this week, were at best naïve, worse manipulative.

The biggest problems I had with the ‘ESL’ had less to do with the money-grab, and more to do with other aspects of the proposal.

Firstly, it was a group of clubs that was self-selecting and too narrow. I appreciate that the world is getting smaller, but the idea that Europe consists of only three countries, England, Italy, and Spain, is taking things to the extreme.

Second, the closed shop approach, with no-relegation clauses, means that for the majority of those competing, the season would be over very early. There would have been a local spat between Arsenal and Spurs every season to see who could avoid being bottom, but other than that?

Which leads me to my third and most important objection. It would have been the most boring football league since the establishment of the Scottish Premiership, where only old firm matches matter.

The idea that supporters would get excited about Liverpool playing Juventus on a wet and windy Wednesday in February, with both teams languishing mid-table, thirty- points behind City and Barca, does not a good quality competition make. Other than local bragging rights, what is the difference to Arsenal if they finish 11th or 12th each season? Even those clubs in the Premier League who never aspire to win it, find a perverse excitement in avoiding the dreaded drop. And, sorry if this sounds old fashioned, but watching matches played at a Snail’s pace, where goalless draws become commonplace, would undoubtedly have led to a sharp decrease in audiences and a longer-term problem for the self – proclaimed elite. There is a reason that the Premier League is the most watched on the planet. It is fast, furious, and on any given day a Brighton can beat a Chelsea.    

Like the vast majority of football fans, I’m pleased the ESL has died a death. However, we will have missed an opportunity if we don’t now use this controversy to have a radical rethink and reset of our national game. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have come up with some decent proposals. The government have ordered a review. Let’s make sure winning this battle also results in us winning the ultimate war.

A genuine fit and proper person test for those who wish to take control of a club. A more equitable distribution of monies coming into the game, with a much larger share for lower league and grass roots football. Transparency and better regulation of agent’s fees. Maybe even a salary cap – though I am personally reluctant to go there. 

As a traditionalist when it comes to the beautiful game, I would be in favour of such a radical shake up. But don’t be surprised if those club owners who many fans have celebrated with as they loaded their clubs with debt walk away – leaving behind a more competitive, but probably less glamourous product.

And as for all those commentators who have been so eloquently quoting the late, great Bill Shankly this week – I look forward to reading your posts on why you will be boycotting the World Cup Finals in Qatar next year.

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