The day the football died

Stacy Murphy writes about the ESL.

It is 19th April 2021 and I feel disgusted with football. I should clarify that this isn’t about Villa but the professional sport of football.

For years I have been kidding myself that football isn’t just about money and that true competition within the game does exist. After all there are shocks such as, a then, non-league Lincoln City beating Premier League Burnley, romance like Burton Albion reaching the Championship and drama such as Carlisle staying in the league with a goal from a keeper with the last kick of the season. These are the sort of things I love about football but gradually over the last forty years the competition element has been slowly eroded as the sport has transitioned into a business.

There are arguments that this erosion of competition has been going on for far longer than that particularly in domestic football. The abolition of retain and transfer system and maximum wage in 1961 could be taken as a starting point as could the restructuring to four distinct divisions rather than having two regional third division three years earlier. If we wanted to take this to a logical conclusion it would be the introduction of professionalism in 1885.

Maybe that could be a good starting point as the legalisation by the FA of paying players 136 years ago in some aspects sought to ‘level up’ the game wresting it from the few powerful, mostly public school, clubs predominantly from the South of England, who had come to dominate the game. The idea was to allow the clubs who had grown up around industry or, in Villa’s case a church, of the Midlands and the North to compete on a more-or-less equal footing in a way that would not lead to those clubs being excluded FA competition as was the theoretical penalty for paying players up to that point. From then on the game flourished and allowed William McGregor to put forward his idea of a league three years later; the meeting which formed the Football League took place on 17th April 1888 after an initial meeting a month earlier. This finally centred football’s powerbase among those who were turning up in increasing numbers to watch the newly legalised professionals.

It seemed though from the early 1980s that commercialism which stated with shirt sponsorship and spread to re-naming of competitions starting with the League Cup, which acquired the moniker the Milk Cup along with a terrible art nouveau trophy, became more and more important. It was when this commercialism combined with an agreement over live TV rights in 1982 that the pursuit of money rather than trophies in football really began to become an issue. By the end of the decade the so-called Big Five which consisted of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton decided they wanted a bigger percentage of the commercial and TV revenue and the first domestic ‘super league’ was mooted. Within a few years those five had convinced the boards of the other first division clubs this was a good idea and the FA Premier League was born in 1992 complete with its own dedicated broadcaster, Sky.

At the time, in addition to creating an extension of gap between the ‘haves’ inside the new league and the mostly ‘have nots’ outside it, it was also suggested that the FA was quite happy to accommodate its own league after a hundred years of squabbling with the Football League. What was crucial about the Premier League though was, even though the monetary boundaries had shifted significantly in favour of those clubs within it, there was still the opportunity to gain admittance via the traditional promotion route but in order to do so remaining Football League clubs increasingly had to risk their financial futures to gain a place in the promised land. The first few years saw the promotion of newly-monied clubs Newcastle and Blackburn and the relegation of the relative minnows Oldham and Wimbledon, to the relief of Sky who were duty bound to show a certain number of games for each Premier League club as their blanket promotion of the clubs with more armchair fans increased almost exponentially and Oldham v Wimbledon did not provide viewers or advertising revenue.

At the same time the wealthier clubs in England started to get greedy those in Europe were feeling the same. Since English clubs had been excluded from UEFA competitions after Heysel in 1985 unfancied Steaua Bucharest, PSV Eindhoven and Red Star Belgrade had all won the European Cup and unfamiliar names such as Mechelen, IFK Gothenburg, Dundee United and Espanyol appeared in Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup finals. The solution for the European giants was to make it more difficult for this to happen and the European Champions Cup morphed into the Champions League where a league format made it less likely those with the money and influence would be knocked out in the early rounds and, a change made a few years later, even if they were they still got to play in the UEFA Cup.

On the back of this rich getting richer basis the amount the TV companies had to pay more and more to broadcast these re-formatted and heavily marketed competitions which did not go un-noticed by some of the world’s richest companies who spotted an opportunity to make even more money. Prompted by Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich taking over an ailing Chelsea others followed often funding their purchases with unimaginable levels of debt borrowed against future earnings and attributed to the clubs they were buying with the most well-known example of this being the Glazer family buying Manchester United.

This spiral, though, did not stop at vastly rich people or companies, as nation states began to take on vanity projects of buying slighted depressed clubs, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain, and getting them to compete with those playthings of the mega-wealthy. Corporations have even taken to setting up franchises. Energy drinks firm Red Bull have bought several different clubs across the world and have basically stripped away their identity to promote the Red Bull brand. This hasn’t yet been as successful on the pitch as the Austrian company has concentrated on its clubs in Germany and Austria where ownership of clubs is restricted but they also own clubs in Brazil, and more famously, New York among others.

This business approach of eliminating risk could really only head in one direction and we arrived at that yesterday. 133 years and a day after the foundation of William McGregor’s Football League four of those Big Five of the late 1980s plus the bought success of Chelsea and Manchester City announced they were founding members of the European Super League (ESL) along with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from Spain and Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale from Italy with possibly Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to follow. ESL will have no relegation for these founding members but generously will allow those it deems fit to compete but only if they promise to go away again after a season or two, unless that is they have enough money to make the ‘founders’ money as well.

I am glad that Christian Purslow made a statement on behalf of Aston Villa condemning the anti-competitive ESL idea but I can’t help thinking that it is easy to say that from the outside. The sporting element of football, along with my previously boundless enthusiasm for the game, didn’t die completely yesterday but both could be approaching needing life-support having been subject to that slow erosion over many years and that opening up of the sport for all to have an equal chance of success in 1885 has be reclaimed by privileged few.

Stacy Murphy