When the Premier League was launched nearly 20 years ago, football in this country experienced a boom of unprecedented proportions. What was already a national obsession became the national religion as millions tuned in to the Sky Sports coverage, able for the first time to watch league
games in their entirety, with a new-found glitz and glamour never previously seen. Shows like Soccer Saturday became just as big a fixture of our lives as eating and sleeping, while previously forgotten ex-professionals like Kammy, Merse and Deano became instant cult heroes to those of us with nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon.
And with this new popularity came lots of new pound notes as advertisers threw money at Sky, desperate to take advantage of massive ratings and impulsive viewers wanting to either celebrate success or ease the pain of defeat. The clubs could then take their share of the cash and buy better players, build bigger grounds and ease the chairman’s itch with the very finest ivory backscratchers.
Of course the problem with amassing so many riches in one place is that it can attract the wrong sort of suitors; greedy, grasping types whose only interests in the game is the massive wealth and the bragging rights over their mates at the San Marino yacht club. The sorts who don’t mind bending the rules to get what they want. And when they find the rules rigid and unyielding, they just change them.
Recent comments suggesting that Premiership owners could vote to scrap promotion and relegation between the top two divisions has rightly been met with fiery condemnation. League Managers Association (LMA) Chief Executive Richard Bevan has voiced his concerns, Sir Alex Ferguson has said it would be ‘suicide’ and David Whelan, in typical fence-sitting style, declared he would pull Wigan out of the Premier League altogether, such is the negative feeling towards this latest ridiculous attempt to further fortify the top clubs’ positions while quietly fattening the wallets of their owners.
First we had Richard Scudamore’s fabled ‘39th game’; a thinly veiled suggestion of sporting imperialism, taking our own football leviathan around the world, crushing the more impoverished leagues that have not yet established the greed and ruthlessness that made our own top flight so
powerful. Then came the recent calls from Liverpool’s top bean-counter for each club to negotiate its own foreign TV deal in a scheme modelled on La Liga. Simply put, he has decided it is unfair that his club should have to play on a level playing field and would much rather widen the gap between the have and the have-nots even further as the better known clubs prostitute their names for astronomical sums while the less fashionable sides are forced to feed on scraps.
However, this new suggestion, this newest episode in the never-ending farce known as English football politics, takes the cake. Separating the Premier League from the pyramid system would instantly kill any sort of competitive element for around two thirds of the teams. Those not involved
in the hunt for the title or Europe would be able to sit back and relax, planning which tropical beach to sun themselves on that summer, deciding which ghost-writer should scribe their own grossly premature ‘autobiography’, with no concerns about a fight for survival, because survival would
be guaranteed. And outside the top flight, it would also be disastrous for many famous old clubs who have dropped down the ladder and not yet climbed back up. Clubs like Forest, Wednesday and Leeds, who see the Premier League not only as the Promised Land, but more importantly, as Home.
The problem with creating something this powerful is that eventually it becomes impossible to control. We built the Premiership; our pounds and pence bought the players and our bums filled the seats. But now, like a 21st century Dr Frankenstein, we have absolutely no say in where our creation goes or what it does. We’re left to hope that football club chairmen, that notoriously wise and generous bunch, will sacrifice their own already bulging bank balance for the sake of fair play, history, and sanity.
If this ruling ever were to go through and the Premier League ever were to become totally self-contained, there’s no doubt, football in this country would be dead, gone, finished. And we, the very ones who had forged the thing in the first place will be left to stack the chairs on the tables, lock the doors and turn off the lights.
Then, the next week, we’ll have to find something constructive to do with our Saturday afternoons, and really, who wants that?