As a Leeds United fan first and a lover of football in the broader sense second, I do find myself watching a great deal of Premier League stuff on TV and, clearly, there’s a lot to admire. And admire it I do; I will yield to no man in my ability to appreciate the quality of the Beautiful Game, so beautifully played – usually. And yet, again with my Leeds United head on, it’s rather like being a deprived and starveling urchin, stood barefoot in rags under a rainy sky, shivering in a cold wind, with my hungry nose pressed up against a bright shop window, displaying in glitzy magnificence a cornucopia of desirable things that I can neither reach nor afford. From that point of view, the over-riding emotion is envy, with shades of desire, contempt, hatred and resentment intermingled.
Since football abandoned any pretence at being a sport, or even a working-class opera, starry-eyed idealists such as myself – ancient enough to remember the olden days and once-fashionable things like glory, passion, pride and identity – have been asking themselves one wistful question.
Will we ever have a truly level playing field again?
On the face of it, you’d have to say it’s unlikely, if not completely out of the question. Even in the olden days, it was something of a relative concept. There were rich and poor back then, just as at any time you could mention in the whole of sporting history. There were big fish and there were also small fry. But now, you’re talking whales and plankton – and we all know what whales do to plankton. The gap has widened and inequality has increased fast enough and far enough to put an ecstatic beam on the face of any bloated, plutocratic Tory. And that’s not simply a situation which applies to the extremes of the game.
Even in the Premier League, that much-vaunted bastion of mega-wealth and world-class quality – the best league in the world, according to Sky TV executives (how they must laugh into their paella over that in the strongholds of la Liga) – even there, in the sparkly EPL, there is a rigid class system. There are leagues within this elite league, glass ceilings it’s almost impossible to break through. And that’s a problem being aggravated, ironically, by a device intended, ostensibly, to promote fairness.
The provisions of the Financial Fair Play rules are too complex to lend themselves to easy summary, but – without wishing to sacrifice the integrity of a sincerely-meant blog on the altar of glib over-simplification – the effect of the measures now in force appears to be the protection of “old money” and, by implication, old power. In other words, those who feathered their nests, by whatever means, at the right time and by pretty much any means, are in an advantageous position now, due to long-established income streams. In some cases, those income streams go back a long way, are not necessarily directly connected to football and are reinforced and supported by the modern day mass-media. Let’s take a case in point. Yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s this blog’s old friends Manchester United FC.
Man U were the very epitome of “old money” when the Premier League came into being, but the differentials back then had not been great enough to permit their dominance of the game over the previous 25 years since they last won the genuine English Champions title in the black & white days of 1967. In the interim, first Leeds United and then Liverpool were the big beasts of English football, with occasional cameo appearances from the likes of Arsenal, Everton, Derby and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool’s vice-like grip on the game for almost two decades was a remarkable achievement on as level a playing field as we could possibly have had at the time. But when that field was tilted towards the already cash-rich, merchandise and marketing-savvy mob at the other end of the East Lancs road, Liverpool was one of the clubs that hurtled into the abyss. They’ve never truly recovered. The astounding fact of the matter is that Leeds United have been Champions more recently than Liverpool FC. So, indeed, have Blackburn Rovers – but that was only one of those nasty, plastic ones designed especially for Man U. If the cap fits…
For the first twenty years or so after the Murdoch putsch, the Man U-friendly environment of the Australian’s Sky League kept Fergie’s humourless and joyless troops at the top, with the rest of football gasping its trophy-winning life out under the big red jackboot. Marketing-wise, this was an extremely desirable state of affairs for the money men who now owned the game. They had a leading brand, it was an almost guaranteed winner, and this opened up still further a lucrative global market with literally millions of non-matchgoing mugs the world over, desperate for more and more Man U tat and the Sky dishes for goggleboxes on which to ogle their remote heroes. One major tool in the maintenance of this near-monopoly was the extension and mass-marketing of the “United Brand“.
The United Brand was and is the media’s slavish adoption of the old Man U “there’s only one United” myth – one of the stock lies in any Pride of Devon follower’s little cupboard of self-delusion, along with “biggest in the world”, “greatest team ever”, “most tragic disaster” etc etc. Most of these big fibs are left to the individual glory-hunters themselves to pass on, whenever a likely victim presents him or herself. Talk to a Man U adherent and you’ll see what I mean. If the topic of the Busby Babes comes up, or the Munich Disaster, the Man U fan – football’s equivalent of the pub bore – will assume a far-off, beatific expression, the eyelids drooping over glazed eyes, the voice becoming a cockney drone of indoctrination. Then we’re treated to an adoring monologue of how those doomed Babes would have dominated football, and you’d never then have heard of Leeds United; how the Munich disaster is unparalleled in the history of football tragedy (conveniently ignoring Superga which destroyed the great Torino team in 1949) – and so on and so forth. It’s even understandable, to a degree; a lot of football fans are blinkered and self-obsessed when it comes to their own team. It’s just that Man U fans, encouraged by the club and their own Dads most likely, have raised it to a sort of dreadful art-form; furthermore, they actually do believe all that crap – and they really expect you to as well. They become really quite distressingly emotional when you don’t.
The role of the media in all of this, though, is far more sinister. In pushing the agenda of the United Brand, they are deliberately seeking to marginalise, not just those other Uniteds – most of whom have a more solid claim to that suffix – but all other football clubs, by their blatant elevation of one club onto a pedestal with recognition demanded by repeated use of that one word. United. All of the media do it, and it’s not simply lazy journalism as some suggest. It’s brand protection, the Pavlovian training of consumers everywhere to hear the word United, and think of the Pride of Devon. It’s endemic within print and broadcast industries now and for a good few years past. You still get the occasional embarrassed little cough when a commentator at Newcastle United v Man U, for instance, refers lovingly to “United” and then hastily clarifies that he means the team in the Chevrolet shirts of course, not the other lot, whoever they might be. They don’t want to be thought of as biased and unprofessional, after all – even though that’s precisely what they are.
Not everyone is taken in by all of this, of course. It’s a mass-indoctrination tool of the type big marketeers have used down the decades; the target group tending to be the bottom fifty percent of the intelligence scale. Which I know sounds invidious and possibly even condescending – but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. But there has always been a sector of the public determined to resist such blandishments; so it quite rightly is where the United Brand is concerned. However, this subliminal campaign has been omnipresent and all-pervasive for such a long time now, and sadly the relatively small voice of protest tends to fall on deaf – probably dumb as well – ears.
The truth is, of course, that Newton Heath aren’t a true United, as for instance Newcastle are, or Leeds, or arguably West Ham – or even Oxford and Torquay. “United” in a football context refers to a club with the exclusive occupancy of its catchment area, no direct rivals sharing the same patch. Man U aren’t the only only United – that’s self-evident to anyone who can count. But here’s the thing: it isn’t just that they’re neither the only nor yet the first United. They’re not even a genuine one – because of the spoiling factor of having neighbours and rivals in the same area. So, sadly for the Pride of Devon, current Champions Manchester City ruin this particular myth for them – as they have ruined so much else lately.
Which brings us on to the current peril threatening the United Brand. The clear and present danger of being caught up and overtaken by one or more rivals. And – oops! – it’s already happened. Man City and Chelsea fight over the title, the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, even Southampton are scrapping to keep Man U out of the Champions League spot they regard as the very least of their divine rights. What to do?? Extend the Champions League qualification criteria again, to make sure the untouchables stay in the fold? It’s been done before. But beware of diluting the product to the point its taste becomes insipid. Hmmm, we’ll have to find some other way.
OK, how about this. If you can’t beat ’em – nobble ’em. The upstart clubs who have overtaken the Chosen Ones will have to be hamstrung, their income streams restricted and made inaccessible to them. How else to restore the accepted order and have the United Brand back at the top? And it has to be done quickly, before all of those millions of eager tat consumers lose their motivation, become discouraged, cease to be market movers and slavishly obedient commercial fodder.
And, lo and behold, we have Financial Fair Play, which decrees that what are seen as subordinate clubs may not be funded into competitiveness by a *spit* sugar daddy. They may not presume to compete with the clubs who are deemed to have accrued their riches through on-field success, global merchandising, exploiting historical tragedies, whatever. There’s a right way, for those who presume to control the game – the United Brand way – and there’s a wrong way, which encompasses pretty much anything a club which aspires to rise to the top could possibly do. The game’s rulers are pro-competition alright – but they’re not going to get all sentimental and misty-eyed over it, not to the extent that their preferred brand no longer dominates. The Old Guard – Man U, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich et al – must remain the Old Guard, the ruling cartel. Anything else is dangerous, because it diffuses attention, which imperils consumer focus. It’s just bad for business, old boy.
So, we’ll have just enough competition to keep things interesting – to keep the mugs hooked and consuming – but we’ll draw the line when a chosen Brand, deliberately created and carefully, remorselessly hyped, appears to be in danger of slipping from the pinnacle of the game. FFP is all about maintaining the status quo and keeping inconvenient Johnny-come-latelys down where they belong. And the tragic thing is – it’ll probably work.
But what does the future hold if this does work as presumably intended? Because what we have here is an ever-inflating bubble, increasingly shiny and enormous as it catches all the lime-light, reflecting gaudy and brilliant shimmerings of iridescent glory. It’s huge and it’s pretty – the kind of thing to cause a child, or other similarly naive person, to stop in their tracks and gaze, open-mouthed and round-eyed in innocent wonderment. But any bubble must burst eventually, leaving that child in disappointed tears. The path we are currently set upon, seemingly committed to, can have only one end. Look at the most recent Sky and other media deal, look at the billions involved at a time of austerity in society at large (unless you’re rich…). Who do you think that colossal, obscene cost is going to be passed on to? What will be the consequences when gates start to dip? Nothing is forever.
In a hundred years time, when those with long, long memories look back and reflect on what they have seen in their lives, what their grandfathers have told them, too – when they wonder whatever happened to that grand old game they used to call football – they may wish to search for a guilty party to blame for the death of something that used to give such pleasure to so many. If that comes to pass – as I fear eventually it must – then there will be a few likely candidates to carry the can. One will certainly be the long dead Mr Murdoch of evil memory. Who can say what his eventual legacy will be, not just for football, but for society at large? Another might be a club in Man U that used once upon a time to be legendary, a symbol of fine football and hope for the future. But this club will more likely instead be remembered as a model of arrogance and greed; the club that started the FA Cup off on its slow decline towards death (by being the first to withdraw from it); the club that manipulated the game for twenty years at the start of the Premier League, and perverted a “whole new ball game” into a nightmare of greed, cynicism and conspicuous consumerism.
For my part, I won’t point the finger at an individual or a club. Well, maybe I would a bit – if I were still above ground to do so. But I think it’ll be artificial concepts and restrictive legislation that’ll be the death of the game in the end. And I’ll miss it – but I’ll be glad I was there at the end of the golden era, almost a quarter of a century ago now, when my club Leeds United were the Kings of English Football – just as it entered its terminal phase. And I’ll be certain in my own mind as to exactly where the guilt for that fatal process truly lies.
Financial Fair Play and “The United Brand”: j’accuse.