Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why football going bust could be good news

There's a piece in today's Guardian by Richard Williams about the chances of the credit crunch hitting the over-borrowed football sector just as it has hit the over-borrowed banks. I don't doubt this could happen. It's hard to see why we should care.

Apart from the improvements in the grounds that took place in the wake of the Taylor Report, it's difficult to see in what ways the billions of pounds that have poured into the game in the last eighteen years have benefited the fans or the game. We can see how Sky has prospered. We can see how agents have done very nicely. We can see how the players have become so routinely rich that the only people who can afford to meet their wage bills are billionaires. An old colleague of mine used to say he wouldn't mind his club putting their season ticket price up every year as long as he could deliver the difference in person to the wife of the highest-paid foreigner on the team. Either that or just arrange a money order in favour of Harvey Nichols or Porsche. Since that was where the money was going to end up, why didn't he just cut out the middleman and save on admin?

The last eighteen years has seen Britain turned from a football nation into a football market. This decline might bother the average fan but doesn't trouble most of the people with their noses in its overflowing trough. So what if there were less swill in that trough? Are we bovvered? If the downturn means less money coming into the game, how does a football fan suffer? There's not a lot of headroom on ticket prices. Down my street they've taken to selling Sky door-to-door which indicates that take-up is at saturation point. Everyone I know who took up a Setanta subscription is finding it's an organisation harder to leave than the Moonies. The pips have been squeaking throughout the game for a good while now.

If the tap were turned off then the most expensive players would obviously go where they can make the most money. Who knows where? Spain? Italy? China? Kazakhstan? The top British players, being timid home bodies by nature, will probably stay, thanks to the premium they are paid for being home-grown. More British players would get a shot at a career, which ought to benefit the national team. Of course the perfectly-manicured lawns of Highbury and Old Trafford would no longer be graced by the world's most expensive players but wouldn't that allow the clubs to lower their prices sufficiently to admit the occasional member of the working class, along the lines of the assisted places schemes at the major public schools? The rise in fuel prices might even encourage some of their long-distance supporters to adopt somebody nearer to home. Surrey might sprout some football clubs.

A lot of the glamour would go, of course. The thud and blunder of honest toilers (or maybe Joey Barton) would probably replace the stiletto passing of a Deco. The spectacle would look less like a computer game and more like a muddy tiff. Nigella Lawson would no longer be a big fan and politicians would stop pretending that they have always supported a club – but would that really affect the number of people going through the gates? I don't think so. The tsunami of hype that has washed through the game in the last eighteen years has increased its popularity but also pushed up its price. The fans have paid more for their subscriptions and season tickets in order that their club can pay yet more money to people who already have more than they know what to do with; this has been done in the largely vain hope that by hiring them they're going to be able to elbow their way to a position of solvency. It's like a gambler rushing out of the casino mid-session in order to shake down passers-by for the money to fund one more bet.

It can't go on. One day the oligarchs and carpetbaggers will move on. They'll probably leave in the middle of the night like the holders of sub-prime mortgages, slipping the stadium keys through the bank's letterbox before setting off for pastures new. Once they've gone the game will still go on, albeit at a less sophisticated level, driven by the ancient tribal hatred that has animated the game for the last century. That and the enduring desire of tens of thousands of young men to play the game for a living, even a relatively modest one. Because that's what they did once and may do again.


  1. "Once they've gone the game will still go on, albeit at a less sophisticated level"
    Is that a coded reference to Tottenham Hotspur playing in the Coca-Cola Championship? Ho ho!

  2. Yes, although your piece really reflects the world of the clubs you could call the 'Premiership regulars' rather than the 'rest' of football.
    Those other teams already exist on relatively - and in some cases absolutely - small money and hence the game is typically (though there are some notable exceptions) more artisan, but I think more heartfelt at a team level.

    I guess the first couple of club owners to cash in and move on to another 'investment' will point the way (the building firms). The agents will then desperately try to shore up the edifice with talk of 'the bottom being reached' (the estate agents). The players won't quite know what to do for the best (the rest of us). Can't think what role Sky play in my little comparison except as the local press on 'house night'!?
    Let's hope those on big tickets have put a bit by.

  3. Will the "tribal hatred" continue I'm not sure a lot of recent fans actual have learnt who their inplacable foes are. The Kids I meet seem to have fluid allegiences, I think to help football regain it's heart the FA and a enlightened sponsor need to run sessions at david beckham's centres on "who your team hates!" including songs, past crimes amd why Leeds are donkeys and nobody likes chelsea.

  4. Oh, I do hope you are right. Football is currently unwatchable.

  5. Bravo! At last a rallying call to the grass roots of football a wonderful game that seems to have lost its way. The pleasures of this game are simple,you feel happy if your team scores a goal. You feel even better if they win. This applies to fans of Man Utd or Barnstoneworth Utd (see Ripping Yarns!)...there's no difference. The elation felt by Aldershot fans at winning promotion will have been just as great as Man Utd fans joy at winning the Premiership. Why there has to be all this forced frenzy heaven knows. The only post match analysis should take place in The Dog and Duck after the game. And Oh for the days when at the drop of yer flat cap you could say...'I think I'll pop down and see the match this afternoon'. Simple pleasures really.