By Jack Bennett
Football. It’s still very much the order of the day. Walk into any pub in an evening and listen to the conversations. A stark majority will be about the beautiful game. Should Wenger be sacked? Are Barcelona on the decline? Can Leeds still get promoted (for the more Yorkshire-orientated establishments!)? Football fills lives, fills Saturday afternoons, provides talking points, enables people to give their opinions to like-minded fanatics.
But football has changed. I’m only young myself, but can still see the change that can be seen in the last ten years alone. Ten years ago, it was possible for a relatively unknown side to make the huge jump from obscurity to the top flight on a limited budget. That’s becoming increasingly rare. It was also possible for a side in the top division to reach the higher echelons of the same league by blooding youth and creating a team spirit and camaraderie – indeed, Leeds United in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a prime example. That, also, is becoming rarer. Nowadays it seems you need megabucks to even consider reaching a European competition, and even then it’s no longer guaranteed. The more prominent oligarchs and sheikhs become in the English game, the harder it is for the previously wealthy teams to compete, leading to more and more corporate gain for the men at the top and an ever-widening gap between those at the top and those languishing in the lower divisions. Manchester City and Chelsea are two startlingly obvious recent examples. When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in June 2003, they were a solid Premier League side, generally finishing in and around the top four, albeit with £80m of debt. By May 2004 Chelsea had finished 2nd, constituting their greatest finish in forty-nine years, paid off their debt, and gone on a £100m spending spree. But an even more shocking example is that of Manchester City. Since being bought by Sheikh Mansour in 2008, they have spent over £200m on players alone, essentially buying the Premier League title in 2012 and FA Cup in 2011.
But even worse than clubs paying their way to success and pricing smaller clubs out of the game is the effect that this commercial development has had on the average football fan. Virtually priced out of the game and becoming more disillusioned by the day, your average fan – the likes of which essentially founded the sport originally – has been thrown to the bottom of football’s hierarchical scrapheap as it becomes a commercial enterprise rather than the sport we used to know and love. A prime example of fans being priced out is the £62 ticket to watch an Arsenal match recently. Add in a programme, food and drink, transport, and it will undoubtedly add up to around £100. How can clubs expect a fan to pay that much per game? And it’s clear that there’s a widespread nonchalance from clubs and owners. Provided they get the subscribers, Sky don’t care. Provided they get the prawn-sandwich brigade and the ludicrous sponsorship, the FA and Premier League don’t care. Provided they get the gate receipts and a money-making plaything, neither do the wealthy owners and investors.
What’s the answer? In all honesty, I don’t think there is one. While there’s money to be made for the powers that be, nothing will change and football will continue on its inevitable downward spiral until it becomes a sport for the elite. But if things are to change, the fans need a voice. German clubs have a 50% fan-ownership basis, which is a very good move if it encourages more fans to get involved with their teams. After all, clichéd though it may be, the fans are the lifeblood and the vitality of a football club. Without them, a club would simply cease to exist. This is a point that the executives often forget.
It’s a sad state of a sport that has been going for well over a hundred years, founded by the common man and now simply a commercial venture for those with the power, yet the sporting nature of it is slipping away. The level playing field, eleven-versus-eleven mentality, has gone, replaced by a different kind of competition, where those with the most money prosper and those with the least stagnate and fall by the wayside. Is this the future for football the majority want? Somehow, I doubt it…