Phil Gartside dreams of an eternal elite group of English clubs no longer threatened by the prospect of relegation. Is this a thoughtful initiative, or merely an exercise in self-preservation?
When the period 1990-2013 is looked at by football historians (if they do indeed work on discrete blocks of 23 years at a time), it will be seen as the period when movement between layers of the sport became more and more difficult. The period when taking part at a given level, like the top flight of the English league system, or the main European competition – came with such a disproportionately vast set of financial incentives that the competitors at that level became absurdly wealthy compared to those attempting to break in. This has meant an ossification, the same clubs playing one another more and more, both domestically and on a European scale. Football always had its bigger and smaller sides, but once upon a time a smaller side with a good manager, or on a good run, could compete with and outwit a bigger on a fairly consistent basis. This is, in part, why the likes of Malmo and Steaua Bucharest used to reach European Cup finals. And their exclusion from the charmed circle at the centre of the game is, in part, why the don’t any more.
So one might think that the custodians of the sport would be looking to break down barriers for the sake of the game’s long-term sustainability. But of course, that’s not the case. Instead, ever more barriers are proposed, generally and coincidentally ones that would directly benefit the proposer. This link is well worth a read for all fans of weasel words, poorly hidden agendas and outright lying. It’s Phil Gartside of Bolton, of course.
I particularly like that he’s prepared, rather sweetly, to reintroduce promotion if clubs “meet standards of size and finance”, thus removing the possibility that promotion could be a way for a small club to become more competitive over time, like Bolton did. He’s also concerned, poor dear, about the “polarisation of clubs”. You’d think that proposing a “promotion license” system would increase, rather than decrease, polarisation, but you’d be misunderstanding. He’s actually worried about “the same few clubs continu[ing] to benefit from the huge additional revenues from the Champions League” as well as “a fear factor” concerning relegation to the Championship. Simply put, 2009’s Phil Gartside felt that raising the drawbridge was fine if he was on the right side of the moat, but terribly wrong if he wasn’t.
What he’s proposing is something that would turn the de facto divisions in football into ones that are de jure. The same teams would compete for the ludicrous, inflation-busting TV money, spread slightly further perhaps but guaranteed. By definition, in his most recent proposal, the rich would get richer. And I’m not sure how his system would break the Champions League cartel at the top of the English game – after all, for twenty years now the dreadful Premier League has claimed exclusive access to the money teat, and it’s been a long time since Newcastle or Blackburn have been in with a shout of the European Cup. So we can safely dismiss this whole “closing off the top divisions” idea as bloody dreadful. Fine.
What I’m interested in, though, is looking at it the other way round – ie Gartside’s nightmare scenario of the big boys vanishing into their own European Super League. This is nothing new as an idea, of course – it’s been kicking round for as far as I can remember, that likeable chap Charles Green most recently giving it his backing in comments almost admirable for their fuck-you honesty. Indeed there’s a sense of inevitability about it – Wenger certainly seems to think it’s going to come along, Clarence Seedorf is behind it, and Florentino Perez (they just get more and more likeable, don’t they?) would like to see the “best” (read “richest”) guaranteed to play the “best” (yep, still read “richest”) every single week.
You can see why these luminaries of football sense that the middle finger of history is only pointing one way. The current, bloated, nasty Champions League appears to have been born as a result of blackmail by the big clubs, who were prepared to walk out of UEFA altogether unless the competition was expanded so that they could all be in every year. And fuck the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup. What the wealthy bastards want, the wealthy bastards get, in football as in life.
So perhaps at some point this is going to happen. Unlike Gartside’s proposals, there seems to be sufficient precedent that it genuinely might. No promotion, no relegation – just Man Utd vs Real Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Juventus, every week until we all kill ourselves out of existential despair. Another few parts of football’s rich tapestry torn away for good.
But. But, but, but. Who gets left behind? Look at England. The giant clubs are the teams who adapted best to the post-1992 world order – not necessarily the likes of one-time Champions League semi-finalists Leeds, who are very much the Icarus of this story, but the teams who flew slightly less high but slightly more consistently. Arsenal, say; even Manchester United, who had an amusing spell of going out of the CL early for a few years but never failed to be there.
They were the teams on the right point of the oscillating wave of form all football teams go through when the Champions League rolled over the top flight like Jurassic sap, preserving everything in amber that it costs a vast amount to break into. The teams they left behind were the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest . Historic giants of the game with genuine European pedigree – far more, in the early ‘90s, than Chelsea, for instance. If they break away those teams will still be left in the English game. A game without the Champions League income, stuck outside looking in.
Good. To me, that sounds wonderful. Imagine Norwich v Sheffield Wednesday as a top-5 fixture, like it was in the early ‘90s. Imagine not knowing who’d be in contention for the league every year. Imagine a team like Clough’s Forest, nearly Clough’s Derby too, shooting through the top flight to win it as a newly promoted side.
We’re a European breakaway league away from having that back.
I know there’s a flip side. We wouldn’t have a selection of the “greatest players in the world” any more, I appreciate that. No more would Agüero, Vidic, Cazorla, Bale or Hazard play in the English Premier League. But then, what precisely would be the difference? If their clubs were all in the breakaway league, they’d play in exactly the same stadiums for exactly the same teams. They’d probably be on telly at exactly the same time. OK, fans at the Liberty Stadium or Upton Park wouldn’t see them in the flesh. But they’d see more competitive games, fewer thrashings and, who knows, maybe a title or two.
I say let them go. I say give us our league back. I say we can either put up with all levels of football being infected by the fiscal trickle-down of the Champions League, or we can actively hope for the final breakaway and enjoy the real thing we get back in return.
And if we could work out how to get Steaua Bucharest and Malmo into European Cup finals again, that’d be good too.