Mark Brophy

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Green Unpleasant Land 5: Top Class

This weekend Bradford City, complete with on-loan Newcastle youngster Curtis Good, took on Swansea in the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium. A neutral spectator gorged on no-longer-special showdowns between elite Premier League clubs, surely felt a frisson of excitement at seeing a final contested by teams that are not tainted by the kind of expectation which sees Arsenal view 8 years without a trophy during 15 consecutive years of Champions League qualification as unacceptable failure for instance. Neither set of fans would have been so blasé as to fail to celebrate a victory they see as routine, and Bradford were even able to celebrate the pride in their achievement in reaching the final despite a heavy defeat.

Fans of habitually successful clubs, bored by and yet insistent upon a constant stream of triumphs, perhaps may feel envy towards those experiencing winning a major trophy for the first time in their lives. They will never feel that thrill again. From the point of view of supporters of the clubs who travelled to the final this weekend, it would be difficult to be happier or more excited. Is there a case to be made for the experience of being a lower-league football fan, or at least of being a fan of a less-fashionable club, rather than being a success-hoovering constantly-demanding big 4 follower?

Imagine the benefits, if you need to imagine them that is. Lower ticket prices, standing areas. The lower value of the club increases the chance of fans’ groups owning a significant chunk of it. The chances of sharing a terrace with a johnny-come-lately glory hunter is dramatically reduced by the sheer unlikelihood of ever tasting the kind of glory they crave. That’s not to say there’s no glory in it. Victory tastes just as sweet at whatever level you play, and a minor achievement such as reaching your divisional playoffs or a good run in the Football League Trophy ( currently sponsored by Johnstone’s Paint and about to be contested by Crewe and Southend) is relatively speaking as impressive as a Champions League spot for a top-level outfit. The quality of the football itself can be just as impressive too. Players of similar ability gravitate to the level they are most suited to and so at all levels the usual situation is of opposing teams and players cancelling each other out. That means good play is just as difficult, and so also just as possible at all levels.

In terms of fans’ enjoyment then, there’s no difference between the top level and the rest. The reason there’s so much clamour about the importance of gaining Premier League status and then retaining it, is as we all know, money. That’s money in the pockets of owners, the people with power, who make the decisions about the game. Fans’ enjoyment, or even the general interests of fans, is neither here nor there in the thinking of these people. Look at the recent response to the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s report into the game. The report highlighted the need for the FA to act as the game’s regulator, but the Premier League expressed the view that it regarded the FA merely as an ‘association of interests’. The difference is important. The model favoured by the Premier League involves the FA representing the views of ‘shareholders’ as they put it, primarily the Premier League itself, rather than leading them.

Indeed, the FA’s response was to propose giving up any say on issues such as the distribution of funds throughout the game and ticket prices. Far from reasserting some control over the game the FA were offering to relinquish it once and for all. The regulations approved soon afterwards based loosely on UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules differ from them too in important ways. Clubs are allowed to make a much bigger loss per year than UEFA’s rules for their competitions allow, though not to spend on the scale that Manchester City have been doing, so long as their owner guarantees the funds. Most tellingly though, clubs aren’t allowed to increase players’ wages significantly unless the funds for that come from increased ticket or commercial income. In short, fans are to fund wage escalation while the owners corral the £5bn or so on the way from the latest TV deal. Owners are allowed to use their wealth to maintain their position should they need to, but no one else is allowed to come in and spend the way they did to leapfrog to the top. This plan is the very definition of a closed shop in the process of being established. Let’s hope that fans of less-fashionable clubs appreciate their position within the game’s hierarchy because their ability to change it is reduced with each passing month.

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