Will The Premier League Pull Up The Drawbridge Once And For All?
The warning signs were there, and it now looks as if there is at least a chance that the damn will burst. When Liverpool’s Ian Ayre made his comments regarding the sale of television rights last week, there was widespread derision aimed in his direction, although this was tempered by the belief – some even say understanding – that Ayre was only saying aloud what others were thinking. Further fuel has been added to this particular theory by the revelations of the Chief Executive of the League Managers Association, Richard Bevan, this morning. Bevan, speaking at the Professional Players Federation conference in London, was open in stating that the owners of around five Premier League clubs now wish to end promotion and relegation with the Football League, a decision which, were it ever to come to pass, would end a the meritocracy of English football after over one hundred and twenty years.
Bevan, who was addressing the matter of the governance of the game in his speech, noted that, “there are a number of overseas-owned clubs already talking about bringing about the avoidance of promotion and relegation in the Premier League”. This will be likely to produce a knee-jerk reaction from some which would be missing the point of the debate on this subject that needs to be had. The matter of whether the owners of this club are foreign or not has little relevance to the matter of whether promotion and relegation will be scrapped. It may well be that these owners are foreign, but to assume that Englishmen would be any more protective of the game may well be misplaced. After all, the businessmen that drove the creation of the Premier League forward in 1992 were of distinctly British stock and this was the single key event that led us to where we find ourselves today.
So, let us not get dragged into the cul-de-sac of arguing over whether football clubs should be British-owned or not. That ship has sailed, and it is inconceivable to imagine that it will change again any time soon. The real issue – and it is the issue that Bevan was directly addressing – is one of governance. Perhaps, he was saying, the only way of keeping this new generation of club owners in check is effectively govern the game for all, rather than for the benefit of three, five, six or even twenty clubs. The formation of the Premier League was as much a land grab as it was about the creation of more television money. The Football Association, when given the option to veto its formation, shamefully stood by and waved it through, and it has paid for this decision ever since. The Premier League now has such control within the FA that it is, in most respects, a completely autonomous body with considerable more realpolitik power than the governing body has, and if football has a decision to make over the next few months or so, then that decision is whether to reinvest its trust in this formerly independent body, or whether to cede all control to the Premier League in all but name.
Neither is it the first time that the ending of automatic promotion and relegation been mentioned. Phil Gartside of Bolton Wanderers – one of the main proponents (or, if you prefer, “culprits”, in the field of what is known in cretinous circles as “blue sky thinking”) suggested the idea three years ago this month and was shot down in flames. Garry Cook, latterly of Manchester City, has floated the same notion. The pace of these neo-capitalist notions of “reform” – which are always, but always proposed by the individual whose club will benefit the most from them – has, however, increased over the last couple of years, with perhaps the most notorious being the Game 39 proposal, which would have seen an extra match crow-barred into the schedules to be played, Harlem Globetrotters-esque in lucrative overseas markets.
It is argued that modern – possibly foreign, possibly not – owners look at the closed shop franchising systems of, say, the NFL in America, and and see what they want, but American sports can tolerate this set up because they are reasonably equitable in other respects, with mechanisms in place to ensure that teams remain competitive. It seems unlikely that the owners of English football clubs would settle for this. They want dog eat dog capitalism with the “protection” that scrapping promotion and relegation would afford them. They want not only the cake, but also the cutlery, the crockery and the table upon which it is all resting, and they will eat it. To try and appeal to the better side of this mentality would be a heartily fruitless endeavour. The only language that they speak, apart from middle-management jargon, is that of money. This is the “football business”, with the emphasis quite firmly the latter part of that phrase.
We do not even need to argue the merits of a system of promotion and relegation. From its innate meritocracy, through its cultural importance to the straightforward way in which its ending would render the notion of competition within the Premier League meaningless (you throw as much money as you like at the fortunate ten or twenty, but there is nothing to suggest that most of them will ever be able to seriously rival the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea in the long term), and we all understand why changing a league system that has served us so well for such a long time would kill the game as we know it. This, presumably, is understood by the club owners that Bevan refers to. It is possible (if not likely), however, that they simply don’t care, in comparison with the perpetual financial security that a closed shop would give them.
And it is here that we see the very nature of neo-capitalism at its most voracious. This market is not a free one – it is one that those with the ability to do to are seeking to skew to their advantage in perpetuity. One of the greatest myths of capitalism is that it somehow loves and thrives on competition. It doesn’t, and this can be seen quite clearly from a mentality that would seek to close off access to the game’s top division to any club that didn’t happen to be in the right place at the right time. Yet this is precisely what happened twenty years ago with the formation of the Premier League. What we have seen in the intervening two decades has been a slow and steady land grab, about which next to nothing has been done. Perhaps the ending of promotion and relegation is little more than the logical conclusion of this process, and perhaps we have all been culpable to some degree in allowing things to come this far.
As ever with these matters, the timing could be everything. The government has set a deadline of February 2012 for football to reform itself following The Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into football governance. Is this stirring of the waters a sign of the clubs of the Premier League seeking to flex their muscles against any further regulation? These crackpot ideas surface from time to time, and they should be treated with the contempt that they deserve. This isn’t, however, to say that they should be ignored. We can expect much more of this sort of thing over the coming weeks, months and years, but we should take every opportunity to take every opportunity to remind those that may been seeking to further carve the game up for their own ends that they are merely transitory custodians of traditions and history, and that they will be resisted at every turn. If we, as supporters, are as supine over the next few months or years as we were two decades ago, then we will deserve the full effects of whatever they can do to our game in the process of stripping it clean.
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