One of the things that has surprised me the most about the tone of this week’s coverage of England’s travails in the media has been the level of surprise at the state of the game. Has everyone really been blinded by the lights to such an extent that they couldn’t see what was going on? The interests of the Premier League are and those of the England football team diametrically opposed. Surely the media knew that. Why is it only now that the matter being reported in the press? Danny Baker noted on his podcast yesterday that the players are the first people to realise that we are now in the “post-international” era. The Football Associations don’t matter any more, and it’s the rest of us that have been left behind. It’s a tempting argument. They’re in charge now, and we should dance to their tune. I’m not, however, completely sold on this concept.
There is, of course, the small issue of the fact that the international matches pre-date anything like organised club football. If we’re going to get into a historical debate, it’s worth remembering that England first played Scotland sixteen years before the formation of the Football League, and in the same year as the first FA Cup competition. Traditionally, the clubs do not own football. The Football Association are supposed to be the guardians of the game on our behalf. The reality of the situation is , of course, somewhat different. The FA operates in a bubble – neither publicly accountable in the same way that governments are, nor driven by the need to keep its customers happy in the way that a private company is. It is a self-elected elite, but it is all that we have got if we are to protect our game from being taken to pieces and sucked dry by the big clubs, who have decided that, actually, they are in charge. We, the punters, are stuck in the middle – voracious money men on one side, capable but absorbed entirely in their own interests, and the FA on the other, supposedly acting on our behalf, but so long entrenched in their unelected positions that they are incapable of doing anything but acting in their own interests.
With the formation of the Premier League, a marriage of convenience had to be born. The formation of the Football League in 1888 had left the gruff old walruses of the FA somewhat bemused. The Football League was the Premier League of its day – gruff professionals from the north of England, throwing money into the game for the first time. The FA would spend most of the next hundred years at loggerheads with the Football League, but there was a twist in the tail of this story which has led us to where we are today. By the mid-1980s, the biggest clubs were waking up to the idea that there could be serious money to make from television, but they didn’t want to share it out, and Football League rules meant that they would have to. At this point, the FA became involved. The biggest clubs had been talking of splitting for some time before 1992, but the logistical problems were great. The FA, though, could help them out here. The big power play of twentieth century football in England had between between the Football League and the FA, but it was moving into it’s endgame. The coming together of the biggest clubs and the FA was a marriage of convenience which suited both parties. The FA, who thought (rather in the manner of Soames in “The Forsyte Saga”) that they could tame the excesses of the bigger clubs, neutered their biggest “rivals” in one fell swoop. The big clubs received the logistical support of the FA, the veneer of respectability that they would otherwise not have had. It gave them access to UEFA, and saved them money in infrastructure. Most importantly of all, it gave them a veneer of repsectability and suspended the reality that football was no longer democratic whilst maintaining a facade that it was.
There was never any question of what would happen. Over the years, the FA were slowly pushed out of the organisation. The FA Premier League became the FA Carling Premiership, which became the English Premier League. It’s now run by the clubs themselves, and the FA has very little control over what they do. When it was first suggested, the aim was for eighteen clubs, playing thirty-four matches each. The clubs, more interested in money than they ever were in the good of the game, resisted this. They didn’t to lose the match day revenue. They compromised on twenty clubs, playing thirty-eight matches each. Remember this, the next time you hear a manager complaining about playing too many matches. The clubs of the Premier League decided that they should play thirty-eight matches per season (as opposed to, say, the thirty-four played in Italy). No-one else. And they did it for financial reasons, and financial reasons alone.
The Premier League is now openly hostile to the England team. Managers now talk openly of their disdain for it. Their foreign markets (and this, let us not forget, is where they believe the future to be – not in dreary old rainy England) don’t care much for it, and there is even talk that their younger supporters are now picking and choosing their national teams – it’s not uncommon to hear talk of English Manchester United supporters cheering Portugal against England because of Cristiano Ronaldo. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and now it’s time for the final severance to take place. Let them go. Bar Premier League players from the England team. Pick the England team from the players in the Championship. The FA can still afford the best coaching, and the performance of the likes of Scotland and Northern Ireland have demonstrated that you don’t need superstars to have a decent international team. Cut the player adrift from the enormous bonuses that they get in their wage packets because they are England internationals. Let Sky Sports have them. It will increase interest in the lower divisions and, with the possible rewards for the players being massive, there is no question that they will to play for their country. It will also have the highly beneficial effect of tempering the expectations of the media. You never know – it might even make it fun again.