I occasionally feel as if the football world is living in the last days of Rome. The lead piping that drove the Empire mad is being recreated by the strange band of investors that have decided that Premier League football is the place to be, and the poisoned water is money, which will slowly but surely drive the World’s Biggest League mad. The process has already started. Sheffield United, deservedly relegated after a poor season during which they had numerous opportunities to cement themselves a place in mid-table, threaten to take the League (and , by extension, themselves) to court over a violation of their “human rights”. Newcastle indicate an interest in re-signing Craig Bellamy – a decision that must be about as popular on Tyneside as a virulent dose of thrush.
And then, just when you think that things can’t get any stranger, Manchester City get set to be taken over by a disgraced former Thai prime minister, who was ousted in a military coup. The first two, of course, are merely humorous. I do occasionally get enraged about Sheffield United for several different reasons, but I can’t help but think that whatever decision the “arbitration panel” arrive at, the hissy fits that will follow it will be brilliant. The take-over at Manchester City, though, is a thoroughly depressing development – further proof, as if it were needed, that football has sold its soul to the devil.
I’m not going to go into too much details over Thaksin Shinawatra’s past. Suffice to say that he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during his time over there. There is no serious question in my mind that the money being used to buy City and the money that will be used to spend on players is of distinctly grubby origin. If you were a Manchester City supporter tonight, what would you be thinking? Your club has (whether rightly or wrongly) prided itself on being the heart and soul of Manchester. Filled every week with Mancunians every week, whilst Old Trafford chased the dollar more or less anywhere else they could. Your club has been through so many ups and downs and has emerged, battered and bruised, but back in the Premiership and a brand new stadium that you didn’t even have to pay for. Somehow, though, your club ended up £60m in debt and the lure of the money being offered by Shinawatra was never likely to be rejected by the club. The current owners have managed to offload themselves of a massive financial burden. He’ll probably stick some money into the team to appease the worriers.
However, there can’t help but be massive doubts over what is going on here. Try to imagine what the Premiership might look like in ten years time. Can you see this ending well for City? Quite asides from any moral tribulations that their supporters might have, the military government in Thailand have already tried to seize all of his assets once. I can imagine more stable financial backgrounds that he could have come from, regardless of the rights and wrongs of it all. We already know that he’s not a City fan – otherwise, he wouldn’t have made Anfield his first port of call when he was looking to buy a club. So, what is he in it for? Is this just an exercise in money laundering? Is he going to try and make a profit? If he is, he’s got to make £82m just to cover his costs – and someone is going to to have to pay for it all. I think you know who I’m referring to here.
It’s easy to dismiss criticism of the influx of foreign owners as being mere xenophobia, but this is all a smoke-screen. It doesn’t matter what their nationality is, and England has managed more its fair share down the years. However, it can’t possibly be argued that are likely foreign owners have the same level of attachment to their clubs and less still towards the overall well-being of the game in general terms (in this country at least). It would be considerably easier for somebody from abroad to walk away from the wreckage of an investment gone wrong. This isn’t to say that it will or won’t happen. It remains, however, a possibility, and as the stakes get higher, so the falls will become greater. Leeds United provide a cautionary tale, and as the spending required to compete gets higher and higher, so their situation could become familiar to one or two others over the next few seasons or so.
There is a way out for City’s disillusioned supporters – follow the FC United route out. Interestingly, they don’t even have to form their own club – Maine Road FC, formed by City supporters in 1955, have been playing in the North West Counties League for a few years now, and would probably be glad of the extra support. I’ll keep an eye out for them next season to see if their crowds go up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. The future, as I will keep saying until I’m blue in the face, is in small, well-run, community clubs. The big clubs will eventually eat themselves.