Richard Scudamore was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter last week, and Mark Murphy wasn’t too impressed by what he read.
Presidents of the United States have their annual “state of the union” addresses. The Queen has her annual Christmas TV broadcast. And the equally important Richard Scudmaore, Premier League-land’s head of state, has his annual exercise in nauseating sycophancy from Daily Telegraph football correspondent, Henry Winter. In the guise of a proper newspaper interview, this yearly love-in is Scudamore’s opportunity to remind us how everything is lovely in his land. Titles such as last year’s “Is this the greatest Premier League season ever?” rightly dampen expectations of journalistic scrutiny and integrity. “Frost/Nixon” it will not be.
So it was that this year’s subtitle could be “Scudamore dismisses crisis”, without the attendant shock at such complacency that you would expect from “proper” interviewers. Against a backdrop of Portsmouth FC’s fiscal decrepitude and John Terry’s moral vacancy, Scudamore neither mentions, nor is forced to mention, either. At all. Painting “everything is lovely” pictures is, alongside negotiating gargantuan broadcast deals, what Scudamore does best. And Henry Winter is not about to make him work at it. Winter assessed the Premier League as a clichéd game of two halves, “of rich entertainment and unbridled debt.” Overall, it is a fair assessment, even if viewers of games such as Wigan v. Bolton might have a different perspective on the rich bit. Yet it wasn’t the one which informed the tone of the interview.
Arsenal’s announcement of borderline fabulous half-yearly results came on the day Portsmouth entered administration. Such an obvious manifestation of the two-tier Premier League wasn’t available to Winter when he conducted the interview (published on 12th February). But surely he could have found a more searching question than “was football heading towards Shangri-La or Armageddon?” Scudamore ought to know the answer, though. Indeed, in his role, he has the power to shape the answer. So you’d have a right to expect at least an insight on some of the key issues, not least football’s finances, good or ill. We got:
It depends on whether you are optimistic about football or pessimistic.
And that, plus some possibly ill-advised comments about Newcastle United’s renaissance, was it. Winter noted that Scudamore was “calm… sitting in his ordered office in Central London.” He allowed the Premier League supremo some wistful reminiscences about going back to his childhood to remember when Burnley were last competing for anything (what Burnley were competing for wasn’t made clear). And then he changed the subject. Scudamore was still in childhood mode when he referred to the Premier League as “this great game of snakes and ladders,” which suggests that he had a dodgy board when he was growing up, with some very short ladders.
But he was back in bullish mode about “my league” (“his” league?) and the observation that “the level of professionalism in the way clubs are run is better than ten years ago.” If by “level of professionalism” he meant “excessive Chief Executive salaries,” then maybe he had a point. He ought to know about that subject, after all. And, as with so much of this interview, Portsmouth fans would have had a view. His take on protesting Manchester United fans threatened to make some salient points. “They didn’t like the PLC because they thought it was all about shareholder value,” he noted, suggesting, correctly, that United fans had been whingeing at their club’s owners for “35 years.”
What he forgot, however, was that United fans’ main protest slogan in the latter days of the PLC was “not for sale”, and the fact that it was for sale has led them to where they are now. And he criticised fans for wanting “clubs to be more business-like” while not liking “some of the business methods” in the game……”like leveraged debt”. “I’m struggling to put a perspective on what fans think about owners,” he concluded. Even Winter’s jaw dropped at that one. “It seems pretty clear at Old Trafford,” he noted, risking a hint of criticism. Scudamore wasn’t finished with Old Trafford, though, leaving himself enough time to declare that “when you are Manchester United, you can’t be like the Barcelona model, economically it can’t happen.” His moment of clarity passed, Winter couldn’t even summon up the journalistic instinct to ask “why not?” So we may never know.
As ever with Scudamore, there were the unintentionally revealing phrases. Referring to the Premier League’s mid-table as “the completely no-form league,” a description for Sunderland v. Blackburn if ever I heard one. And the bombshell that the “39th game” had ceased to be. “We have got past needing that expansionist bit,” he claimed, the figures for overseas rights sales clearly large enough to avoid inflicting Sunderland v Blackburn on some unsuspecting developing world city. But it was the banality of so much of the interview, in such unbanal times, which really offended. The number of cautions per game, he informed us – anorak-a-kimbo – had dropped from 3.37 to 3.28, an improvement that might have been wiped out had Jamie Carragher’s full frontal assault on Steven Pienaar in the first minute of the Merseyside derby received proper sanction.
“Injury-time now properly reflects stoppages,” he added, addressing an issue of limited-to-no importance outside the Ferguson household. Ooooh, and there’s been fewer draws, too, he noted, addressing an issue of no importance whatsoever.
And in all this time, Portsmouth failed to get a mention. Not one. Clearly the biggest issue of the day, whether it be February 12th or 26th, was ignored, Pompey not one of the “club brands” that Scudamore would want “people to know about” as the Premier League reaches worldwide TV screens. President Obama addressed economic problems and the healthcare debate in his State of the Union address last month. The Queen has never ignored the fact that many of “her” citizens have died in wars fought in “her” name. But Scudamore, all-too-willingly assisted by Winter, happily focused on whatever is right about “his” league, at the expense of all that is wrong. With “leadership” like that, football’s current financial headlines are no surprise.