A million miles removed from the opulent lives of the millionaire players and the neatly coiffured executives, the reality of Portsmouth’s financial desperation came home to roost. It didn’t, however, come home to roost for those that can afford it or those that are to blame for this whole sorry mess in which they find themselves. It came home to roost for eighty-five employees of Portsmouth Football Club, the ordinary people that had been keeping the infrastructure of the club running, when they were made redundant by Portsmouth Football Club this afternoon. It was the moment that an abstract crisis, in which points deductions, fear of relegation and losing one’s best players ceased to matter quite as much.
Now it is, in its own way, the human face of football’s worst excesses. People, many of whom were living lives millions of miles removed from those that played or managed their clubs, have lost their livelihoods. Peter Storrie, who is the one constant in the fall from grace of Portsmouth Football Club, offered his resignation but it was refused. He will continue on a reduced salary. It was, finally, some degree of an admission of culpability from someone at the club, but it is too little, too late. The eighty-five extra people in the queue in the Job Centre are testimonial to that.
The one silver lining to Portsmouth’s season has been their FA Cup run, which has carried them to a semi-final match against Fulham or Tottenham Hotspur next month. Even if they were to somehow to go on and win the FA Cup, though, some of the gloss (and, more significantly at the moment, a big slice of potential future revenue) would be lost as the club cannot, regardless of what happens anywhere else, compete in European club competition after they failed to apply for a UEFA club licence. This came about because they were unable to submit their accounts to UEFA because of the timing of their entry into administration and, although they would be permitted to backdate their application, such an application would be unlikely to be successful because of the appalling state of their finances.
Meaniwhile, a new report cited in the Guardian today seems to offer concrete evidence of the waning pull of the Premier League. Virgin Money’s Football Fans’ Inflation Index reports that a quarter of season ticket holders are considering not renewing their season tickets at the end of this season, with Manchester United – perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of the green and gold protests – the most likely to be seriously affected. Indeed, the figures for Manchester United would seem to confirm that the real power play at Old Trafford hasn’t yet been played out. An enormous 59% of Manchester United season ticket holders are considering no longer renewing at the end of this season, with 15% stating that they will not be returning to Old Trafford and 44% stating that they will pick and choose which matches they attend.
Of course, protest is far from the only reason why clubs are likely to see a reduction in the number of people that will be buying season tickets this summer. The worst recession since the 1930s is a considerable factor, as are rising food prices. Premier League clubs may have believed that they would stem the exodus by freezing ticket prices during the summer (surprise, surprise, Manchester United were the only Premier League club to increase their prices last summer), but even this hasn’t been enough to make some people wonder whether the days of perpetually full grounds in the Premier League could be coming to an end.
This presents a problem for clubs that they might find difficult to resolve. They priced out the poorest many years ago and the prices kept rising. Once people start to break the bond of owning a season ticket, will they come back? On top of this, the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom’s enquiry into the cost of Sky selling their premium channels on to other broadcasters seems likely to lead to a forced cut in the cost of Sky Sports subscriptions, all of which may make the next round of television contract negotiations, if anything, less lucrative than the contract that is already in place. We won’t know whether this is going to happen until the contacts are up for renewal in 2013, but it’s far from an impossibility.
All of this makes the Premier League start to smell of dry rot, somewhat. The question of what happens should the league start to lose the allure that it has held for almost a decade and a half isn’t one that has come up on the radar of many people, and it is likely that it is a question that quite possibly has never been asked at all. Considering that we have seen a period of unprecedented milk and honey within English football and still end up with Premier League clubs owing £3.5bn between them, what would happen if there were a significant fall off in interest and/or revenue isn’t something that really bears thinking about. It is a question that should be asked now, though, in the hope that there may be something that can be done at an institutional level to stave off the worst effects of it whilst maintaining the integrity and honour of the game itself. More worrying, however, is the question that inevitably follows it: would we or could we trust the current mob of football club owners to be able to cope with it?