I have to admit that, both times English clubs won the Champions League over the course of the last few years, I got sucked up into the excitement of it all. Maybe it was just because of the exceptionally dramatic way that they did it – Manchester United playing abysmally for eight-nine and a half minutes and then suddenly pulling something out of the bag, and Liverpool fashioning something from literally nothing may or may not have been flukes, but they something of an air of destiny about them – but they stuck in the throat in the way that great sporting moments do. When it came to Arsenal’s Champions League final appearance last time, it wasn’t there in the slightest. I cheered when Barcelona, at that time the best club team in Europe, stabbed them through the heart. There was no romance about Arsenal in Paris last May, merely the sulking of Thierry Henry.
When I was a child, you kind of supported the English team in Europe. In lieu of having a national team that was capable of doing anything, seeing the likes of Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Liverpool win in Europe was something of a consolation. Perhaps it was because England hadn’t qualified for two successive World Cups. You looked at the Liverpool team of the early 1980s and, whilst I’m absolutely not in favour of a United Kingdom national team, idly wondered what the Liverpool team of the early 1980s might have done in, say, the 1982 World Cup. Well, you would have done if you’d spent the whole of the 1981-82 season watching Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush tearing everyone a new hole, only to settle down for the World Cup only to see an almost pathetic hope that a past their best Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan would be fit, and Paul Mariner and Trevor Francis wandering around, sweating and dazed as if they’d just come round been drugged in a sauna and dressed in tight-fitting England kits.
There wasn’t really any sense of the successes of these clubs being “good” for English football. You just kind of, you know, wanted them to do well. Since then, European football has gone from being a mildly entertaining diversion from the domestic game into the be-all-and-end-all. The European Cup hit middle-age and, in an almost desperate attempt to stave off the circling vultures of G14, became the Champions League – the only champions’ competition to not require you ever necessarily to have been a real “champion” to enter. The balance had tipped in favour of the richer nations.
Now, we find ourselves in an interesting position. Currently, four clubs qualify from the “big” nations, but the new UEFA boss, Michel Platini, has pledged to cut this and give the extra places to clubs from developing European nations. It should be interesting to see the bigger European nations arguing their corner – “yes, we deserve our place in the Champions League for coming fourth in our domestic league”. We’ve already had two effectively “domestic” Champions League finals – Valencia vs Real Madrid and Milan vs Juventus – and there’s a good cause to believe that we’ll have an all-English one this year. Liverpool and Chelsea are already through, and Manchester United and Arsenal are likely to join them tomorrow night.
I’m struggling to think of a way in which this is good for English football. These four clubs already earn tens of millions of pounds more than anyone else in the Premiership, let alone anywhere else, and their continued success will only serve to further widen the gap between them and everybody else. It’s not a matter of how many foreign players there are in each team. It’s the fact that our domestic league looks like a mere procession – and it’s important to realise that it doesn’t matter that much in financial terms to United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool whether they win the Premiership, so long as they make up the top four places. Meanwhile, crowds elsewhere are falling. Blackburn and Bolton have announced price cuts to get more people into their grounds. People aren’t staying away because they’d rather be watching United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. They’re staying away because they can’t justify paying £30 or more to watch a team that really hasn’t got a realistic chance of winning anything.
In Italy, it’s estimated that over 70% of the population “support” Milan, Inter or Juventus. We’re some way off that in this country – the tribal ties that bind people to their local clubs seem to be fairly resilient to change. However, the gap between the big four and the rest will continue to grow and grow with each season that they all take part in the Champions League. For this reason alone, you should all be wishing that they fail in this year’s Champions League, and ignoring those that seem to think that you should lend your support (and with that comes moral authority) to organisations that long ago ceased to become clubs and morphed into little more than conglomerates. The footballing equivalent of Tesco and Sainsbury’s.