The 2021 Pre-Season State of Play: The Premier League
It’s only been three months since the smell of revolution was briefly in the air. Fans took to the streets to protest the decision of the Greedy Six clubs to hitch their masts to the European Super League power grab, with Old Trafford briefly becoming the Bastille as Manchester United supporters got inside the stadium and forced the cancellation of their match against Liverpool. Yep. That’s a thing that happened. In less turbulent times, it might well have been one of the news stories of the year.
The clubs folded, the proposed league broke into shards, and there were a few days of attempts at uncharacteristic humility from the billionaires who had pushed their clubs into a plan that was hatched with the specific aim of cleaving the whole to European club football to pieces for the benefit of a tiny number of its very richest clubs.
Feels like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have continued to push their discredited masterplan, but the Premier League clubs who attached their flag to that particular mast would probably rather that we didn’t talk about it any more. They always had less to lose than the other invitees – for the aforementioned gruesome threesome, the aim was always to bridge the gap between their television revenues and those already enjoyed by Premier League clubs – but considering that this was the second time that there’s been attempt at this sort of carve-up in less than a year, it doesn’t really seem right that they should be allowed to forget that they were ever involved in this quite so easily.
It’s also been less than a year since Project Big Picture, a self-serving attempt hatched by Manchester United, Liverpool and, for some reason, Rick Parry of the EFL which would have abolished the League Cup and the Community Shield and handed near-complete control of the professional game in this country to the Greedy Six clubs along with a small number of others, which they themselves had already decided upon.
It was completely transparent as a power grab, and it was about as well received as the European Super League would be, several months later. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport described it as a “backroom deal” that would “create a closed shop at the very top of the game.” The Premier League stated that, “a number of the individual proposals in the plan published today could have a damaging impact on the whole game and we are disappointed to see that Rick Parry, chair of the EFL, has given his on-the-record support”.
The clubs involved in the European Super League were punished by a slap on the wrists so light that they may have mistaken it for a tickle. Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were fined £3.6m each for their collaboration in a plan to tear up European club football for their own benefit, along with a suspended £25m fine and a 30 point deduction, should they join another breakaway.
For billionaires, this has been the equivalent of being punished by being told to empty the loose change jar in the kitchen, and while the contrition was mildly cathartic for a couple of days, it seems vanishingly unlikely that these sanctions would stop them were a viable plan to break away and hoard even more of the games money and resources for themselves come along tomorrow. What difference would a £25m fine and a points deduction make if they were completely breaking away? The presumption that they would stay in their existing leagues – even though they would like to – if an offer came along that was so lucrative that they’d try it on again seems somewhat fanciful.
The disinfectant that has been used to wash away the fetid odour they created at the end of last season has, of course, been money. The justifications given for these two attempted land grabs was Covid-19 and the ruinous effect the virus has had on club finances, but the Greedy Six have spent £343m between them on players this summer, and that figure doesn’t include the £97.5m that Chelsea are just about to spend on Romelu Lukaku or the £150-£160m that Spurs are believed to be holding out for from Manchester City for Harry Kane, which would bring the total to a shade over half a billion pounds.
Many Premier League transfer fees this summer have been undisclosed, but it’s unlikely the other 14 clubs have cumulatively spent anywhere near this amount, with the highest disclosed fee paid for a player by another club – by a long way – being the £38m that Aston Villa have paid out to entice Emi Buendia from newly-promoted Norwich City. The gap continues to grow and Financial Fair Play is worse than useless.
The same degree of stratification is just as likely at the bottom of the table, as well. Last season’s three relegated teams had a total of four Premier League seasons between them since their last promotions and the one of those that had two, Sheffield United, practically fell off the bottom of the table. Of the newly-promoted teams Brentford are the team that draw the most attention, this season, and if they can maintain the momentum from the end of last season for a few weeks into the new one, interest in them will surely swell still further. And all against the backdrop of a fancy new stadium.
Money and inequality aren’t the only clouds hanging over the Premier League as the new season starts, either. Covid-19 continues to hang around in the background, and despite government assurances that it was definitely safe to open up a couple of weeks ago and that there will definitely be no turning back on this policy, it’s difficult to imagine that this season won’t be impacted upon by the virus, to some extent or another. The ‘pingdemic’ that coincided with the risibly-named “Freedom Day” has subsided since then, but a Manchester United friendly at Preston and Arsenal’s pre-season tour of the USA were both cancelled because of flare-ups and Newcastle lost three goalkeepers to self-isolation at one point. Will there be more? It’s difficult to believe that there won’t be.
Fans will certainly be impacted by the kind-of-post-virus world. They are set to be subject to random spot-checks of their Covid-19 status, with the Premier League having warned this week that match-attending fans should be prepared to show they have been fully vaccinated or have received a negative lateral flow test in the previous 48 hours, via their NHS Covid pass through the NHS app or website link.
Furthermore, more than half of Premier League clubs stand accused of refusing or failing to offer season-ticket deferrals to fans not wanting to return to matches yet because of coronavirus, including the clinically vulnerable and disabled. Much will be made of how fans and clubs are “coming back together” over the last few days, but underneath this sort bonhomie there are fault lines within the game which have been studiously avoided for years but which continue to exist.
The sort of culture that led to much of the above was contributory in the government’s decision to hold a “fan-led” review of the game’s governance, the preliminary findings of which were published in the summer. It remains to be seen what this will lead to in terms of actual changes to governance of the game, but Project Big Picture and the European Super League could hardly be said to have supported the case for ongoing self-regulation. We shall see.
And as for the fans themselves… well, a number will continue to boo those who take the knee before matches, just as a number will continue to spit poison whenever a female pundit appears on their television screens. The culture wars will continue to taint football in the same way that they taint every other form of discourse that they come into contact with, and if the end of the European Championships this summer taught us nothing else, it’s that England still has enormous work to do over fronting down various forms of bigotry. There is plenty to be proud of in this country’s fan culture, but there is still a lot of work to do, and silence really isn’t an option.
Where non-league football, Scottish football and the EFL have already trodden, though, the Premier League now begins, and although cynicism remains the order of the day when considering England’s top twenty clubs, it would be churlish to be too high and mighty over any giddiness ahead of the start of this season. It’s been a long time since we were allowed into games, to reincorporate the rhythm of the football season into our lives in the way that it’s been there since we fell for it in the first place, and these weekend rituals will help a lot of people to feel as though there’s a semblance of normality returning to our lives after eighteen close to intolerable months. It might not be perfect (it’s definitely not perfect), but we all know that. At least until the end of the first weekend of the season, we can retain a sense of optimism that this will be our year, even if we already know that it definitely won’t.