The Super League: Relegated, After All

by | Apr 20, 2021

Life comes at you fast. I got up at 6.30 this morning, checked that my kids hadn’t somehow killed themselves or each other during the night, made a cup of tea, and scrolled, bleary-eyed, through the night’s goings-on on social media. One video really stood out to me, and that was the video of his late night appearance on the Spanish TV show El Chiringuito, in which he glowling extolled the virtues of his shiny new Super League. Not a show with which I was familiar, but from what I could see it looked like The One Show, if it were newsier.

As the day progressed, a thought came to percolate through my brain. It’s perfectly possible to be extremely wealthy, extremely powerful, and extremely stupid. By the early afternoon, my confidence was growing. It had started as a bubble of rumour, first that two English clubs were already starting to get cold feet over the project already,barely 72 hours after it was announced. It wasn’t particularly two difficult to work out which two it was, presuming these to be the same two as set this particular house of cards started a-tumbling earlier this evening.

A swell of noise was building that couldn’t be ignored any more. When it’s loud enough, it gets everywhere. Social media was alight with it. The prime minister stuck his oar in and, in a rare display of a stopped clock telling the right time, described the new competition as a “cartel”. People who don’t like football started to get into others’ timelines to remind them that, ‘oh, so you care about this, but you don’t care about *this*? By the early evening, it was clear that this couldn’t continue. Hundreds of Chelsea supporters turned out at Stamford Bridge to protest at the gates, with the team having a behind-closed-doors match against Brighton & Hove Albion in the evening. Banners had already gone up at Anfield.

Petr Cech tried to calm things down, but the anger turned to celebration when the news started to filter through that Chelsea were to submit their resignation from the tournament. Manchester City followed them within the hour. Ed Woodward resigned as the executive vice-chairman of Manchester United, and will leave the club at the end of this year. The official statement didn’t mention the current debacle, but it’s likely that it should. It would be a remarkable coincidence, otherwise. Elsewhere was a strong rumour that Andrea Agnelli, whose fault this all was to a very great extent, had gone from Juventus as well, but the club are denying these rumours, but it’d be largely window dressing anyway, since the Agnelli family owns the club.

And then late this evening came the confirmation that the remainder had toppled. The Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson had issued a short but to the point statement condemning it, while other Premier League clubs continued to issue statements confirming their opposition. And then, shortly before eleven o’clock, came the confirmation from the BBC. The remaining four English clubs had also begun the process of resigning from it all. Arsenal apologised.

This all felt, however, too close for comfort. In 1992, at the formation of the Premier League, there was no social media. We knew next to nothing about what was actually going on until it was too late. Personally speaking, I have serious doubts that social media would have prevented the Premier League from happening, but it might have made it different. And this time around, after all the threats over a breakaway Super League, it did feel as though they were serious. I think for me, the moment that confirmed it was the resignations from the European Club Association. (Do they… just get those back, by the way?) That was the point at which it felt to me as though there was more to this than mere brinkmanship. The vehemence of response from UEFA and the national associations set that particular ball rolling, in my head, at least.

Still, though, I had doubts. It was clear that Chelsea and Manchester City had only entered at the last minute, and that didn’t sound healthy, while the leaked document that came from the Super League website suggested that the website was all fur coat and no knickers. And for all their bluff and bluster, their desperation was showing. You could see the whites of their eyes. And as the last couple of days have worn on, it’s increasingly felt as though this was a jewel-encrusted castle built on sand, the machinations of a group of old, white men so insulated from the real world that it wasn’t so much that they underestimated the strength of public opinion, more that they didn’t even believe it to be worthy of consideration in the first place.

The pressure that caused today’s capitulation was a joint effort. It took the whole of the game to make the voice loud enough to for it to finally penetrate their thick skulls. While the outspoken comment of many in high-profile positions did provide the tinder for what was to follow, though, the lion’s share of the applause for today has to go to the fans themselves. In forty years of football-watching, I’ve scarcely seen such a unified front put forward, and it was also gratifying to see so little opprobrium aimed at players, many of whom had no more idea what was going on than the rest of us, and most of whom were as opposed to it as we were. They had been placed into a dreadful position by their employers’ recklessness in the pursuit of money.

Hopefully, there are lessons to learn from all of this, the most important of which is that, for supporters, there is considerable strength in numbers. Tribalism was largely cast to one side for a greater good, and the sheer force of that voice made the idea that this ridiculous concoction could ever actually go ahead seem fundamentally absurd. Perhaps we can learn a lesson about how we can all benefit if we put down our loyalties every now and again and press for a greater good.

And now is no time for silence. The events of the last couple of days have been the culmination of thirty-odd years of things moving in this direction. We should press for the 50+1 ownership of clubs. Running them as private businesses clearly isn’t working. The inequalities within the game in this country have to be addressed. Very, very few people would expect complete financial equality. Most football supporters accept the reality that some clubs are bigger than others. But allowing those gaps to get wider will smash that golden egg to pieces, if we’re not careful with it.

In a broader sense, the game has to be pivoted back towards the interests of those who pay for those television contracts and, more than anybody else, those who provide the soundtrack on match days. We need wholesale reform, starting with a full review into the state of affairs in which we’ve found ourselves. The government has promised this and they must now deliver it, with immediate effect. The threats of vulture capitalism haven’t gone anywhere, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they’re licking their wounds and plotting their next move, because they’re not going to surrender what they consider to be their entitlement without a fight. Whatever happens next, we need to be ready for the next fight. Because next time the opposition won’t be as ill-prepared as this one was. They couldn’t be.