The game that is saying goodbye
Feature by Richard Oldroyd
Updated Monday, 8th November 2010
Sometime last season, the BBC ran a panel debate on the state of football. During the programme, one of the panellists, David Gold, said something acutely revealing.
The answer to this question was obvious. German football clubs exist primarily for German football supporters and, so long as those supporters care about their clubs enough to make them viable and competitive, what anyone else thinks about those clubs ought to be just about irrelevant.
But in that throwaway line, which passed unchallenged, Gold revealed the basic principle upon which English football's overlords and powerbrokers work. It is no longer enough for a top flight English football club to be loved by its community and indigenous supporters.
Since I started writing for Clarets Mad eight and a half years ago, the wrongs of football's runaway gravy train has been a recurring theme running through these articles. Yet whilst I've hardly been an isolated voice amongst the ranks of supporters of clubs below the elite, Liverpool's recent plight has finally forced the mainstream media to openly question the direction in which the game is heading.
It is an important and urgent question. Although inequality and clinical corporatism were firmly established back in 2002, those were comparatively innocent days: before concepts like leveraged debt became part of the lexicon of the everyday football fan and before, indeed, the likes of Abramovich and Glazer ushered in the era of widespread foreign ownership of English clubs.
If that pace of change continues - and it is not out of step with the previous decade of the Premier League era - it is sobering to imagine where the game might be in 2020.
Football is not an island. The world at large is globalising at a hell of a rate. Britain has changed too, so that there is no longer the massed, industrialised working class which sustained the game for its first century. But this is not an economics journal; it is a football blog. As a football fan, I don't care about free market economics or corporate ownership rules or the whims of the financial markets.
I care firstly, selfishly, about Burnley Football Club and its place in the game. But beyond that, I care about the game itself, its character and its basic values and shape. I care about the world game of course, but my concern is primarily for the game in this country.
And all around me I see an increasingly grotesque distortion of the game I fell in love with as a kid fifteen to twenty years ago, just as change was coming. I see clubs, community institutions at heart, being passed around courtrooms across the world, with legions of interested parties drawn from every corner of the globe except the towns and cities in question.
I see administrators conniving to get a world cup to Britain with a bid based upon nothing but global profit, whilst grassroots facilities and coaching across this country are left in neglect.
I see top class players taking advantage of an unviable financial model to write themselves enormous pay cheques that their employers have little option but to honour, whilst living lives ever more disconnected from the reality of the world in which they might otherwise exist.
I see fans of major clubs unquestioningly prostituting themselves as they see new investors arriving on the scene with nothing to commend themselves but the fact they aren't the previous lot. John W Henry isn't interested in Liverpool, or English Football in general for that matter. He's only here because the rules within English Football make it uniquely attractive for predators frustrated by the constraints which saner sporting systems place upon club owners.
That is why his newly appointed chairman elect was advocating playing league matches overseas, apparently without noticing the irony in doing so immediately after praising the Anfield atmosphere and the tradition of Liverpool Football Club. Yet the fervour with which supporters welcomed New England Sports Ventures had me in mind of evangelical Christians, or perhaps a scene from George Orwell's 1984.
In Manchester, I see City supporters oblivious to the fact that they have long since surrendered their identity and independence as a club to the patronage of a Middle Eastern Emirate whose interest in City begins and ends at building prestige for the Abu Dhabi brand. They, like others, are simply a glamorous subsidiary of a global organisation whose location and name is little more than a historical accident.
The thing is, football won't collapse in on itself. The reason for that is that it's a great game and someone, somewhere, will pay money to watch it, either live or on TV. It doesn't matter if these people are rooted in the English game anymore. They already come from all over the world to see the top clubs play. It is easy to imagine a scenario a few years from now when Manchester United or Liverpool play a home game against someone like Burnley and more than half the crowd have arrived by aeroplane from overseas.
It is easy to caricature an argument like this as reactionary, or simplistic, or as gerrymandering. That is probably what David Gold or the jellyfish which inhabit the FA would say. It is probably the view that the government would take too, given the revenues which football and footballers generate for the treasury.
But that is not only patronising and lazy - it is wrong. The truth is revealed in the glib marketing campaigns and introductory film sequences purportedly showing ordinary fans celebrating in ordinary streets in the shadows of stadia.
Football markets itself shamelessly on the traditions and cultures which framed the brand, whilst turning its back on those same pillars and the people who built them. It knows that it is unique and that it should be organised differently to ordinary business and commerce. But it simply chooses to ignore that fact because it suits its vested interests.
I'm not stupid. I know that time cannot simply be turned back. I understand that there are layers of law both in this country and internationally which have contributed to creating the monster which football is becoming.
But all of these laments are ultimately part of the same phenomenon - a game which has become devoid of any credible regulation or governance. Club football broke the power of the FA long ago - and the Premier League, as a consortium of its members, has no interest in imposing rules over itself to restrict its obsessive globalisation and exploitation of supporters.
Football simply must impose rules to protect the integrity of its clubs and the interests of the supporters who built them - or have those rules imposed upon it. It is not clear to whom that task should fall. But as the sad saga of Liverpool shows, without that regulation, English Football will continue to relentlessly divorce itself from the constituency which made it and shaped it - a betrayal of everything it ought to be.