We’re often told that English football is more successful than it’s ever been. Can this really be right?
If you’ve watched football for more than a couple of decades, there’s a high chance that, periodically, you’ll feel a surge of disgust about the state of things. The kind of stomach churning you used to associate with pies bought at away games against which your digestive system would almost immediately rebel.
And yet it’s still quite common to hear from some commentators – not all of them Premier League spinners or football economists – that the game is ‘more successful than it’s ever been’. Forget the agonised Munchian scream from your gut, they say: football grounds are full, the TV audience is huge and growing and the league is the richest and highest profile in the world. (Previously they might also have mentioned Champions League success, but that claim has been quietly dropped, sometimes to be replaced with a line about all clubs now being profitable. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, though, that reflects the fact that the clubs, for the only time in their history, have more money than they know what to do with, rather than that there’s been a fundamental change in the nature of the game’s administration. They lucked into a huge TV deal and the transfer market will catch up soon.)
It’s hard to gainsay any of this, of course, because it’s true. So what’s going on? How can it be that football feels so hollow and yet, according to these headline metrics, it’s a national triumph?
Well, the answer, I think, is this: the Premier League is only superficially successful. Income and audience is a depressingly narrow way of measuring a sport’s success and one that, happily for the Premier League, excludes its myriad failures and, above all, the changing social character of the game.
The ‘success’ of the housing market
There’s an analogy, I think with the housing market. If you take a few headline measures, things couldn’t be better. House prices are high, crazy high, especially in the South East – and they’re still rising. If you bought a house in certain parts of London more than about seven or eight years ago, there’s a decent chance it’s gone up in value by more than 50%. There hasn’t been a recession since 2008 and the number of repossessions has fallen every year since 2009.
If you are one of the army of buy-to-letters, meanwhile, you may find you have numerous families slaving away each month to make your mortgage payments, leaving you sitting on an unearned fortune.
Any economist can tell you that English houses must be the best in the world. How else do you explain that it’s not just British people who want them, but that central London has been flooded with money from wealthy overseas buyers?
And, finally, of course, there’s the TV audience. Homes Under the Hammer, Grand Designs, Restoration Man. We can’t get enough of houses! We love them!
It’s clear then, is it not, that the housing market is more successful than it’s ever been?
Well, if the answer is ‘yes’, then it’s successful in so superficial a way as to suggest that we are measuring the wrong things.
I’m not yet 40 and, with my wife, have had a mortgage on a house for over ten years – just before they moved from barely affordable to outright impossible. I was lucky. A married couple I know, with 15 years in the job market, two incomes (one of them an IT contractor) are selling their small flat in south east London and moving out because they simply can’t afford a modest family house in which to raise kids. And, relatively speaking, they are lucky. I’ve worked with many people in their 20s who share houses with three or four other people and who’ve told me they don’t ever expect to own a house. And they are the lucky ones who can afford not to live with their parents.
Because for all its headline financial success, the housing market no longer works. The simple, cherished British dream of owning a small home with a garden in which to bring up a family is beyond the reach of millions of households, even those with two incomes.
The housing market, then, no longer meets its primary social purpose. It no longer serves to provide homes for people, but instead has become yet another financial instrument. A tool of enrichment for those in late middle age, for landlords, for those seeking a better return on their surplus cash, for those seeking to diversify their wealth, for those seeking to avoid tax, and for those seeking to launder their money and their reputations.
And even this apparent wealth and success isn’t evenly shared. Houses lie derelict or unsaleable in many areas of the north. In London, meanwhile, the only houses built are investment properties or executive flats – often gated – themselves often built on the site of former social housing.
This, I think, is the kind of ‘success’ that the Premier League has brought to football.
The ‘success’ of the Premier League
It’s more successful than it’s ever been, yet ticket prices and player wages have spiralled. Money is pouring into the game, yet fans are ripped off for kits, away games and TV subscriptions. The young and the working class can’t afford to go to games.
The Premier League trumpets its donation to the rest of the pyramid, yet clubs outside the Premier League still live fragile existences and the grassroots are grassless – muddy bogs instead of premium artificial services.
The best players in the world are here, we are told, but they’re not British. Under-coached young players are scooped up and stifled by the top clubs. The pool of top flight English players is shrinking.
It’s more popular than ever and on TV almost constantly, yet the atmosphere at games is funereal. The talk of fans is often depressed.
It’s a more cosmopolitan and global game than ever, yet the Premier League is unwilling to force clubs to even interview black managers.
The FA belatedly lambasts Fifa corruption yet remains totally unwilling to tackle the overmighty and shortsighted bosses of the Premier League.
The Premier League is the most competitive in the world, yet it’s is openly rigged by financial and recruitment arrangements that make it impossible for anyone but a small group of teams to win.
The Premier League flies the flag for English football around the world, yet it wants the Football League to allow it to have B Teams – and concede the growing reality that not all clubs have equal status.
These and many, many other ways in which English football is failing are the things that your gut rages against yet the indicators of success fail to capture.
And, above all, the character of football has changed. It is no longer an enriching social activity routed in communities, where generations experienced the game together and passed it on. It is no longer an uplifting source of pride; a chance to see the occasional local boy turn out for a club owned by a local businessman (who, granted, was probably a crook) and dream of a shot at the title. It’s not the game I went to as a teenager and not a game I’d want to take my children to, even were I able to afford to.
There were, of course, many terrible problems with football when I was a kid. Financial mismanagement, violence, casual racism, rundown stadia. The list goes on.
But it would be wrong to imagine the Premier League solved these problems alone or that they couldn’t have been done without the bloated gentrification of the sport, without it moving from a vibrant social experience to a glossy branch of the entertainment industry.
Like the housing market, then, football is a success of the worst and superficial kind. A success based on the disenfranchisement of its stakeholders and the perversion of its aims. It’s been a success only for those who saw an opportunity to get a social asset in a depressed area for a song, do the place up and sell it on at a whacking profit to well-heeled and respectable folk who were looking for a place to call their own.
So go ahead and applaud the Premier League if you like, but it’s not a success in any way that counts. It’s a polished but worthless sham of a business and, increasingly, it makes me feel sick.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.