20 Years of the Premier League: an Alternative View
A polemic for you this Friday from regular contributor Phil Ascough. Phil is the author of Kissing The Badge – How Much Do You Know About 20 Years Of The Premier League? and The Armchair Olympian, both published by Bloomsbury. A shortened version of this article was published earlier this week by The Yorkshire Post.
Best team, best player, best match, best goal. The end of the milestone twentieth season finds the Premier League at its most self-congratulatory.
Pundits and public who responded to official Premier League polls identified the latest season as the best in the history of the competition, even before the added time drama of the final afternoon.
Yet even aside from the obvious flaw that people will only vote for candidates with which they are familiar – the rule that says pop music fans under a certain age will always select Justin Bieber over The Beatles – the Premier League’s 20 Seasons awards are dubious because the categories are incomplete.
Most hilarious howler, most offensive assault (with on-field and off-field sub-categories) and most crippling financial millstone are conspicuous by their absence as, in fact, is anything remotely controversial. Nothing at all about drug cheats, duping referees, racism rows, illegal payments, avoided handshakes. Fortunately some of us have been paying a bit more attention.
None of this is to suggest that footballers in the Premier League behave any worse than you would expect from a bunch of males aged about 17-plus with time on their hands, millions of pounds in the bank and a gleaming supercar that will do 0-60 faster than you can say ‘appearance bonus’.
The Premier League has taken football to new levels of excitement and to corners of the world that many fans had never heard of.
The competition has spawned dedicated TV channels, including for the clubs themselves, it dominates the back pages of the newspapers and has a pretty good strike rate with the front pages as well. Countless books have been written about it, and three in particular to mark the 20th season.
The title of Joe Lovejoy’s Glory, Goals and Greed is an accurate reflection of its tone. Ian Ridley re-traces some of his interview subjects of 20 years ago for There’s A Golden Sky and looks at the impact of the Premier League on the wider game. Both volumes are highly recommended, as of course is my own, Kissing The Badge.
Tongue-in-cheek title, warts-and-all content, Kissing The Badge is more of a compendium of brief narrative, trivia and quiz questions that recalls the best of the Premier League and those occasions when the participants haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory.
Hilarious howler? The scam that resulted in Graeme Souness signing the hapless Ali Dia for Southampton in 1996 takes some beating. Most offensive assault? On-field, special mention for Paolo Di Canio’s shove on referee Paul Alcock at Hillsborough in 1998, but Roy Keane’s foul on Alf-Inge Haaland had the added ingredients of meticulous planning before the event and a puffing-out of the chest in Keane’s biography afterwards. Off-field was obviously Eric Cantona at Crystal Palace in 1995.
Most crippling financial millstone? Portsmouth are the only Premier League club to go into administration, although many clubs can trace their own struggles in the Football League directly to the costs of having tried too hard to stay in the top flight.
Too many clubs to list here – you’ll know if yours was one of them – all dropped below the Championship as they tried to balance the books.
Bradford City’s 86th position of 92 in the top four divisions is the lowest by any team to have been relegated from the Premier League, and the Bantams have occupied it for the last two seasons.
Looking at the next 20 years, a key question is whether the Premier League can maintain its position as the self-styled ‘best league in the world.’
In all likelihood its development will have less to do with the pulsating denouement of the only title race to be decided on goal difference than by the sort of commercial considerations that gave birth to the competition in the first place. The Premier League will have to evolve to stay ahead of the emerging rivals. Russia and the Middle East are investing heavily in football as part of their World Cup preparations, and clubs in China are being linked with experienced players seeking a final payday.
Every now and then another idea emerges as owners of Premier League clubs attempt to make the cake even bigger. There was the suggestion of a 39th game to be played overseas, and more recently the notion that relegation to the Football League be scrapped to help clubs plan their finances more effectively.
It is the rejection of that last point which presents an interesting opportunity for the Football League. To mark the 20th anniversary of the top clubs breaking away, the remaining 72 should seize the initiative and serve notice that they intend to ban promotion to the Premier League.
It would deny the 72 the chance of ever becomin0n Premier League champions. But only Blackburn Rovers, promoted into that first Premier League campaign and champions in 1995, and now Manchester City have won the title after climbing from the Football League.
And both clubs only made it to the top because money was no object; they had the resources to literally change the game. Promoted clubs can generally expect to cling to their new status, paying handsomely to lose far more games than they win, for a season or two before dropping back into the Championship.
How much would they have to spend to be able to compete at the level of Bolton and Blackburn– promoted together in 2001, relegated together in 2012, three top-six finishes between them in the meantime? And what would they get in return?
With unlimited resources they could negotiate with the likes of Carlos Tevez, reportedly on a weekly wage of £250,000 but not the first player to go on strike in the Premier League and almost certainly not the last.
They could sign individuals of the calibre of Ashley Young and Didier Drogba; players who have caught the eye for some truly gymnastic tumbles and flips in trying to ‘win’ free kicks and penalties.
They could dine at the top table of the ‘football family’ and add their voice to the demands for goal-line technology to eliminate honest mistakes by match officials who are under siege, while at the same time responding with only a wink and a grin, Cristiano Ronaldo-style, to calls for action against players who cheat.
Of course severing links with the Premier League would have a big impact on TV revenue. Without the excitement of a relegation battle involving half of its clubs, the Premier League proposition would be far less attractive.
The TV moguls may therefore pay more attention – and more cash – to a revamped Championship, which would offer trophies for the team that finishes top of the table and for the winners at Wembley of end-of-season play-offs.
The League Cup would be limited to Football League clubs, denying them the ‘opportunity’ to compete against kids from the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea but presenting them with a decent chance of success in a competition that has only been won by top-flight clubs since the Premier League was formed.
Even qualification for Europe may not be entirely out of the question for a Football League that attracts higher attendances than the top division in all but a handful of nations on the continent.
And if players and managers from Football League clubs are really good enough to work at the top level they will get there in the end by joining a Premier League club, exactly as they do now.
If it sounds harsh on those clubs who habitually hover in that no man’s land of the Premier League table, no serious aspirations of European qualification but just out of danger, then why not try four Football League divisions of 20 clubs each and a Premier League of 12? Or banish six or eight of the elite to an oft-vaunted European Super League and let the rest get back to some proper football?
The Football League went some way towards reclaiming the game in 2004 with the introduction of The Championship. It is leading the introduction in English football of financial fair play at a time when there is a danger of the imbalance extending throughout the divisions. The next step should be even more radical.