Media Week: What the Premier League really thinks of QPR, Norwich and Swansea
When they are ready, we let them go. So what is in store for those lucky enough to leave the Football League behind for sunnier, or at least richer, climes? Media Week continues with Andrew Thomas – the man behind Twisted Blood – taking a look at the Premier League’s attitude towards newly-promoted clubs.
The dearly-departed Garry Cook mused to the Times a few years ago that the Premier League would, in the fullness of time, become a league of perhaps 14 clubs, with no promotion or relegation: a sealed, set and immutable cartel, finally free of those bothersome lesser clubs that insist on turning up every season and pocketing the League’s revenues without adding anything to the brand.
That’s what drove the breakaway, after all: the (correct, as it turned out) perception that through seizing control of the identity of top-flight English football, those clubs at the top could massively expand their earnings. That being tethered to the pyramid was inhibiting the financial potential of the elite. A few long chats in smoky rooms with Sky and the shamefully complaisant FA later, and the deal was done. It was a stark statement: this is the Premier League; all the rest of it, well, you just ain’t premier.
Except, of course, that promotion and relegation continues; teams lose and gain their status just as they always did. Of the 45 teams to have played in the Premier League, only seven — Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Spurs — have never been promoted to or relegated from The Greatest League In The World. The rest, including Cook’s own beloved Manchester City, have been down and come up; have, since 1992, played a part in the wider English game.
Of course, when teams are promoted to the Promised Land, they need to be pigeon-holed. There is far too little time for the media to develop a nuanced picture of promoted team — after all, it takes time to pore over the transfer rumours, training innovations, kit changes and girlfriends of the Big Four/Five/Six/as you like — and so a number of handy constructs have arisen.
Most teams that achieve promotion to the Premier League quickly become the latest example of one of the following archetypes:
The Returning Giants
These are the Premier League’s favourite kind of newbies. Clubs like Newcastle, and Manchester City, and to a lesser extent QPR and Norwich, that are coming back from the wilderness to reclaim their rightful places just below the really important clubs. These tend to be clubs with decent size fanbases and a certain amount of history (in Premier League-world, “history” means “things that can be exploited for revenue, like trophies, or famous players”).
Fans of such clubs — Leeds, West Ham and maybe Ipswich are examples-in-waiting — can expect a certain amount of patronising guff about their struggle to re-establish themselves, but will get decent placements on Match of the Day and a certain amount of respect from pundits, journalists, and the Sky schedulers. After all, this is a potentially profitable story.
The Breath of Fresh Air
This is everybody’s favourite kind of promoted team. Up they come, unburdened by expectation, typically under the direction of a kooky-yet-innovative manager. Said manager will win friends and kudos by delivering thigh-slapping interviews and naive-yet-surprisingly effective football; recent examples include “Ian Holloway’s Blackpool” and “Phil Brown’s Hull”. Fans of these teams can expect to get on television whenever they’re playing anybody important, and might luck out with a few days of genuine attention and interest if they manage to beat two London clubs in a week.
The Adorable Adventurers
Similar to the Breath of Fresh Air, except instead of a Personality Manager, the club have Proper Fans who are Determined to Enjoy Every Minute and Just Never Stop Singing. There’s an insight there into the congealment of fandom at the Premier League perennials — here we are now, entertain us — and fans of such clubs can expect to be roundly patronised from all sides. Everybody will be very pleased to see you, but will talk in the strange kind of clear, slow English usually reserved for foreigners and mental patients. The concern, of course, is that since you’re up so damn high, the thin air might make you giddy. Expect a general lack of television action, but a couple of Match of the Day 2 features, probably involving Kevin Day and your kit lady.
The Embarrassment to the League
The Premier League expects all clubs to recognise that it is so, so, so, so, so damn important to stay up that they should mortgage their future in an attempt to do so. (The principle behind this is simple: if you’re not in the Premier League, you don’t exist anyway. So gamble!) Where clubs refuse to do so, and instead of borrowing heavily to sign an ex-England international with dicky knees, a vastly overrated Brazilian, and Nigel Quashie, choose to live within their means and stick by the squad that brought them up, then it doesn’t go down well.
Since the Premier League has some very good football teams, and some pretty competent ones just below them, such a sensible approach will generally translate to a season of humpings, the occasional heroic draw, and one or two spawny-yet-entertaining wins, probably involving Newcastle. Points will be few and far between — Derby County’s 11, Sunderland’s 15 — and everyone will shake their heads sadly. If they didn’t want to be in the league, why did they try so hard to get promoted? Fans of such clubs will have to get used to Match of the Day showing their highlights after Goal of the Month, possibly in the corner of the screen while Gary does A Pun.
The Yo-Yo Club
Less of a single-season phenomenon, more a consequence of either being An Embarrassment to the League but using the money gained wisely, or being a Breath of Fresh Air/Adorable Adventurer and having enough latent quality, nous, or cash to manage a quick return. West Brom were good at this for a while, as were Sunderland, though they’ve both become rather ensconced of late. Lacking the novelty value of the BoFF/AA, but not laden with the stain of being an EttL, fans can expect a kind of bemused tolerance. Unlikely to get much Match of the Day action, though, at least until the title’s done and their very springiness becomes the focus of the story. After all, “boing boing” is quite fun to say.
The Obstinate Bastards
A few years into the future for those promoted teams that don’t count as Returning Giants is the chance to become an Obstinate Bastard. The kind of team that give Garry Cook and his ilk — Dave Richards, Richard Scudamore, other such corporate malignancies — chills. These are clubs that just hang around, with obstinately working-class fanbases and a frankly insulting lack of glamour. Hanging around thanks to canny management is not what the Greatest League in the World is all about, Stoke. Punching above your weight thanks to shrewd investments and a healthy dollop of fortune is not what inflates international revenues, Wigan. Have you no respect for the product?
In conclusion, the salutary lesson of Garry Cook’s self-defenestration wasn’t that he was a buffoon with a talent for putting his foot in his mouth, then shooting it, but that he was, gaffes aside, a very good Premier League Chief Executive. In other words, we can reasonably assume that while those CEOs that survive him probably don’t share his taste for faux-ghetto handshakes and tumour humour, they probably do think along the same lines in terms of the product to which their fortunes are wedded. To the sharks that swim the deep waters of the Premier League, the teams in the divisions below — as well as those at the bottom of the top, as it were — are somewhere between an inconvenience and a ball-and-chain, forever inhibiting the chance to break away fully and get on with making even more money.
In this they are supported by a media that must sacrifice its own integrity and any pretence toward even-handed coverage in pursuit of page-views, ad impressions, and click-thrus. While this in itself is just a sad consequence of capitalist journalism, the problem is that such attitudes become internalised and start to assert themselves not just in the amount of coverage but in the respect accorded to the clubs.
What starts as simple financial sense — big clubs equal big fanbase equals more hits — can start to feel like a division along lines of class; that the attachment felt by fans of Football League clubs (potential Returning Giants aside, of course) is somehow less significant, less genuine and somehow less real. To pluck just one example, a broadsheet journalist recently chided Aston Villa fans for having the temerity to object to the appointment of Alex McLeish, pointing out that the Second City rivalry wasn’t a proper rivalry, like that sexy Liverpool-Manchester United one.
So when such clubs — ie., most clubs — make it to the Premier League, they become just another example of just another acceptable narrative, there to flesh out the season, to serve their purpose, and then to quietly slip away. This will persist until the Premier League gets what it really wants, and pulls the ladder up for good.