Wealth Disparity is Ruining Football

There’s something odd going on in professional football. Managers are getting sacked for achieving triumphs that would previously have seen them rewarded with statues outside the stadium and keys to the freedom of the city.

Take Unai Emery, the forlorn vampire that stands at the side of the Emirates watching his players swear at the fans. Before he was sentenced to the job of being Arsenal manager, Emery won the domestic treble at PSG. He won every trophy available to him apart from the Champions League, yet still got the boot. Massimiliano Allegri becomes the first ever manager to win 5 consecutive Serie A titles, gets sacked. Carlo Ancelotti wins the Bundesliga in May with Bayern, fired by September. Even old Grandpa Wenger won three FA Cups in five seasons but was still shown the door.

So why is this happening? It’s because expectations for these clubs are insurmountably high.

Why do these clubs set such unachievable objectives? For the same reason as anything else in this modern free market dystopia we live in. Money. All these clubs have loads and loads of money.

Considerably more money than their so-called competitors. The super clubs have bigger stadiums. They charge higher ticket prices. Some clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City are bankrolled by seedy oligarchs or entire gulf nations with seemingly infinite wealth behind them.

They sign bigger sponsorship deals. Manchester United earn £64 million a year through their deal with American car manufacturers Chevrolet, to put that into perspective West Ham earn just £10 million a year through their deal with Betway. The same is true with shirt sponsorships, Arsenal receive £50 million a year from Adidas, Bournemouth earn just £1 million a year through their kit deal.

The bigger clubs also receive a far healthier cut of television revenue. In the Premier League 50% of the domestic revenue is shared around equally, whilst the other 50% is divided up based on league position and popularity with audiences. Ergo, the rich and successful get even richer and therefore even more successful.

And the cherry on the top, there’s all the money they make from Champions League football. Liverpool received £66 million in prize money alone for winning the Champions League last season, and that doesn’t even include their cut of television revenue. Meanwhile clubs outside the European elite, your West Hams, Fulhams and Kettering Towns find themselves getting comparatively poorer season after season.

All this money that the super clubs make can then be spent on astronomical transfer fees, as well as inflating wages ensuring that the world’s best players will only ever grace the shirts of a very small clique of clubs.

This increasing wealth disparity is not only threatening the future of the game but damaging its present. For a start it leads to dull football, where most results can be predicted weeks in advance. Take the Premier League as an example. Of all the fixtures between the big six and the other 14 hangers on, just 15% were won by the financially poorer team. We know Liverpool and Manchester City were exceptional last season, but this figure includes Arsenal and Manchester United sides who even their own fans would acknowledge were bang average.

15%, is that really want we want. Where in 166 games a season, one team has just a fractional chance of winning. Travelling miles across the country to go to games, spending hundreds of pounds on TV subscriptions to watch a virtually foregone conclusion. And it’s not because of tactics or management or skill or desire, don’t give me any of that baloney, it’s the fricking money. Do you think Pep Guardiola and Sergio Aguero are at Manchester City because they like Oasis, or is it the fact they have bottomless transfer reserves?

What’s crazier is that the Premier League is the good league, it’s the competitive league. The balance is even worse on the continent where they basically hand the relevant league titles to Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich at the start of November.

Problem number two, it’s crushing fans dreams. Back in the day fans of almost any club could dream of unearthing a genius manager and forming a world-beating team. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest went from the arse-end of the Second Division, not to a valiant 7th place, but all the way to being back-to-back European champions. Bobby Robson turned Ipswich Town into UEFA Cup champions.

Smaller clubs can’t do that anymore. There’s a ceiling. And if any side tries to demolish that ceiling, all their players get sold to sit on the bench at Liverpool and Chelsea, whilst the manager swans off to a club where he actually has a chance of winning trophies.

What do I really have to look forward to as Stoke City fan? Well nothing at the moment, the team are playing shite. But even if they weren’t, what’s the end goal for Stoke City football club? Promotion sure, but after that then what, drifting around mid-table as one of the whipping boys for clubs like Man City. To be one of the extras in the Liverpool and Manchester United show.

I guess there’s always a cup-run.

But even the cups have been ruined by the super clubs. Such is the depth of pocket and therefore the depth of quality in these clubs, they can easily make the Semi-Finals without even playing their first team. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the managers who seemed to start the trend of resting players for FA Cup ties, didn’t not care about the competition, they just knew they could win it and at the same time still rest players for the league and Europe.

Pep Guardiola rested Kevin De Bruyne for the first 53 minutes of the most recent FA Cup final and they still trounced Watford 6-0. Over time, smaller clubs have realised that there’s no point playing their best players in an increasingly meaningless tournament, so instead they too started resting their first team in order to focus on the spectacularly important task of finishing 12th. The cup has know become synonymous with second-string squads, average players and half empty stadiums, ruining what was once the world’s greatest cup competition.

Then there’s the Europa League. It was once the UEFA Cup, a melting pot of some of the world’s top clubs mixed in with plucky underdogs from the eastern bloc. A long winding road of a knockout tournament, offering an adventure across Europe. A tournament won by genuinely great sides, Juventus, Internazionale, Shankly’s Liverpool, Maradona’s Napoli.

However, such was the greed from the super clubs that they insisted the Champions League be expanded, to give clubs like Barcelona and Bayern Munich effectively life-time memberships to the competition. The Europa League is now a husk. For Arsenal and Manchester United playing in the Europa League represents cataclysmic failure. A tournament once great, is now made a mockery of.

So, in summary, the wealth disparity that exists within professional football threatens the game’s future, makes for boring sport, prevents 99% of clubs ever winning anything of value and is strangling some of the game’s most historic competitions. What I also want to question is who is actually satisfied with the status quo?

As a Stoke fan, I’m not happy because we are never going to be able to win anything. I imagine that fans of similar sized clubs also feel the same way. Then there are fans of clubs in the smaller European leagues, in Scotland, Belgium, Sweden whose clubs used to win trophies in Europe but now barely make it to the group stages. They can’t be happy either.

Then there’s the fans of the super clubs. Their expectations are so high that they are almost always left disappointed and angry. Over the past three seasons, Manchester United have always finished in the top 6 as well as winning the League Cup and Europa League. These are objectively exceptional achievements when compared to almost every other club in the game. But for the holier than thou Manchester United anything less than a Premier League or Champions League triumph represents failure. So they’re unhappy. As are Arsenal fans, despite their hundreds of FA Cups. Even clubs that do win league titles such as Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG are becoming increasingly apathetic.

When you look at it in detail, it’s only really Liverpool, Manchester City and at the moment Leicester fans who are actually happy with the current state of affairs. If the vast majority are displeased with the status quo, then the game is broken, it’s failing almost every one of its fans. And if it is, then surely it’s time for change.

Why Leicester City, West Ham and Crystal Palace Won’t Finish in the Top Six

Sports writing is primarily about making mistakes, about being proved wrong. Therefore we might as well start this blog with a bold(ish) prediction, that will, come the end of the season look entirely stupid. When Burnley’s Ben Mee holds the Premier League title aloft, and a some how still upbeat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prepares for a season in the Sky Bet Championship, I’m sure that this post will be e-mailed, whatsapped and Facebook messengered to me, to remind me of what an idiot I once was.

That said, I’m going to make the prediction anyway. Come May, there is no chance, absolutely no chance, zilch, nul points, that any of Leicester City, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Burnley or whatever other tinpot no hoper club you can think will finish in the top 6. Instead, like virtually every other season before it, the same mega-rich, oil money, Texan billionaire run, super clubs will populate the upper echelons of the Premier League. I’m of course talking about Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs.

Before I get started with the hows and the whys, I want to tackle the narrative that gets built up season after season by both the traditional forms of media and social media. Prior to the start of the season everyone has a very rigid forecast of what is going to happen over the next ten or so months. Pundits from all stations predict the same six clubs to finish at the top of the table, the clubs that finished mid-table last season to finish in the middle again, whilst those who just got promoted will go straight back down.

This pre-season prediction is how certainly for the start of the season at least, we measure each sides successes and failures. Therefore, when a big club falls short of these expectation, even if it’s only October, even if they’ve only lost 2 or 3 games, they are then perceived to be in CRISIS. And when a club hits crisis mode, they should sack the manager, sell all the players, knock down the stadium and execute the chairman. Just burn down the whole club and start all over again as nothing good can come from a club in crisis. They are done. Finished.

Whereas for the small town club that has nicked their place in the top six, well the good times are going to roll on forever. First, they’ll finish fourth, but that’s just the start, then it’s on to the Champions League, Mark Noble’s going to nutmeg Messi at the Nou Camp. Then onto the World Cup, World Series, Super Bowl, let’s all get carried away because little old Burnley are fifth. The good times are never going to end, we’re into a new era of football, the big six clique is dead.

Alas, no.

Let’s look at the facts. Tottenham have had by their own standards a poor start to the season. They got knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Colchester, they got thumped 7-2 by Bayern Munich and last weekend Spurs got humiliated 3-0 at the hands of Brighton. Crisis. But despite all this Tottenham sit in ninth, not last, and are currently only 3 points off Crystal Palace who lie in sixth.

Do we really expect a Tottenham side made up of a world-class striker in Harry Kane, as well as Son Heung-Min, Christian Eriksen and the exceptionally solid pairing of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, not to be able to make up the three point gap they have between them and Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace? Of course not. Tottenham are out of form, but they also have a great squad, a fantastic manager and they reached the Champions League final literally just a few months ago. They’re a quality team, it’s just a blip.

Let’s also consider Chelsea and Arsenal’s season to date. The prevailing opinion at the start of the season was that both these clubs would be in and around the top four positions, but could also slip into the Europa League spots. Then the season started. Chelsea lost 4-0 to Man Utd and Arsenal lost 3-0 to Liverpool. The crisis word wasn’t being banded around just yet, but preparations were being made. Chris Sutton was preparing his ‘you’re better than that’ rant, whilst Danny Murphy was perfecting his best frowny face for when he next had to talk about Arsenal’s defence. Even as recently last week, one Guardian journalist described the Man Utd vs Arsenal fixture as being like a mid-table fixture.

Yet, in reality, Arsenal have bounced back quickly and sit comfortably in third, only behind Liverpool and Manchester City. Frank Lampard has bedded in his youngsters and got his Chelsea team up to sixth. Both these teams are now going about their business fairly pleasantly, and it’s exceptionally unlikely that either of these teams will drop below sixth throughout the rest of the season. Odd considering that only a few weeks ago every talksport phone-in and twitter banter account was painting the picture that both these teams were set for a season of woe and misery.

The only superclub that risks making me look like a fool is Manchester United. They are increasingly looking bereft of ideas, and seem to lack quality in various areas of the pitch particularly going forward. But even despite this, I still remain confident that the Red Devils will finish in the top 6. As clubs like United always do.

Ever since Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016, the super clubs have built a wall around the top six positions. They’ve consistently spent more and paid higher wages than the rest of the sides in England’s top flight. For the past three seasons, the same six clubs have finished in the top six positions. Prior to that one or two clubs might drift out of these positions, but usually only when hampered by a deep run in both the cups or the Europa League. As bad as Manchester United are right now, they’re still a team that on paper is far superior to Leicester, West Ham or whoever else is above them, due to years and years of higher spending. Therefore, history dictates that Manchester United should make up the ground on their smaller rivals.

The truth is, we like to buy into these narratives of huge clubs in decline or little underdogs sticking it up to the big boys because we want them to be true. We want to believe that anyone can beat anyone, that tactics and desire can beat pounds and dollars. We want to believe that the football we are watching (and the society we live in for that matter) is a meritocracy, that it’s fair. But, unfortunately, time and time again, this has been proven to be false. The league table might look a little bit topsy turvy now, but come May, it will be the same old faces sitting at the top of the tree.