Monday, May 14, 2012

Frankenstein's Monster

Well what about yesterday’s football? Has there ever been a comparable end to a season? The closest that I can remember was Arsenal pinching the title from Liverpool at Anfield back in ‘89. For those too young to remember the Liverpool v Arsenal game had been postponed and rescheduled in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy. Arsenal went into the game needing to win by 2 goals and Michael Thomas scored in injury time seconds after Steve McMahon had been caught on camera indicating that “just one minute” remained. It was incredible stuff from the moment that the Arsenal team took to the pitch and presented bouquets of flowers to the The Kop to Michael Thomas’s ecstatic forward roll/back flip/cartwheelie celebration at the denouement. But I haven’t started this blog to reminisce about that. I want to consider yesterday’s events and implications.

I have to admit to having mixed feelings about it all. I am in no shape or form either a Manchester United or City supporter. Nor am I an apologist for them. They have enough plasticised evangelists of their own and probably don’t need or want my input. There is also a delicious irony in the gripes from the Old Traffordonians about Manchester City “buying the title”… As if the red half of Manchester hasn’t been doing just that for years!

No. I just want to pause for a moment and ponder just what it takes for a club to break into the top echelons of the game and to take a peek beyond that. Manchester City are victorious right now (and how!) but to get there they have spent something like £1000m over the last 4 years. Just stop for a moment. That is not a misprint. “ONE BILLION POUNDS”!

How can it be justified? In terms of everyday life and common sense it just can’t. There is no business model that will ever generate income to match that investment so how has it come about that such a sum can be spent?

I’m going to step outside of the football bubble for a moment and look at horse racing. For many years now horse racing has enjoyed the largesse of wealthy, often middle eastern, owners who have bankrolled the skinny Irish jockeys, plummy-voiced trainers, stablehands et al. For people like the Aga Khan it is a matter of “face” (to borrow an expression from much further east) and pride. He is a wealthy and powerful man. It is necessary for him to exhibit his wealth and power and he uses the medium of horse racing to do it. It is the glory of success and acclaim that he seeks before the financial rewards involved.

The same applies to Manchester City’s owners. Manchester City is owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour. Sheikh Mansour sits on top of a fortune simply unimaginable in magnitude. For him the ONE BILLION POUNDS is mere loose change. He doesn’t expect to see appreciable financial return for his investment he simply wants, nay demands, that City win because it is all about “face”. Nothing else matters.

Manchester United have just become victims of a monster, just as did the fictional Dr Frankenstien, that they with their own short-sighted vanity, venality and greed have played no small part in creating; they should, but won’t, be the last ones to complain. It goes back a long, long way and is rooted the  tumultuous City v United fixture that saw Denis Law score the back-heeled goal that saw United relegated back in 1974.

Common sense tells us that there is no way that Manchester United should ever be relegated from the top division. Even the most avid United-hater would not claim that they have deserved to be anywhere other than near the top of football’s pyramid for more or less their entire history and that relegation, which took well over a decade for them to recover from, has haunted them ever since. How could the country’s best-supported team playing in the country’s biggest stadium fail like that?

“Money”, of course, was the answer. In those days there was next to no TV money to worry about. There was almost no live televised football at all and hardly anybody ever bought a replica shirt. Income came almost solely from matchday gate receipts and used to be split equally between the competing teams. United had many teams competing against them with similar resources to them and they realised that they were effectively subsidising their opponents. A long campaign was started to do something about that. Eventually they succeeded and they steered through a vote that allowed the home team to keep all of the matchday money and football was never to be the same again. From that point on Manchester United have, due to their huge popularity, enjoyed a big advantage over most, and a slightly smaller one over some, of their opponents.

It wasn’t enough though. Like a greedy toddler wanting more sweets United wanted more and the milking of the revenue from televised football was targeted. There was no way that the status quo could be maintained. The model that shared out the revenue between all 92 league clubs had to go and the first division clubs resigned en masse from the football league and reconstituted their own division under the auspices of the FA; the Premier League was formed to negotiate the best deal it could. Step forward Sky TV and Rupert Murdoch’s huge punt on satellite TV, which needed a dedicated and loyal customer-base, and the rest is history. Suddenly all of the TV money, now a huge sum compared to what had gone before, stayed in the coffers of a small handful of clubs and the rest of the clubs could whistle for their share.

At the stroke of a pen football suddenly became a potentially lucrative business. A fact that did not go unnoticed in the wider world. Enter Jack Walker at Blackburn, more of whom later, who made the hitherto unprecedented level of investment that saw Blackburn emerge from mundane obscurity to claim the most glittering prize, 80 years after their previous success at that level, of all: the Premiership trophy.

On the face of it this seemed to be a triumph for a kindly benefactor but in reality it was a victory built on the rock solid foundations of sensible cost/benefit analysis. It’s not unfair to accept that Walker took a huge risk but the rewards were huger and he did not flinch away from the risk involved. The claims from supporters of Blackburn’s vanquished rivals that Blackburn had “bought the title” counted for nought no matter how true they might have been then (just as they are true and count for nought in City’s case now).

Blackburn were the first to re-interpret the rules and to shape the competition to their own ends. They were not the last. Next on the scene came even bigger money from abroad in the shape of Roman Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea. He had seen what could be done, had the ready cash to do so and decided to do the same. With knobs on. Abramovich pumped hundreds of mi££ions into his club, dwarfing the tens of mi££ions that Walker had put in at Blackburn, and sure enough success followed success. Chelsea morphed from a club of intermittent achievement and perennial under-achievement into possibly the biggest, and certainly the richest, club in the world. Chelsea were, naturally, accused of “buying the title” by their rivals and yet again it was true and yet again it counted for nought. Did Abramovich care that the business model was unsustainable? Not a jot. It was all about that all-important “face” and very little to do with balance sheets.

Throughout these years the team to beat to win the title has nearly always been Manchester United and more often than not, despite the successes of Blackburn and Chelsea as Ferguson's 12 titles attests, their opponents have failed. In the process Manchester United has become a massive, well... more massive, globally recognised brand with massive globally raised revenue streams to match but rarely do we hear that they have “bought the title” despite spending huge amounts of money themselves on players like Rooney, Ronaldo, Ferdinand and huge wages to a host of others. It would be churlish to ignore the success of their home-grown talents like Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and others but they are the product of an extensive coaching and scouting network, unaffordable to most teams and, it must be noted, a scouting and coaching network that shows signs of delivering rather less in the future than it has in the past.

But enough of the goings-on at the top. What of the bottom? This season has seen Wolves, Blackburn and Bolton get relegated. Of the three I expect that Wolves will eventually emerge from the disappointment the strongest of the three. There must be real concerns for the future of the other two. Bolton, whose chairman Phil Gartside has long been in favour of abolishing relegation altogether (I wonder why?) and “franchising” the Premier League along the lines adopted in US professional sport, will have to try to come back saddled with debts of over £100m. I don’t give much for their chances. Blackburn, whose supporters have reacted with huge bitterness and indignation at their plight, seem to be blithely ignorant to the fact that the very model that they have so gleefully exploited to their own benefit has turned around and is in the process of all but destroying them. I find it hard to find a sympathetic place for either of them in my heart.

Wolves, Bolton and Blackburn will, of course, be partially insulated from a calamitous financial meltdown by the parachute payments that the PL’s relegated teams receive. Obviously these can be hugely effective in sweetening the bitterest of pills and this season the three relegated clubs from last season (Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham) have all (along with Cardiff) been contesting the divisional play-offs with either Blackpool or West Ham emerging triumphant. All 3 of them have been able to exploit income levels far higher than the teams that they are competing against and will hope to replicate the success, under similar circumstances, of Newcastle United the season before.

And so it goes all the way down to the bottom of the pyramid which is pretty much where Argyle currently sits. It’s something of a mystery even now as to how Argyle ever managed to run up debts of c.£20m without spending large fortunes on stadium improvements, transfer fees or wages but we did and all we tried to do was compete at CCC level. Which we did quite successfully for a while before the financial inequalities, caused in no small part by the concentration of wealth in the upper echelons, delivered unto us great vengeance and swift retribution for having the temerity to dream. What we once had was a pretty decent team filled with pretty decent players but “little Plymouth” was no match for the financial muscle of bigger clubs who could offer wages that blew player loyalty out of the water and transfer fees that did the same for the resolve of directors to keep our best players. The repercussions of this for Argyle are well-documented now. The question that remains, as yet, unanswered is how teams like Wolves, Blackburn or Bolton will cope.

It all boils down to the lunacy that is soccernomics. Most clubs have to try to act like conventional businesses and cut their cloth accordingly. A lucky few like Manchester City and Chelsea do not and Manchester United seem to sit astride the two models. The ownership of the Glazers sees Manchester United emburdened by huge levels of debt but they appear to have the income to service that debt and remain competitive. At least they did until yesterday. Surely Sheikh Mansour will be basking in the glory that yesterday’s incredible drama has bestowed, by proxy, upon him and mi££ions more, as required, will follow. The City squad will be strengthened before the next season starts and it will be strengthened again and again for the foreseeable future. I have no doubt that they will spend whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

Which is great for them and very bad for everybody else.

Somewhere along the way Football has to realise that the attraction of the sport, of all sport, comes from the uncertainty of outcome as each competitor strives to be first amongst equals. Where does the game go when there are no “equals” anymore and not even Manchester United can compete?