Monday, August 18, 2014

The Not So Level Playing Field

This piece was originally written for my "Beyond the Ninety" column on the excellent Voom Football website.

The start of a new Premier League season brings all the usual excitement and expectation. For those of us who follow a top flight team we’re busy predicting just what our clubs might achieve over the next ten months. But the sad truth is that the position your team will finish has already been pretty much decided before a ball has been kicked. The battles for Premiership supremacy and survival are more about the billionaires in the boardroom than the players on the park.  

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the forerunners of today’s administrators – such as the MCC in cricket and the FA in football – first started to write down standardised sets of rules for their respective sports. One of the reasons behind this move was to ensure “equality of competition”. It meant that competing sides had to be of equal size, that batsmen couldn’t walk out to the wicket with a bat four-feet-wide, that there would be a change of ends at half time so neither team were running uphill or into the wind for an entire match. In short, it ensured a level playing field. 

The idea of the level playing field reminded me of something Brendon Rodgers said a couple of seasons ago when his Swansea side took on Manchester City. With five minutes to go City brought on Sergio Aguero as a substitute. After the match Rodgers said, “That’s the difference between the two teams: they have a striker on their bench who costs more than our stadium.” Now at Liverpool, Rodgers is on the other side of the fence and has been able to utilise the club’s substantial financial clout, effectively turning Southampton into a feeder club in the process. Despite spending £86million so far this summer there remain doubts that the Reds’ boss has spent enough to challenge for the title. Pundits and fans alike are lining up to voice their opinion that without a marquee signing Liverpool will be unable to improve on last season’s second place Premiership finish. They’re probably right.

For years Arsene Wenger has epitomised the softly-softly, fiscally responsible approach to team building. Yet disquiet had mounted amongst the Emirates faithful as the Frenchman refused to shell out exorbitant amounts on transfer fees and wages. At the beginning of last season, as the club made a poor start, there were even calls for Wenger to step aside. However, after the signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez for a combined total somewhere in the region of £75million, Arsenal appear to have changed their approach. That level of spending is a statement of intent and the Gunners now appear as serious title contenders.

But we shouldn’t see this as a simple change of heart. Wenger is locked in the logic of football’s market forces. If you look at the three clubs who have dominated English football’s top flight for the past decade – Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City – you will find that their success has been underwritten with mind-boggling sums of cold, hard cash. United were, for a time, the richest club side in the world in any sport, a global brand with almost unimaginable merchandising revenue.  Chelsea have been able to call on the oh-so-deep pockets of Roman Abramovich, a man worth in excess of £10 billion. And, strange as it is to say, Roman looks like a pauper compared to the wealth of Sheikh Mansour. The Man City owner is part of a family who reportedly have a trillion dollars’ worth of oil money in the bank. Both Wenger and Arsenal have eventually succumbed to the fact that in order to compete with these clubs you have to spend. And spend big.

You can, of course, have oodles of money and still fail to win the league, as David Moyes proved last year. Seriously, if you have £28milllion to blow on a player and you choose to buy Maurouane Fellaini then you pretty much deserve to be sacked. Equally you could point to the experience at White Hart Lane, where Spurs went on a spending spree with their Gareth Bale windfall only to go backwards.  But while no guarantee, huge wads of cash are a precondition for success. Without the bank balance you can look forward to a year of mid-table mediocrity at best, or, at worst, an entire season of relegation six-pointers.

Just as in the world of business, where market forces tend not to competition but to monopoly, so something similar has happened in football. The effect of the billionaires and oligarchs has been to erode the level playing field and destroy the equality of competition. Only the handful of clubs with mountains of cash are able to bankroll a title challenge. The rest of the teams are merely there to make up the numbers. So when someone asks you who will win the Premier League this year, respond with a question of your own: which club has the most money?