You can learn a lot about modern-day football from those comic strips of the 1970s and 1980s. No, really. Not from the idealism of Roy Race (of Roy of the Rovers) but from the pragmatism of the lesser known Jon Stark. Nomadic and mercenary, Stark appeared in the short-lived Scoop comic and was dubbed a “footballer of the future”. He’d pick up £250 per goal and a £1,000 match fee if his team won. He was a no win, no fee footballer.
OK, so those numbers require a few more noughts at the end and that “no win, no fee” bit has clearly been rethought but as a proto-modern footballer, Stark was pretty near the mark. I’m not talking about the full-length leather jacket, the checked flares or the mullet that was more Alan Biley (Google him) than Marouane Chamakh (and him) but rather the attitude of the 21st-century player.
Think José Bosingwa, the QPR defender on £65,000 a week and described by his boss, Harry Redknapp, as “average and overpaid” after he chose to “storm out” (copyright all newspapers) rather than sit on the bench when he was told he wouldn’t be starting. He only joined the club last summer.
Or, to go back a little further, how about the Chelsea player Winston Bogarde, who, unlike Bosingwa, was more than happy to sit on the bench so long as his club kept paying him. Bogarde sat on the bench a lot. And if he wasn’t on the bench, he was with the reserves or, just as likely, on the treatment table or at home on a Saturday afternoon. He started just four games in four years and picked up over £8m for his trouble. Take note, Jon Stark.
Consider, too, the daily wage bills of some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. Manchester City spend over £500,000 a day on staff salaries. Those at Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal come in at below £500,000 but not by that much.
You can begin to contemplate how a club can charge away supporters £62 – as Arsenal did when they played Manchester City on Sunday 13 January – and keep a straight face. More than 900 of those overpriced tickets were returned in protest and normal footballing rivalries were replaced by joined-up loathing.
Even the assistant referee (that’s a linesman to you, Roy and Jon) was sensitive to the financial burden. “They’ve paid £62 over there. Go and see them,” he told City’s Joleon Lescott at the final whistle.
Clearly, charging that price for a ticket is scandalous and indefensible. Yet so, too, was £5 to stand in the mid- and late 1980s, when £3 was the norm. Good luck to those fan groups lobbying to get prices down but remember normal market forces don’t apply here. Some 900 City fans chose to boycott the Arsenal match but more than twice as many chose not to. A banner held up by two fans who’d paid £124 between them read: “£62!! Where will it stop?” The answer to their question is in there somewhere.
Football is an obsession. At the Emirates that Sunday afternoon, eyes were drawn to a City fan dressed head to foot in sky blue and white: hat, two scarves tied à la Mancini, sky-blue tracksuit, sky-blue trainers with white flashes (box fresh) and what looked like an oversized, plastic lunch box (sky blue, naturally).
Mr City was conspicuous and proud and, judging by his weathered features, pre-dates Jon Stark. But I doubt he ever thought twice about paying his £62.