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19 August 2015

The vanishing underdog: what the Premier League tells us about England

For most Premier League football fans, and it seems like most English people in general, as long as we’re doing okay we don’t mind if the game isn’t fair.

By Phil Hartup

You can learn a lot about England from English football. From the treatment of the Football Association you can see our unending tolerance for establishment incompetence. We might not like them, we might complain about them vociferously, but do anything about them? Pass.

From the English national team you can see our tenacity and sense of tradition, showing the world that it’ll take more than humiliating defeats in every major competition for us to abandon our timeworn tactics.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the English character however lies in our Premier League and how the English have cheerfully embraced it since its inception.

This is because what the Premier League has done is to teach us to accept a lack of mobility and an established status quo in what ought to be a meritocratic and dynamic system. In other words, we know that the title will be won by one of maybe two or three clubs when the season starts and we know that this will be true next season, and the season after that. We know that nothing can happen to a top four team that they cannot buy their way out of.

Manchester United have become an international corporate behemoth, too big to fail and too rich to keep down. A club that can drop to the middle of the table one season, prompting observations that they won’t be able to attract the best players, that they’ll lose millions in TV revenue and sponsorship, only to unleash hundreds of millions of pounds and cruise back into what has become regarded as their natural place. New players, new manager, back into the top four without missing a beat.

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Arsenal have earned much of their money recently in that most London of all financial pursuits, property development. Developing the site of their old stadium to finance the building of the new one has paid out handsomely for them, leaving them with a gigantic stadium in a perfect location which essentially amounts to a license to print money in perpetuity. As with United it would be churlish to begrudge them what is in effect simply good business management, but the net result is the same, a club that can buy itself out of any crisis.

Lastly the petrochemical teams, Chelsea and Manchester City. Two teams buoyed by truly mind-bending amounts of cash from sources completely unrelated to the clubs, or the country or even the sport itself. The sheer force of foreign capital can make any teams rise to the top almost completely unstoppable. To the point that you’d almost have to wonder why anybody without an oil connection bothers to show up at all.

And these are the four clubs that rule the fields of English football. And this is how it is going to be until something revolutionary happens. Liverpool took a run at the title, got close but ran out of steam. Tottenham and other clubs have dragged themselves up into the top four for a season or so, but they never make it stick.

The promised superstar players that are meant to help a club pull the ladder up after a top four finish never materialise. The quest for European glory turns into an ignominious and exhausting expedition, memorable but bruising for the threadbare squads of pretenders to the throne. The promising young players who could turn makeweights into competitors are lured away by rivals.

This is where it has gone wrong. It’s not inherently wrong that four clubs should rule the league for a season, it is wrong that four clubs should rule the league permanently, with nothing on the pitch or off it that can be done to shift them. Catch one of the Big Four on a bad day with your best game and you can beat them, of course, but they’ll still be the bigger club when the next transfer window rolls around. We all enjoy seeing the underdog have his day, to see elite sides laid low by the squads of misfit toys assembled by cash-strapped clubs, but this is all we’re ever going to get now.

In the past, a club might have a good few seasons, maybe a clutch of great players or a particularly talented manager would see them rise to the top for a while. But when those players retired or the manager moved on, down they would go and somebody else would take a turn.

What we have instead is an entrenched hierarchy, and perhaps more insidiously, fans who are completely okay with that. If you support an established Premier League football team, even outside the top four, you might never have had it so good, you get to see great football week in week out, you get to see superstar players at work and you might get the occasional interesting run in a cup. The only downside is that barring a random billionaire buyout your football club will never get to do any better.

Herein is the real question though. Suppose we could have a football league that was all on merit, suppose the revenues were more equally distributed, suppose that new players came through a draft system as used in the NFL, suppose all the privileges of status and money were hauled down, and the playing field was suddenly completely level. Would we really want that? Would we want the chance to win the title fair and square if it came with the risk of relegation?

For many fans, it seems not. For most Premier League football fans, and it seems like most English people in general, as long as we’re doing okay we don’t mind if the game isn’t fair.

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