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10 March 2016

What thrilling doomsday scenario will English football come up with next?

The rumoured meeting between the Big Five clubs risks creating an unfair Premiere League.

By Barney Ronay

As John Updike’s paunchy car salesman Harry Angstrom observes in the third of the Rabbit novels: “The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep on showing up as if the fun’s just started.” So it is with English professional football, which has been menaced by a series of thrilling new doomsday scenarios ever since it was whistled into life in 1888 as a breakaway league to provide guaranteed wealth for the biggest clubs.

Now a fresh moment of crisis has presented itself as executives of five Premier League clubs were spotted leaving a covert meeting at the Dorchester hotel in London. The Big Five [Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United] are said to have discussed a new European breakaway league designed, believe it or not, to provide guaranteed wealth for the biggest clubs. This would be a breakaway from the Champions League, which was formed to provide guaranteed wealth for the biggest clubs – just as the Premier League, a breakaway from the original breakaway, was designed to provide guaranteed wealth for the biggest clubs.

Horror at this suggestion has been so widespread that the representatives of the Dorchester Five have denied that the discussions were the main point of the meeting. The most objectionable proposal is that the richest clubs would be guaranteed a place in the elite competition without fear of relegation, an offence against the basic idea of sport: the notion of unfettered social mobility based on nothing more than points and victories.

This part of the breakaway, the theory goes, would follow the US sporting model, in which those who invest expect to have their returns guaranteed. Twelve of the 20 Premier League clubs are owned by overseas speculators, five of those American billionaires. People who enjoy eating turkey are quite likely to vote for Christmas. So once again the end is nigh, a decisive step ahead in the staged retreat into a sealed world, a sport designed by money, for the benefit of money and with the future welfare of money in mind.

Or is it? I was at West Ham’s recent 1-0 win against Tottenham, one of the last night games at the clattery old Boleyn Ground before the Irons move on to the greater revenues of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. Rather than mournful, the atmosphere at West Ham these days is frenzied and celebratory. It is the same elsewhere, in every place where English football is present. The hunger is as strong as ever. The game may be doing its best to disappear into space. Yet it remains an undying need, an itch for shared experience, some kind of enraged collectivism, that is still entirely unscratched.

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What is a good club owner anyway? The ideal has always seemed to be a benevolent patron, endlessly wealthy and unconcerned with the creation of endless wealth. The kindly Old Etonian brewing heir John Cobbold was the chairman of Ipswich Town when they won the Football League in 1962; he would travel with the team, buying drinks, making jokes (“There is no crisis at Ipswich until the white wine runs out in the boardroom”) and enjoying the company of healthy young men. Between the extremes of Delia Smith at Norwich and the United Arab Emirates at Manchester City – whose regeneration of east Manchester offers a greater “legacy” than the publicly funded London Olympics – there are still shades of Cobbold around a mixed economy of wider concerns and financial reward.

There has been a slight rowing-back in the days since that Dorchester hook-up, nudged along, no doubt, by some helpful briefing. The Premier League is a brilliant product. To tinker with it would be foolish. And yet the pace and trajectory of recent change suggest that anything is possible. Look back long enough and football has always been either doing or about to do something awful to itself. Terrifying uncertainty is the only certainty, portents of doom the most reliable evidence of life. The world keeps ending. But here we are all the same, still asking where the party is.

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho