After a break of 96 days, the Barclays Premier League recommences on Saturday. For the next nine months twenty teams will battle their way through the twists and turns of the greatest football league in world. In May 2009 we will say farewell to three of them, crown our champions, and look back on another season of wonderful goals, terrible refereeing decisions, managerial spats, and goal-keeping errors, marvelling at the world-wide dominance of our national sport.
Or will we?
The Premier League is now surely one of the most disinteresting and dislikeable annual UK-based sporting contests. There are many hundreds of reasons why; here are just twenty – one for each club.
Only four teams have won the top division since it launched as the FA Premier League in 1992. The Blackburn blip of 1994 will not be repeated this year. In total, Man Utd have won 10 championships, Arsenal 3 and Chelsea the remaining 2.
Last season the top four teams between them lost only 15 out of the 152 games they played. Of these 7 were in matches against each other, and of the remainder just one – Man City’s defeat of local rivals United at Old Trafford – was when playing at home. The order of the top three or four may vary this season, but no other team has a hope of winning the league.
2. Excessive money
The amount of cash involved is disgusting. The current three-year TV deal is worth £2.7 billion, but ticket prices and season tickets are prohibitive to a younger fan base. Wage bills can best be described as obscene.
3. The business of sport
Clubs are increasingly run solely as businesses – stadiums are named after big brands (Reebok, Emirates, JJB); new kits are created annually purely as money-making tools. Whereas football clubs are relegated and promoted, businesses go bust. Expect no sympathy if and when the league finally self-combusts.
4. Other sports
In case you haven’t noticed, there are currently 28 Olympic sports to watch. The cricket season continues, the US Open Tennis starts in a fortnight, there’s the Challenge Cup Final on August 30th, the Ryder Cup in September, and a comparatively interesting Formula One season concluding in Brazil in November – not to mention horse-racing and, of course, darts. Tickets for Saracens against Harlequins in the Guinness Premiership are available now for £15. There are many better sporting dramas to be viewed away from a football field.
5. Match of the Day
The contribution that Jonathon Ross receives from the BBC Licence Fee is regularly condemned, but at least he brings something unique to a weekend evening. The BBC TV studio coverage of Euro 2008 reached a new low (next time just show the football, please), and there is little reason not to expect more of the smug stuff from Gary and the team.
6. Pub culture
Watching events en masse is rightly enjoyed by many people. There is a clear line, however, between friendly banter and xenophobia, humour and homophobia. Football in pubs often crosses it, carrying a nasty undercurrent which wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – be acceptable in any other circumstances.
7. Leaving early
Not limited to the top flight, but those fans that leave early or rush for a pie/pint at half-time in Premier League games are certainly the most stupid, bearing in mind the ticket prices.
And rants. Danny Baker knows how to make football fun and interesting on the radio. Everyone else should look and learn.
10. Joey Barton
11. Alan Green
12. Moaning managers
What makes these men turn into idiots? From Ferguson’s playground-esque refusal to talk to the BBC to Wenger’s notorious short-sightedness, Keegan’s genial interviews full of utter nonsense to Mark ‘Interesting’ Hughes. How long before Scolari and Ince lose their own particular plots?
13. Fans who cry at the end of the season
Get over it. A matter of life and death? Seriously, get over it.
More than half of the clubs in the top division have a non-UK majority ownership. English players are in the minority, successful managers a rarity. Whilst the game clearly benefits from overseas players and cash, the problem with foreign input is not the impact on the national team, but the fact that, one day, fans in England will wake-up and realise they share no identity with their local team. The soul is being removed, the loyalty will diminish.
15. 3pm Saturday
The saturation of televised matches, and the priority increasingly given to European football, result in no games of significance during football’s familiar timeslot. Many traditions are pointless, but top-class Saturday afternoon football is one which should be celebrated.
16. Buy to let
A truly horrible recent development which sums up the self-created gulf between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘may-disappear-soons’ is the tendency of big clubs to buy players and immediately loaning them to lesser teams. When Coventy, Crystal Palace, Ipswich, Leeds, Norwich, Notts Forest, Oldham, QPR, the two Sheffields, Southampton and Wimbledon resigned from the Football League in May 1992 to help create the inaugural Premier League, was this what they were aspiring to?
17. The impact on society
The lengthy love-in with football has created a world where politicians are forced to declare their team, failure to qualify for a tournament can hasten progress towards a recession, and David James can give tips on fashion. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Perhaps a sadder reflection on my life than on the state of the Premier League, but you should try visiting a brother who lives in Highbury on a match day.
19. Most games are boring
The occasional game genuinely excites and thrills, but the simple truth is that most Premier League games contain few moments of interest. Sky Sports’ ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ trick continues to baffle. Fulham against Newcastle on a Sunday afternoon in November takes skill to promote, but the real problem is that the games amongst the top four are usually cagey, unsatisfactory, and cannot possibly live up to the hype.
20. There is not enough to like
Finally, the single most problematic aspect of football is quite how dislikeable everything about the game has become. There are some well known players with charm and charisma, and many who shun the limelight, but the correlation between ability, arrogance and antipathy is apparent: Ronaldo, Rooney, Terry, Ashley Cole – by respecting little, they gain little respect.
With the exception of moments of true sporting brilliance (Nadal versus Federer, for example), most fans need an affinity with one team or the other to enjoy what they are watching. When Man United play Chelsea, however, only supporters of those teams know who they want to win. Everyone else knows only who they want to lose.
‘Get on with the game’ is the Premier League’s attempt to ensure better behaviour on the pitch. A noble enough start, but not enough to make football likeable again. A decrease in public interest, a financial crisis, or even the collapse of a club may do it. If that’s what it takes to return top flight football to its rightful place at the highest echelon of the beautiful game, then bring it on. Until then, I’ll give it a miss.