The Grey Neutral: The football lives of others

FOOTBALL is back in Europe, with the Bundesliga kicking off in empty stadiums and players acknowledging goals with a grin, a mannekin-like pose and not a hint of schadenfreude.

Rout in the Ruhr

The world’s biggest crowd-puller, Borussia Dortmund (average gate 80,000-plus), opened the restart in a near empty Signal Iduna Park. The absence of a crowd allowed you to see just how vast the yellow wall must be with a [safe] terracing area straight out of the 1970s. It was easy going for BVB, who scored four, well-crafted goals. Interestingly, there was not a minute of added time in the second half which made you wonder if that had anything to do with a deserted stadium –  were they just desperate to get off the pitch? It was good to see a decent game of football, but the surreal atmosphere underlined that the product is very diluted without an audience. It becomes as compelling as a park match. We may have to get used to it, though, for putting 22 people on a pitch is one thing, getting 30,000-40,000 and all accompanying bacterial and viral activity into a relatively confined space is a different story. That said, Dortmund showed they were not too rusty after the enforced lay-off, but Schalke have some work to do!

Rewriting history

Crystal Palace’s historian is claiming they are the oldest professional club in the world after reassessing the line of succession from the original Crystal Palace to the club that now plays at Selhurst Park. This all seems a little tenuous given the old team, which played around the Sydenham Hill area and appeared in the first FA Cup in 1871-72, disappeared for more than 20 years. It’s hard to claim a club is the same when it is no longer active, even if the company records show it was still in existence, probably because nobody had bothered to wind things up?  The problem with football history is that for many years, it was not taken seriously and there was, for many years, no rigorous academic research into its past. The proud boast, “oldest professional club” is also questioned given that Sheffield, the widely acknowledged oldest club are in fact “professional”. Nobody would blame Palace’s fans and archivists for trying to claim a rather dubious honour, but clearly, the CPFC that was formed in 1905 were seemingly satisfied they were not the organisation that played in the inaugural FA Cup. Why try and rewrite history? However, the first Crystal Palace club’s opponents in the FA Cup, Hitchin FC, were once guilty of the same debatable claim – Hitchin FC folded in 1911 and a new club, Hitchin Town FC was formed 17 years later! In both cases, it is surely more accurate to say their roots date back to 1861 and 1865 respectively?

Kylian killing time

The transfer market may well be seized up when football finally returns, so it’s no surprise that Kylian Mbappé has said he will probably see out another season with Paris Saint-Germain. The fact is, with clubs of all shapes and sizes feeling the squeeze, there may be a lack of willing takers for the talented young Frenchmen, both in terms of a transfer fee and a lucrative personal deal. Real Madrid are said to be interested in Mbappé, but even the biggest clubs are worried about their cashflow. One of the positives that may come out of the virus lockdown is a more realistic transfer market – Mbappé has been valued from € 175 million to € 250 million, but it would seem unlikely that anyone in the post-virus environment will want to pay € 200 million for a player. Apparently, relationships between Mbappé and PSG are strained, which does sound a little familiar when a player is a year away from the end of his contract. Transfer talk in this time of restriction and deprivation is a little crass. 

Rich man, poor man

The Sunday Times could not have timed their Rich List more inappropriately. With the Coronavirus about to send the UK over a cliff economically, we really needed to know just how wealthy the wealthy are. And it is quite obscene in places, making you wonder just what does it take to become a multi-millionaire or even a billionaire. As for football, the richest English player is Raheem Sterling with a net worth of around £ 28 million, boosted by his £ 300,000 per week contract. It’s not that difficult for a moderately well-paid person to become a millionaire in terms of the accumulation of assets such as pension, property and investments, but just consider that it takes players like Sterling about a month to earn another million.

Lack of cohesion

Stevenage are probably mightily relieved they probably won’t be getting relegated from the EFL back to the non-league world. However, at present there seems to be a hotch-potch of ideas and solutions and no consistent approach towards getting the season either written-off or played-out. It cannot go on forever and the sooner the Football Association and Football League apply a one-size fits all answer to the problem – for once this would seem the fairest way – the better.


Photos: PA


English football’s eco-system – cause for concern

THE LACK of true democracy in English football, which has long adopted a “survival of the fittest” culture, is an imbalanced class system that is surely unsustainable.

Although many people in the UK look at American sport’s structure and self-protectionism with some cynicism, we may have come to a stage where the governing bodies have to look at creative alternatives to introduce more competitiveness to the 92-club constitution.

The United States’ National Football League (NFL) is a competition that has a high degree of democracy. “The NFL is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Alex Fynn, football writer and lawyer. “Last season’s champions have the last pick of the draft”. This approach aims to make the NFL as competitive as possible, a way of protecting the brand and ensuring the product is entertaining and appealing to the public and TV.

The Premier League is the complete opposite, the whole is weaker than the league’s parts because the competition is overwhelmingly driven by the top six clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

Speaking at University of London’s Birkbeck college, Fynn believed England is 10 to 20 years behind some of Europe’s top leagues in creating a system that has better balance.

Fynn added that English football should be more than just 20 Premier clubs, but the problem is the Premier doesn’t really care about the rest of the system. “We have four divisions, but the structure fall in knots beyond the Premier. We call it a pyramid, but we do not have a pyramid. It does exist in non-league football and in other countries.”

Fynn called the Football League “useless”, an organisation that cannot look past the idea of “play more games, earn more money”, an ethos that exists down the ladder and into non-league.  Fynn said: “They cannot seem to grasp that less is more in this case. There should be no more than 20 clubs in a division and the structure needs reassessing, games such as Exeter City versus Carlisle United are an absolute nonsense at the lowest level.”

This hints at some form of regionalisation solution being reintroduced at the lower level. Certainly there seems little logic in clubs travelling the length of the country to play in front of a few thousand people. “At the bottom level, the stuff of life is local derbies,” said Fynn. “Greater rivalry, bigger crowds and an increase in local interest.”

Advocates of the 92 structure have stubbornly championed its depth and broad geographic representation as a key differentiator from other European countries, but Fynn believes this is misguided. “The system is faulty, because 20 Premier clubs cannot provide an accurate measure of a country’s football strength,” he said. “The more teams you have, the lower the quality.”

Fans are still taken for granted, largely because clubs have waiting lists and people clamouring for tickets at the highest level. “Fans have lifelong affairs with their clubs and therefore are very different from customers. Yet the clubs’ attitude is that they have plenty of people waiting outside and so they get away with not treating their fans as well as they should,” added Fynn. He concluded that fans are like extras on a film set and should be rewarded for their loyalty with clubs building relationships and offering fair ticket prices.

Clearly, English football’s 92-club constitution is struggling and dependent on businessmen and owners underpinning club finances. Bury and Bolton should have prompted discussions about the future of the system because there must be questions around the viability of a lot of clubs up and down the country.


Photo: PA