Monday, February 11, 2008

I got a letter from the Premier League the other day: I opened it and read it, and it said they were suckers



"Thank you for your email regarding the Premier League's plans for an international round of fixtures.

Premier League Clubs have agreed in principle to support plans to create a new round of 10 competitive fixtures to be played overseas beginning season 2010/11. This ‘international round’ will be in addition to the traditional 38 home and away matches each of the 20 Premier League Clubs currently play.

The ‘international round’ is an exciting and innovative proposal that needs careful consideration before being introduced. We believe that an ‘international round’ of matches will enhance the strength of the Premier League as a competition; create extra interest in all 20 Premier League Clubs at home and abroad; and allow increased investment in talent development and acquisition, facilities as well as our football development and community programmes.

The globalisation of sport is both an opportunity and a challenge; one that needs addressing in a responsible way. We are a better competition for being a cosmopolitan league and have benefited from our increased international reach. Nonetheless, it is critical we retain our English character by improving our efforts to produce home grown talent, deepening our commitment to community engagement and continuing our investment in the grass roots.

Please be assured that we do take all feedback seriously. We appreciate the concerns of supporters and will be taking all comments on board and consulting widely before the plans are finalised.

Kind regards
Communications Team
"

No, thank you, Communications. The number of levels on which your self-serving drivel is is contemptible are, of couse, infinite. But perhaps it's good that the gloves are off, that the circus is now considering officially becoming a travelling circus. These latest sorry proposals about pay-per-view Premier League games in Atlantis or wherever (oops, I mean "the international round") are just the latest, if perhaps the most dramatically self-evident, madness, the latest symptoms in the affliction that's been growing on the game since Italia '90, its bid to go all Billy the Fish on us.

But there are two things that make football great: its history, and its diversity. If you take those away, it's screwed. A sport created by the competing constituencies of the southern public schools and northern industrial towns, then exported in a myriad of ways to every continent. The joy of the different styles, countries and cultures of a sport played with some alacrity and abandon in every country in the world, and in plenty of playgrounds, car parks, and cul-de-sacs rather closer to home. Yes, there is something worth preserving in that.

Is anyone really so naive to think that the Premier League's gently absurdist vision of the future will benefit any of the other 7,000 football clubs in the UK league pyramid (or the tens of thousands below them), as opposed to three particular public limited companies and a select number of nightclubs, jewellers and escort agencies (is that what they mean with their standard e-mail talk of "community engagement" and "community programmes") ? Enough to justify continuing trying to gazump, to crush, the local leagues and traditions of the countries we seem so desperate to sell our "product" to ?

The chief executive of Everton was on the radio the other day (Everton are in the "race for fourth", you know - another much-coveted modern football innovation). He was very upset that the fans were getting all uppity. If the Premier League only ever listened to the fans, he sagely observed, then "we would still have 3 p.m. kick offs on a Saturday". Christ. How Watford fans, travelling to Plymouth for a game kicking off at six in the evening on a Sunday, must be glad those dark ages of the 3 p.m. kick-off have passed. How the Newcastle fans who had to leave home at 5 a.m. to get to Birmingham for a lunchtime kick-off last Saturday must be grateful for the authorities' wisdom in these matters.

But what is really frightening is to imagine what that chief executive, or his appointed representatives on earth, will be saying in 10 years' time, as to other "inevitable" done deals in the meantime. "If we only ever listened to the fans, we wouldn't now have time-outs, a winter break, and seeding. We'd still have replays, relegation and a hundred professional clubs. So why should we listen to them when they oppose moving the FA Cup final to the moon ?"

OK, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the Premier League, an interest group for capitalist notables, doesn't give a stuff. The amount of sleaze within that august organisation was made crystal clear during the Tevez farrago last year - if you're ever in doubt as to the contempt these people hold for our intelligence, just look at the "reasoning" they gave for letting West Ham off the hook, for rewarding the pleas of a businessman whose defence was that he couldn't have been expected to do any due diligence into a concern he was spending eighty million quid on. (I didn't get a letter from West Ham, but I did get an out of office e-mail reply. Classy).

Yet it's not just the Premier League. The "guardians of the grass roots", the Football Association, have been dependably craven. They should surely be steaming in, studs up. But if you go on the FA website, do you get at least some comforting noises - perhaps an acknowledgement as to how the Premier League's latest whimsy is causing at least a scintilla of mild concern to a few of us sensitive souls ? Well, there's certainly an imposing banner headline. "ENGLAND'S NEW AWAY KIT. MORE THAN JUST A FOOTBALL SHIRT... BUY IT NOW!". More than just a football shirt! Wow! Hey, look - buy stuff, buy shiny stuff! BUY. MORE. STUFF!!!

In the real world, does casually revealing how they might coin £5m from a single match played in Dubai or L.A. mean that Man Utd, for example, will now be able to afford to resurrect the women's team they pulled the plug from because they couldn't quite afford it, the poor dears ? A token nod, at least, to the "grass roots" that our e-mailer mentioned, to the soul of football ? Will they hell. Talking of which, an e-mail pops into the inbox from Man Utd. Will the fans have any say in the process ?

"Thank you for your email.

Any decisions on the future structure of the Premier League are for the 20 member clubs to decide as a whole. Clubs have given the Premier League the authority to examine the idea further. No decisions have been taken.

Regards

Ticketing & Membership Services
"

Regards to you too, Ticketing. I think that's a no, but at least it's honest, and no reference to "community engagement". You know, I almost long for the days of the marble Millichip, of the much-maligned venerables in their blazers at the FA who used to preside over football in this country with, in retrospect, such benevolent uselessness, rather than gleefully leaping aboard the wrecking ball as it attempts to banjax 140 years of English sporting history.

It's not just the "big" changes. You've almost got to admire the way these guys operate: how, while we were distracted by the predictable furore about the de-merits of random extra fixtures in New England or New South Wales, they managed to sneak out another stealth change designed to favour the richer clubs: giving seven substitutes on the bench to choose from. So that over the last generation or two we will have gone from no subs to one sub to two then three then five then seven, and we all know that in another decade we will be naming a squad of thirty who then get to run on and off the pitch whenever they feel like it. And the idea of playing games abroad, which has the beautiful collateral purpose of removing any scope for the real fans to camp outside the grounds and protest, will of course blossom in the same, Sade-smooth, incremental way: of course it will start with "one or two" games a season, before no doubt expanding over the years to many, many more. Not forgetting, no doubt, inviting in Rangers and Celtic along the way.

More e-mails. Newcastle United: "this is a very interesting and exciting idea which if structured correctly will have great benefits for football and its communities." And the local village team, modest as ever: "Arsenal is a club that embraces progress and our initial assessment is that the proposal is innovative and would showcase the Premier League worldwide. We have approximately 2 million supporters of Arsenal FC who reside in the UK and well in excess of 30 million fans on a worldwide basis. This proposal will allow a number of our overseas fans to watch their team play, whilst at the same time taking nothing away from our domestic fans, many of whom wish to watch all 38 Premier League matches." Words sort of fail me here.

Part of me actively wants these maniacal powerbrokers of today's game just to GET ON WITH IT, to admit that football as we know it simply doesn't suit their "model", just to be *honest* and laugh in our faces and TELL US what we already know, which is that for every foppish mug punter like me whose stomach is turned by all this, the reality (as ably demonstrated by the plastic fan's forum of choice, 6.06) is that there are many more ready to take our place, to splash out on the £40 shirts, the £50 match tickets, the endless waiting lists, the pre-sold tickets to games you don't want to go to and won't be able to make anyway.

In this new world, we need form new alliances: if you support Bristol Rovers, Bristol City simply aren't the real enemy any more. But we're all too hamstrung by our devotion to our clubs which is will ultimately be our downfall. It was bad enough trying to peruade fellow fans to boycotting Milton Keynes, as many of us still do: there's simply no comprehension. That would stop them ticking off another league ground! And I'm trying to work out what bit of "IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU" they don't understand, won't understand until it's too late. And there'll be no boycott of this either, because we're all too used to towing the line.

"Innovative". Tactically, an important adjective in all this. The Premier League euphemism for "we want money" is not just "we want progress", but "progress is inevitable", a self-fulfilling prophecy to be hoovered up by the acolytes of this brave new world, to stigmatise the rest of us as Luddites whenever we muster whatever feeble opposition we can. But progress is a very loaded word - again, a clever code. We can argue about where "progress" leads us. Perhaps it always leads us to the future and the future is always a better place. But what they really mean is that they want change. Forward, back, up, down, just whatever way increases the coffers.

It's not true to say that if we don't change, we die (God, this is so obvious I can't believe we're even having to write this). If football decided right now NOT to go down this particular road, it would *not* kill the game off, not even threaten it. The football machine would continue to thrive and generate money, more than enough to line agents' pockets, keep the various Murdochs happy, keep sportswriters and back pages in hyperbole, to stop all us pesky Canute-alikes from turning back the clock to the time before Sky liberated us all.

The reality is that "fans" was once synonymous with "communities", not armchairs. The clubs know that the average age of fans is spiralling upwards, to the people that can afford it. They know the kids are lost, the local communities untapped. But their solution isn't to get the kids back in. That would hit revenue streams. The way forward is to find more money from abroad. Create revenue rivers, oceans. But it's OK, because "abroad" wants it. Can't do without it. Where was abroad, before it got Starbucks and McDonald's ? That, my friends, was pre-civilisation. Abroad just hadn't LIVED.

There's nothing at all wrong with casual fandom, fandom from afar, any kind of sense of longing or belonging for a place or a club or a player. There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to go to the pub with your mates and watch some footy on the TV, and it would be a nonsense to suggest that the only stakeholders that matter are the season ticket holders, the veterans of every away match, or those of us old enough to remember the days before shirt sponsors. In some ways, yes - but frankly not nearly as many as the papers would have you believe - the football experience has improved since Sky annexed the First Division in 1992. But what is wrong - wrong in a nice plain, old-fashioned way - is letting the casual punter - or, more accurately, their self-appointed representatives - dictate what happens.

I know you think I'm a mentalist because I'd rather watch Harrogate Railway v Mansfield Town or Egypt v Cameroon, both of which were on BBC in the recent past (and both of which, incidentally, drew bigger TV audiences here than any Arsenal-Manchester United game - but that's another argument). But then I think you're a mentalist if you'd rather watch the same old faces, the same old players, the same old Cup Finalists again and again and again.

Here's a verbatim quote from Mihir Bose's original BBC report that broke the story, that made us all think it was April 1.

"Some fans may feel aggrieved, but their concerns will be outweighed by the financial advantages for the clubs."

Which says it all. I wrote to a friend, for succour. I explicitly asked him - and trust me, Essex boys don't do this kind of thing often - for *HOPE*. But the return e-mail simply began:

"I have none to offer. It's completely crass..."

And then I *KNEW*. Because I love football and all the cross-cultural and historic and family and small p political things that it represents. And it's done so much to make me happy that I won't jump now, not when Rovers are playing a fifth round game in a few days, not after the glow of watching the African Cup of Nations, not having seen people playing jumpers for goalposts games on Highbury Fields and Hampstead Heath this weekend. But as the drip drip drip of the blood from this death by a thousand cuts slowly coagulates over every positive aspect of the game, I know one day I will have to walk away (in silence). "Say goodbye to everything you love".

But at least, then, I will have sated and spent my anger. And will have taken their squad numbers and their all-seater stadia and their Super Sundays and their ghostwritten autobiographies and their weakened teams and their bling and their sponsored everything and finally feel like I have shoved them right back down their fucking throats.