The Premier League celebrates its 25-year anniversary this summer and after a quarter of a century, it’s hard to imagine English football without it.
The reincarnation of the English top flight has made it the most competitive, exciting and lucrative league in world football, filled with incredible drama, controversy and of course, thrilling football matches. Overall, there is no doubt the Premier League has been a resounding success.
But there are two sides to every coin and the Premier League’s transformation of the English game has come at a price – one much heftier than the unimaginable sum clubs have coughed up in wages and transfer fees down the years. For all the glitz and glamour, there is an ugly underbelly of dangerous, unwelcome byproducts that have all affected how we perceive, experience and enjoy the modern game. Here’s a look at four.
Football was once the working man’s game, much of the romance laying in the overlap between the heroes on the pitch and the fans in the terraces – creating the Roy of the Rovers perception that any kid from any kind of rough estate could one day become a local demi-god.
You could bump into footballers in pubs around the ground post-match, or even in the newsagents buying the morning paper – there was a real sense of connection to and representation of the local community. Think back to Alan Shearer being welcomed home by adoring Newcastle fans on the steps of St. James’ Park.
By the time the Premier League had started, footballers were already enjoying more than comfortable salaries, but they were still within the realms of normality and accordingly, the life of the average footballer was as well.
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Currently, however, the chasm between fans and footballers has never been wider. Whereas ever-escalating ticket prices and subscription deals have forced the average fan out of grounds and created a generation of armchair supporters, footballers have retreated into their own bubble of exotic cars, wags and millionaire mansions where they feel safe from the relentlessly hyperbolic criticism that comes their way. That idea of community representation and neighbourhood heroes on the football pitch no longer exits – unless you happen to live in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle.
To lay that problem exclusively on the Premier League’s doorstep would be unfair. It’s not as if Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are any different over in Spain. Yet, there is no doubt the sheer money that has flooded into the Premier League has escalated that process, pushing fans and supporters further apart.
During the first Premier League season, there were just four managerial changes, all but one of which came at the end of the season when Steve Coppell resigned from his post at Crystal Palace and the legendary Brian Clough retired. The only actual sackings were Ian Porterfield at Chelsea in February and ill-fated joint-managers Ray Clemence and Doug Livermore – who were relieved of their duties at Tottenham Hotspur in May 1993.
Over the last five seasons, on the other hand, the Premier League has averaged 12 managerial changes per term, excluding interim appointments, 9.8 of them being sackings. Excepting Arsene Wenger’s generation-spanning Arsenal tenure, the longest serving manager in the league is now Eddie Howe, who has been at Bournemouth for just shy of five years, whilst all but eight of the current twenty managers have been in their job for less than two years.
The climates are almost incomparable and the drastic change is a consequence of how short-termist the Premier League has become. The beauty of football, what keeps us all so relentlessly interested, is the way the coming season always somehow seems much more important than the last. But that has become the new limit of the horizon.
Managers can no longer look three or four years into the future, planning and reconstructing their squads accordingly. Success in whatever form must be instant; the first ten games of any appointment are essentially now a fight for survival, just as a poor run of similar length can cost even the most secure managers their jobs – well, except Wenger.
In fairness, there is evidence of the situation changing for the better. Over the last twelve months, the Premier League has rapidly become the league of the super-manager, with the top seven all boasting some of the best bosses in world football. They’re much less expendable than their predecessors and there’s a sudden understanding that not all seven can win the title, even though they’re capable of doing so, and not all seven can make the top four. At the moment, they’re being given greater leeway, but for how long that lasts remains to be seen.
Let’s set the record straight – the England national team was in an absolute mess far before the Premier League got started, the semi-final finish at Italia 1990 being the anomaly amid a sea of disappointment in tournament football. Between 1978 and 1994, England failed to qualify for three of nine major tournaments and failed to reach the knockout rounds in four more. The idea that English football’s many problems started with the creation of the Premier League and the consequential influx of foreign talent is in truth, a bit of a fallacy.
Yet, there is no question the Premier League has suffocated the development of English players. During the first Premier League season, just 190 of the 671 players to feature were foreign – 28%. Last season, however, only 34% of the 543 players used in the top flight were English. That’s a remarkable shift, highlighted best by Gianluca Vialli selecting the first-ever completely foreign starting XI in the history of English football in 1999, and evidence of how the Premier League is no longer the English top flight – it’s an international top flight with players, fans, managers and owners from all four corners of the globe that just happens to reside in England.
It also goes some way to explaining why the last two international tournaments have seen England exit the Group Stages of the World Cup without a win and suffer arguably the most humiliating result in their history at the hands of Iceland – and why no English players have made the top three of the Ballon d’Or since Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in 2005. During the first 13 years of the Premier League, on the other hand, English players averaged almost one place in the top three every two seasons.
Ironically, how highly we value English players, disproportionate to their actual ability, has become part of the problem. Quotas and the simple idea of English players having a better understanding of English football has driven up their transfer fees, making foreign counterparts much cheaper and more desirable.
When the Premier League first started, the understanding of owners in English football largely followed the idea of stewardship – that owners owned the club on paper and reaped the financial benefits, if there were any, but the club itself belonged to the fans. Plenty of clubs struggled to make profit – hence the creation of the Premier League – but made most decisions with the interests of the fans in mind; largely because they still depended on matchday revenue.
But Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 soon changed all that. Within the space of two years, his financial backing saw the Blues win their first title in half a century, using Russian oil billions to overturn English football’s power structure that had Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool at the very top of the game.
In fairness, Abramovich has proved himself to be a very capable, caring and driven owner, personally invested in the success of the team. But there have been tyrannical aspects to his rule (particularly, hiring and firing his way through eleven permanent managers in 14 years) and Chelsea’s rapid transformation, coupled with the money clubs were beginning to earn from Sky Sports, suddenly made owning a Premier League club an incredible desirable challenge for the world’s richest – whether they looked to reap profits or simply deemed ownership another means to exert their wealth and power.
And whilst most Chelsea fans are more than happy with life under Abramovich, some of the Abramovich imitations that followed him to the Premier League – the number of top flight clubs owned exclusively by Englishmen is now just five – haven’t been quite so commendable. The Glazers purchased Manchester United on debt, Liverpool were taken to the edge of financial implosion, Vincent Tan changed Cardiff City’s home kit from blue to red and Arsenal have been stuck in also-ran purgatory for years largely because of Stan Kroenke’s personal mission to line his pockets by maintaining the status quo.
In many ways, foreign owners and the funds they prove have become the driving force of the Premier League – the last four title winners, including Leicester City, were owned by foreigners at the time, interestingly enough from four different continents. But their vast wealth, lack of natural connection with the local community and the incredible revenues generated from TV deals wane the allegiance to the fans owners were once seemingly obliged by. Decisions are made with personal and corporate interests in mind, increasingly at the expense of the traditional, localised fan bases.