The so called Premier League is now 25 years old. When it was born, I christened it the Greed Is Good League and have never had any incentive to retract that nomenclature. The very circumstances of its birth were sombrely indicative. A meeting of the clubs which would constitute it was being held at the then headquarters of the Football Association at Lancaster Gate in West London.
A price had been agreed to put to the aspirant television companies, who were terrestrial. Hearing it, the then owner of Tottenham Hotspur, Alan Sugar, very much a self made East London millionaire, sprang out of his seat, rushed out of the room to a telephone, from which he called the satellite group Sky television to allow them to trump that amount. This they did, which was you might say commercially the making of Sky and the beginning of previously inconceivable wealth for the footballers who would play in it. A situation compounded when, on December 15 1995, the European Court of Justice ruling on the appeal of the then 26-year-old Liege player Jean-Marc Bosman, decreed that clubs had no right to a transfer fee at the end of a player’s contract. It had taken five stressful and courageous years for Bosman to go through the various courts before his ultimate triumph. Not that he would receive much if any thanks for it from the players he would so sensationally enrich. It was in 1990 that Bosman wanted to leave Liege in Belgium for Dunkirk in France but Dunkirk were not willing to pay the half-million pound transfer fee and there was a deadlock.
Bosman bravely sued both Liege and UEFA, the European ruling body, for restraint of trade and took the case from court after court until his ultimate triumph in the senior court of all. Suddenly the floodgates were open to footballers. You do wonder how many of today’s millionaire players are even conversant with his name. A Rule on the number of foreigners a club could sign made it easier for players to exploit their talents. But for Bosman himself there was scant reward. His own playing career was finished, he received a mere £312,000 in compensation and, alas, by 2011 he was living on Belgian state benefits, bitterly remarking, ‘I have made the world of football rich and shifted the power from clubs to players. Now I find myself with nothing.’
I have from the beginning thought it was especially shameful that the Football Association should have played so central a part in the birth of the Premier League. Indeed its original name was going to be, lamentably, ‘The Football Association Premier League.’ A dire reflection on the then chief executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly, who had previously held the same position with the Football League.
The fact that he could move from the League position to the FA was remarkable, when one considers that for so many years relations between the two bodies had been bitterly hostile. The chief executive of the League, Alan Hardaker, had been an implacable enemy of the FA. Insular to a bigoted degree — he once said to me that he didn’t like going to Europe (‘Too many wogs and dagoes’) — he did all he could to prevent English clubs competing in the European Cup. Initially and astonishingly he had his way. When the competition was initiated in 1955, Chelsea winning the English Championship for the first time in their history, automatically qualified as participants; to the fury of Hardaker, who exerted implacable pressure on the then Chairman of Chelsea, Joe Mears, who feebly capitulated and rejected Chelsea’s invitation. The following year, Manchester United, managed by the progressive Matt Busby, defied him and took part. He would have a petty revenge when in 1958 after their team had been decimated by the appalling Munich airport crash, United were generously invited to compete by UEFA although they hadn’t qualified on their First Division placing. Hardaker fought the decision through three committees of the FA and his FL until he finally and disgracefully got his way. No Europe for United, but the pendulum would swing with a vengeance.
That the FA under Kelly should so strongly support the Premier League has always seemed to me a gross betrayal of their manifest duty. For surely their whole remit as a national body is to care for the interests of not merely the most powerful clubs but for those of all their members, from the mightiest to the most humble. The birth of the Premiership would instead soon create a great charm between its clubs even with those teams competing in the second division, now euphemistically named as the Championship. Most of them now could not possibly compete with Premiership clubs in terms of transfer fees and salaries. The Premiership would quickly become a competition for player millionaires.
Top stars such as Wayne Rooney — till his recent transfer back to Everton from Manchester United — could earn £300,000 a week. A concomitant of which — and the money which poured in from television — was that young native talent found it increasingly hard to gain first team football. Look at Chelsea, so many of whose gifted youngsters figured in the England teams which recently won the world title and a later European youth title, that team including three first teamers from Chelsea and a couple of reserves. All credit to Chelsea’s fine scouting and coaching system, but what of the wastage as they spend more and more money on stars from abroad? They have just paid £60 million for the Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, colossal fees for Roma’s German defender Antonio Rudiger and Monaco’s midfielder Bakayoko. Manchester City this summer have outlaid a record £230 million for foreign stars. £51.6 million for another Monaco man, Benjamin Mendy. Meanwhile the television companies have gained a throttlehold on the game, obliging matches played on Saturdays to be also played on Sundays, Mondays and now even Fridays.
All that TV money hasn’t prevented steep rises in the cost of watching for spectators. Once a working class game, Premiership football today is very much for the well heeled. Has the game improved proportionately? Players are faster and fitter now, but the recent record of English clubs in the European Champions Cup has been dismally mediocre. As the old adage says, money isn’t everything; even when there is so much of it around.
Tactics have certainly become more sophisticated. And a shrewd three men at the back tactician such as Chelsea’s Antonio Conte can now earn £9 million a year. The sky is the limit.