Looking beyond the glossy `blue'

CHELSEA has won the English league for the first time in 50 years, and many in England have been grumbling about the achievement.

CHELSEA has won the English league for the first time in 50 years, and many in England have been grumbling about the achievement. The disgruntled noises have as much to do with the club switching to the rigours of a tactical brand of football under Jose Mourinho of Portugal (in which, at times, six players have started in a defensive position) as with the quid flowing like water, or more appropriately oil, from the pocket of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich — �685 million, inclusive of buying costs, transfer and wage spending et al, is the final count from July 1, 2003, the day he bought Chelsea, to April 30, 2005, when the title was won.

Before the emergence of Abramovich, when Ken Bates was the club manager, many in England have seen the club as being the representative of the continental cosmopolitanism of west London, where the club is based. It was Bates who brought a series of Continental managers to Chelsea in the mid 90s such as Ruud Gullit and then, more significantly, the two Italians, Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri.

But, when Abramovich brought Mourinho — the successful Continental manager — to Chelsea after his Champions League win with FC Porto last year and when Liverpool brought in another successful Continental strategist Rafael Benitez as manager around the same period, it was clear that the last nail had been hammered in the coffin of an `English' way of football — a style which had not been wiped out by those two great French managers, Arsene Wenger and Gerard Houllier, who did not belong to the school of managers who come straight out of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese leagues.

Once upon a time, English football took pride in a distinct identity that positioned them well outside the rigid tactical discourse prevalent in the Continent. Character and passion were the keywords in the English league — insiders often speak about the fate of players being decided by fiery managers on the basis of whether they possessed `bottle', a slang word with etymological connections to alcohol, which denotes these attributes. The reference to the late Brian Clough, manager of Nottingham Forest, standing on the sidelines in the European Cup final of 1979 with his hand over his heart rather than shouting out tactical moves to his players has become as mythical as the five back-to-back conquests of English clubs in Europe from 1977 to 1981 — Liverpool won in 1977, '78 and '81 and Forest in '79 and '80.

The question that is being asked now is, "Has the English Premiership become less exciting than it was previously?" One way to look at it is that with the emergence of Chelsea as the third force, the monopoly of Manchester United and Arsenal in the tournament will be broken — before Chelsea's title win this season, Blackburn Rovers in 1995 with Jack Walker's millions, Kenny Dalglish's managerial skills and Alan Shearer's goals was the only team other than the `Big Two' to win the Premiership after it was formed in 1992-93.

However, the more dominant view — and the one that holds more reason — is that instead of a two-horse race across a season, the Premiership has now become a three-horse race. Along with many other startling facts, this was pointed out by a study done earlier this season on the state of the Premiership by a London-based think-tank. The study, titled `Competitive Balance in Football: Trends and Effects', examined the patterns of results and distribution of money in England's top flight since 1947 and it concluded that "since 1992 football has become more elitist, much less unpredictable and more reliant on financial clout and less interesting as a genuine sporting competition".

Endorsing the study was former Liverpool great Mark Lawrenson, now a BBC football expert, who was quoted by The Guardian thus: "When I won the title with Liverpool between 1982 and 1984, a different team finished second to us each time. The difference now is that no one from the pack is going to finish second in the Premiership. Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United will."

High-priced tickets, falling attendances, dwindling TV figures, saturated TV deals... the study comes up with findings that are going to take the immediate attention of both the Premier League and the Football Association. Perhaps, what is most shocking for an English fan is the parallel drawn in the study between slowly falling crowds in the Premiership and the corresponding slow fall in the Italian Serie A over the last two decades which climaxed this season with a pathetically low turnout, which, on an average, is lower than the English average in 1992, when most clubs had smaller stadiums with lower seating capacity. Managers such as Mourinho and Benitez certainly will not be able to reverse the trend for the Premiership.