Friday 15 August ~
It’s a ritual that has become almost as predictable as the Premier League itself. In the week leading up to the big kick-off, established football columnists update the piece they wrote the previous year about how no one can expect to touch the Fab Four, and isn’t it all becoming too tedious, what with all this wealth at the top end of the game. Few if any clubs have a realistic chance to break the monopoly of the perennial Champions League quartet, while the best that the rest can hope for is, in order of merit, a UEFA Cup spot, mid-table safety, mere survival, or a decent Cup run.
Paul Wilson in Sunday's Observer had spoken to a Tottenham fan who was excited that this season might finally turn out to be the one when Spurs finally “do it”. Not win the league title (or retain the League Cup) but make it into fourth place. Next day in the Times, Martin Samuel pointed out that for any team besides Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal to break into the top four “requires investment on a scale that is beyond the grasp of all but the super-rich, or the super-marketable”. It’s hard to disagree with them, given that they’re stating the obvious. Although you are tempted to wonder where all these columns were in the mainstream press ten to 15 years ago when the founding of the Premier League and the reform of the European Cup telegraphed this sorry outcome with big flashing neon pound signs in the bug-eyed stare of every top flight chairman.
And yet still the fans turn up, week after week, paying huge amounts of money to see their teams fail to come even close to winning the principal competition they have entered. Which is possibly why the standardised press-box views of writers like Wilson and Samuel are missing the point, however pertinent their analyses. Yes, we’ve all got a fair idea who’s going to win the title, but any fan knows that the point of football is not necessarily the lifting of silverware. In fact the sight of John Terry or Rio Ferdinand hoisting the Premier League trophy has become an almost irrelevant season-ending ceremony, and most can’t bear or can’t be bothered to watch it. At the risk of sounding like an inky, old school fanzine editor, supporters still go to games because they love the spectacle, the stadium, the smells and the singing. In spite of all best efforts to nakedly exploit them for every last possible pound, the majority remain loyal, and the majority retain hope. It’s just a matter of scale.
Let’s take Wilson’s Tottenham fan, hoping for fourth place. That fan is realistic enough to know that Spurs will not win the title, but he or she wants to believe that, some day, they might. The first step would be to make it into fourth place, then qualify for the Champions League. A good run there would see a higher income for the club, possibly attracting better players, and in the long run, ousting one of the other top four (no doubt Arsenal, in our fan’s ideal world). It’s not likely, but at the same time not impossible, in the same way that Rochdale could one day conceivably play in the Premier League. Such optimism, however open to ridicule, is the game’s life blood and the right of every fan – it’s Queen of the South in the UEFA Cup, the small Swiss town of Thun in the Champions League group stage, or Chesterfield and Wycombe Wanderers making a cup semi-final. It’s Bolton beating Manchester United in the League, even though they know that doesn’t mean they have a better team. If we can’t have a trophy, we’ll enjoy a night pretending we’re great amid all the other grim and inevitably disappointing Saturdays. At least it’ll be a night to remember.
Pity the glory-boys who know nothing of the joys of struggle, and whose paths ahead are marked either Down or Decadence. Who really wishes for the ennui and the burden of guilt that comes with belonging to the rich elite, or the pressure of sustaining perpetually expected success? The cliche still used to console mewling bairns on the wrong end of a 7-0 hammering is as valid as ever: “It’s the taking part that counts, son.” In spite of greed’s best efforts, the game’s still there for us all to love and hate, in whichever way we choose. Ian Plenderleith