Thursday 9 April ~
The receptionist where I work knows that I'm a football fan. This morning she asked me if I'd watched "the game" last night. For a moment I thought of asking if she meant Cardiff v Derby but I had to confess that, no, I hadn't seen the Champions League tie from Anfield. She looked surprised but I couldn't offer an explanation that would make easy sense to someone who doesn't go to watch football on a regular basis. After all, I follow a Premier League side and occasionally also see a local lower league team. I'll watch pretty much any type of football game either live or on TV. But I can't bear the Champions League and I can't watch something in which I want both participants to lose.
Some people who support Big Four clubs see this distaste about their side's principal cash cow as a form of pretentiousness, as though the naysayers are having to make a special effort to snub the competition, going against their better instincts. Surely, they will say, anyone who likes football can simply appreciate a good game between some of the best players in Europe? Maybe if my team was involved I'd feel differently, but I really don't think so. I can't enjoy a tournament whose existence is fundamentally harmful. I hate the way that it has cemented a hierarchy in English football, one in which all the other professional clubs resemble the collection of college boys who were routinely bamboozled in Harlem Globetrotters exhibition matches.
The teams competing in Champions League matches make so much from it that they have become insulated against failure. I saw a statistic recently that Chelsea and Man Utd pay around 25 per cent more in squad wages than Liverpool. In turn, they pay 25 per cent more than Arsenal who are ahead of the next club by about the same margin. A bad season for Arsenal a generation ago would have meant a mid-table finish and no cup runs. Arsenal are having a comparatively bad season in 2008-09 but they're still involved in two cup competitions in mid-April and they will still finish in the top four again.
From the perspective of a supporter of one of the Big Four everything is fine and dandy – they know at the start of each season that their team will have no difficulty whatsoever in qualifying for Europe again for the following year. Arsenal fans might fret over a fifth consecutive season of not winning anything but they should try contemplating another 20 years of going trophyless. Those who defend the current status quo might point out that three of the current Big Four had been the most successful teams in English football history before the creation of the mini-league we now have within the Premier League, where Villa and Everton are again competing for the unofficial title of "the best of the rest". (There's no trophy for this but the winning manager gets to be lauded by newspaper columnists who proclaim that he deserves the chance to work at a "big club".)
But if the current four-club domination had been established in the early days of league football, then the game would never have become such a big part of popular culture in this country. Far more people used to have a reasonable expectation of seeing their team win something within their lifetimes, even within a decade, than they do now. And I can't see how that situation will improve for as long as the Champions League is with us. At some point next week I may hear my next-door neighbour, who switched from Arsenal to Chelsea a couple of years ago, whooping through the wall. We don't talk about football much. Roy Henderson