Desperate measures

Is the high stakes nature of football detrimental to the spectacle?

You may not have bought the news-paper supplements hailing the Super Reds, nor joined “all real football fans” in signing FHM’s petition demanding that Liverpool be allowed to enter next season’s Champions League. The more misanthropic among you might fer-vently wish to never again hear that song by the group known to one German TV commentator as Gary and the Peacemakers. But there are still plenty of reasons to have enjoyed the outcome of the 2005 Champions League final. One was the sight of Silvio Berlusconi, architect of the New Football, having that peculiar rictus smirk – the very definition of the coarse term “a shit-eating grin” – wiped from his face in six minutes of the second half.

That’s not to say that Liverpool are underdog outsiders gate-crashing the corporate jamboree; they too are an international brand, their remodelled stadium as incongruous as a spaceship in its blighted surroundings. But in the context of this match they were the inferior team, whose progress to the final had been shaped by the luck that seemed to desert them during a calamitous first half in Istanbul. That they were able to turn the match on its head was as much of a surprise and one as enjoyable to most as Greece’s victory in last year’s European Championship. In both cases, football matches became memorable events precisely because the outcome was unforeseen.

The Premier League, however, now appear to have reached the conclusion that ways must be found to manufacture drama of this, or any other, sort. Chief executive Richard Scudamore has said that their annual meeting will consider ways to make matches more exciting, notably a suggestion that four points be awarded for away victories. There appears to be concern that many teams are playing defensively and that this is a turn-off for the viewers and spectators, with Sky’s average audiences having fallen by ten per cent compared to 2003-04 – even after they sacked Rodney Marsh – and away attendances falling off.

But surely this is treating the symptoms rather than the illness? For a start, saturation coverage plays its part – the number of matches broadcast last season went up from 106 to 134. The whole edifice of the Premier League might be undermined if the broadcasters themselves were deemed to be part of the problem; there is no chance of the money lenders being ejected from the temple. But the money the Premier League generate for their members means that clubs play negatively in an effort to ensure that they stay in the top division, because the cost of relegation is so high. And it can work surprisingly well: for Everton, after finishing 17th in 2004, playing 4-5-1 was a recipe for stability and turned out to be enough to be the best of the rest.

But look at Leeds, at Sheffield Wednesday, at the desperation of West Ham to achieve promotion before their parachute payments ran out. These three were once all established Premiership sides, as the Premier League’s chairman, former Wednesday chairman Dave Richards, can no doubt remember.

As we said in the editorial in WSC 220, life is being choked out of English football. The best way to have a more interesting league is to work towards reducing the gap in playing standards between the top few and the rest of the Premiership, and between the Premiership and the best teams – that means the ones who play the best football and not the richest – in the Football League.

What makes it much harder to address the problem domestically is the money that the top Premiership sides receive from other sources. Leaving Chelsea to one side, the enormous profits simply from playing in the Champions League has helped take a couple of clubs out of reach already. Liverpool threatened to join Arsenal and Manchester United in 2001 and 2002; the worst outcome of their recent success would be if they, too, ceased to be in any way underdogs.

Giving more clubs a shot at the Champions League riches – say awarding that fourth place via the FA Cup – would be one way of narrowing the gap with the top. But the best way to take the fear factor out of commission for 80 per cent of the top flight would be to narrow the gap between them and the teams beneath them. Redistributing more income from the top table to the Football League would achieve that and it would only take 14 Premier League clubs to act in their own best interests to make that happen.

And who knows, if clubs were less fearful of failure they might play more attractive football, go out and play for something more than money. This could give them more of a chance against the top sides, who can still only field 11 players at a time. More chance of pulling off more improbable results along the lines of, if without the glorious preposterousness of, Liverpool’s success in Istanbul.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month