Premier perceptions

Is the Premier League the Holy Grail or the Emperor without his clothes, asks Gavin Barber

As I recall there have been two distinctively epiphanic moments in my life, on which the significance of an apparently mundane occasion has crept up on me unnoticed before revealing itself in a flash of enlightenment. The first was a few years ago when, at the age of 30, I bought and assembled a garden shed, and suddenly understood that the process of turning into my dad was inexorable and irreversible, and that I should embrace it rather than trying to resist. The second came at Portman Road on February 9, 2008.

I am a season-ticket holder at Ipswich Town. On February 9 we lost our 19-match, 11-month unbeaten home league record, to Watford. I should have been disappointed, but thanks to the Premier League’s “global fixtures” plan, announced two days earlier, I found it all faintly hilarious: not only that, but a dilemma that I had been struggling with for 16 years was suddenly resolved.

In 1992 the Premier League was born amid lots of rhetoric about “raising standards”, even though everyone actually knew that it was a means of generating and preserving wealth for an emerging elite. Being part of this brave new world – where Sky will generously hype up your fixtures as though they were an event of massive socio-political importance, and where some grounds mark each home goal with an ear-splitting blast of James Brown, just in case any fans were in some doubt about whether they should “feel good” at that point – is now the primary goal for clubs such as Ipswich. Ours is not quite a yo-yo club but one that shuffles occasionally between the top two divisions, never entirely comfortable in either. We’ve been in the Premier League for five of the 16 seasons since its inception, with the other 11 spent desperately scrambling to get back there.

The dilemma for me, and for many like me, has been whether what we’re trying to achieve – ie promotion – is something that we actually want. From a sporting point of view, it goes without saying that finishing as high in the league as possible has to be the main aim of each season. From a financial point of view, the case is even more compelling. And yet… do we actually want to be in the Premier League? To be patronised, priced-out and (probably) routinely thrashed? Being a decent Championship side can seem like much more fun.

On the day of the Watford game, Richard Williams wrote in the Guardian that the mooted globetrotting exercise would mean that “for the first time since the Premier League came into being, there may even be fans relieved that their clubs are not a part of it”. Almost correct, Richard. Relieved to be out of it: yes. For the first time: no. Then again, there’s a paradox here: what’s the point of seeing us win at this level if we don’t want to move on to the next? Having recently been in administration, we know the price of failure – but what’s the price of success?

And then along came Richard Scudamore, the “39th game”, and Watford – and with all of that, a Damascene revelation of truth. And here’s why. If you haven’t seen Watford lately, a word of advice – don’t. They’re very good at what they do, and thoroughly deserved to beat us that day, but have all the aesthetic qualities of John Prescott trying out pole-dancing. To describe their football as agricultural would probably be to invite a defamation lawsuit from the National Farmers’ Union. I’m not complaining. They were better than Ipswich, more organised, stronger and more confident, and forced us to play them at their own long‑ball game, badly, rather than sticking to our usual passing rhythm. Their highly effective performance sucked all the grace and style from the match like a vacuum pump.

So far, so standard for an afternoon of second-division football. But here was a game being played in the immediate fallout from the Premier League’s stated intention to introduce a 39th fixture for each of its clubs, to be hosted elsewhere: Dubai, Tokyo, Sydney, or maybe the online virtual world of Second Life (I made that last one up, but it’s surely the next logical step). Going into the game, Watford were second and we were sixth. Ipswich v Watford could therefore, just about conceivably, be a Premier League fixture next season or in seasons to come. The notion of the Premier League’s “global brand” being represented by this 90-minute shower of shit is preposterous, hilarious. The realisation that we all know this, but that somehow they – the administrators, broadcasters and brand consultants – do not, is what knocked the scales from my eyes, and squared my philosophical dilemma once and for all.

I understand it all now and I know what’s real. The soul of the game and its supporters remains, constant and defining. Whether my team is in it or not, the Premier League, as a sporting contest, is a mirage. The paradox is resolved, the emperor has no clothes. Thank you, Richard Scudamore and your money-goons. Thank you, Aidy Boothroyd and your pragmatic cloggers. I am troubled no more. I feel better now. I feel better than James Brown.

From WSC 254 April 2008