There is a character in the film The Damned United played by Jim Broadbent who is the owner of lowly Derby County. He hires the phenomenal ego that is Brian Clough to be his manager –a choice that will take the team from its lowly position at the bottom of Division Two to the top of the first division and from playing the likes of Macclesfield to playing Juventus in just five years. But the owner finally makes a choice to let Clough go under the ethos that winning isn’t everything. The chairman character is an interesting one. He is a rich (by 1960s Derby standards anyway) and a businessman. But he is a different sort of rich owner, one long gone.
The owners of that era came from and were part of their communities. The teams, Derby County for example, were part of the landscape, were distinctly working class, their stadiums surrounded by row houses not parking lots. Players could be found buying eggs at the corner greengrocer. Sometimes they had a flash car like a Ford Capri and were slightly more likely to pull a bird at the local but they weren’t removed for the people they entertained every Saturday afternoon.
Owners ran these teams more like a community trust. I don’t doubt there was a fair bit of ego involved but there was also a sense of responsibility. A recognition that sound financial management was also important to keep the team solvent for the sake of the entire town. It meant that teams played to their level of financial clout. There were the big boys from London and Manchester but the likes of Burnley, Stoke and Preston got the odd shot at the big league and could put on a good cup run. The gap between the big and small was not so great and money wasn’t the be all and end all.
I am not getting all nostalgic here and wishing we could all go back to some bygone golden era. That era always seemed rainy and muddy. The football wasn’t as good as it is today, no HD TV live satellite feeds of games to watch wherever you are in the world. There is a lot to be said for the modern game.
But this new….and it really is quite recent….trend of football teams becoming the toys of the arrogant mega rich is deeply damaging to the sport. Some rich guy likes the idea of owning a glamorous, glitzy team, even though he wouldn’t know the first thing about offside rules or that Wednesday is a team not just a day. So you buy Blackburn Rovers, then what. Well, you throw millions at the team to buy a championship. You hire and fire managers like they are dishwashers at an Appleby’s… I think they probably have more job security…oh and to help manage the cost of this, you move some of your debt from other enterprises onto the team and jack up the ticket prices so only those who are well-off can afford them and the real fans either don’t go, or more likely, make a lot of sacrifices to afford to go. These parachute plutocrats have no knowledge of or empathy for the communities their teams come from either.
Futhermore, the demands they place on their teams mean that they need to go out and buy every available player they can. These mega rich teams look down like fat fingered vulgarians and say “ooooh I would like another bonbon. I want another sweetie..oh look I will take that one.” And throw some vast amount of money at players—the lure of champions league football, the big wages, the thrill of sitting on the bench, while your team chugs along like some flat track bully.
The result is now a two-tier system where very few teams are in the top group and even fewer can think of getting in. In most countries in Europe now you have a dispiriting lack of competition. Most leagues are now starting to look like the Scottish League. There is no sport in North America were you know the winner of the league or the cup will come from one of two teams before the season even begins. I will predict right here the next English league winner will be Chelsea or Man City. The next Spanish winner Real Madrid or Barcelona, Italy –Juventus or Milan. Holland –Ajax or PSV. Portugal –Porto or Benfica. Does anyone think I am crazy for those predictions? No. Yet if I predict the Saints will the Superbowl, the Suns the NBA, the Kings the Stanley Cup and the Blue Jays the World Series no one would take that very seriously and think it was blind luck if any of those teams won.
Germany, although generally dominated by Bayern Munich, has retained much of the community- based ownership that means others have realistic shots at the title each year. The fact that they had two teams in the final and appear to be the best league right now in terms of sustainability and competitiveness might mean a change is in the air. Although I doubt it. It will just mean the plutocrats will start agitating for the right to own German teams and will buy Hoffenheim or something and try and turn them into Manchester City 2.0.
Perhaps the occupy movement could start up again, only this time they start using some Milwall fans to make their point.