Thursday, March 01, 2007

First impressions – an Eagle Eye editorial, March 1, 2007

Last month this column concluded with a few thoughts about the wider problems faced by football clubs outside the elite super-club bracket i.e. all but three of them, or four if you want to further delude Liverpool into thinking that they have somehow kept up.

The rest of the premiership and the bulk of the championship now form a rump of large to medium sized clubs for whom opportunities to develop, grow and be successful have all but disappeared. This has been staring us in the face ever since the Premiership was introduced, but suddenly internet message boards around the country seem to be buzzing with the sound of disillusionment.

To cover all of football’s ills in one article would be impossible but there are a few examples that we feel illustrate the sorry state that the sport now finds itself in. We’ll say right from the start that we believe that football should be a sport first and foremost and we are well aware that that is at odds with the prevailing attitude of just about everybody in this country, even many fans.

Football as a competitive sport at the top level is dying. We don’t want to sound like old gits harking back to the days when Ipswich or Southampton could win the cup or end up in a futile debate about whether Henry and Rooney are better than Peter Osgood and George Best, that’s not the point. The problem for many football fans is that there’s increasingly no point in attending. Our clubs can’t possibly win; players, managers and chairmen are distanced from supporters and the whole sport is in thrall to a ravenous media that feed the demands of a handful of rich men running the sport as their own personal fiefdom regardless of what the game’s governing bodies might think.

The role of the Football Association, as the game’s supposed guardian, is feeble and undemocratic. It has cowered before the big clubs for so long that the whole sport is being undermined and the national team is in danger of becoming an irrelevance.

We have reached a point where so vast are the squads belonging to the big four that they can afford to keep international players in waiting, such as Shaun Wright-Phillips, just for the occasional appearance (he was in many people’s view bought solely to prevent another club from having him). Clubs like Arsenal can field second XI teams filled with internationals for league cup games only and can fill the championship with loan players, all of whom contribute to a distortion of fair competition. They have even been known to field under strength teams in league games, regardless of how this might distort competition for European places or the relegation battle.

The result is that an increasing number of supporters couldn’t give a toss anymore. It’s not just at Palace that you hear people talking about walking away. What’s the point of a sport with no competition?

If at Palace we were now to build our finest team since the late 70s or early 90s, how long would we be able to hold it together? Many are talking about youngsters such as Victor Moses, John Bostock (who at 14 was being linked with approaches from Old Trafford and Barcelona) and James Dayton. If they do realise their potential we might get £10m for them, like Southampton did with Theo Walcott, but the chances are that Palace fans won’t get to enjoy them play for very long.

There’s a feeling among long-term supporters that they don't even particularly like football anymore. High ticket prices to watch disinterested ‘superstars’ who earn more in a month than many of us will earn in a decade has produced a miserably negative perception of the game. It’s no longer about eleven against eleven, it’s about hundreds of millions (of pounds) against teams that have virtually nothing.

While we can all see this happening, it is very difficult to do anything about it. A Leeds United supporter recently posting on one of his team’s forums asked how fans had allowed this to happen to the game. More to the point how could we stop it? How could we prevent the hijacking of the game, the high ticket prices or Sky tv’s charges? If we don’t pay there are others who will.

Is there a revolution coming? Man Utd supporters recently boycotted buying programmes and pies at Fulham in protest at the £45 they were being charged to get in. It would be easy to mock, but this happens to them wherever they go because they are the ultimate ‘category A’ game. If they stop going it will have no effect because others will take their place but at lower levels there isn’t anyone to replace those thinking of staying away from a club like Palace – if fans don’t turn up it just makes the problem worse.

Regular supporters who go to the games are more disenfranchised than ever. Witness the recent decision by the BBC to screen the Plymouth v Watford FA Cup quarter-final at 6pm on a Sunday evening. That has everything to do with what television wants and screw the people who follow Watford week in week out, because they don’t matter. All that does matter is money, money and more money.

Our only recourse, and a couple of us are having a think about how we might do this, is to appeal to the government. In most industries, such as energy, the media and many others there are regulators empowered to ensure that markets remain fair and open to competition and that consumers’ interests are protected. So why not in football? Why should four clubs and one broadcaster in particular have such a stranglehold on the national game, our game?

Football has a major cultural and social role to play that is in the national interest. The self-interest of people such as Roman Abramovich, David Dein, Peter Kenyon, Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Malcolm Glaser and those who run the FA Premier League is counter to that, it has gone too far.

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