Offside, 18 December
Behind the 'boring' Premiership.
Mass brawls, group sex, missed drugs tests, spiralling debt…. English football certainly can’t be described as dull. Or can it? In recent weeks some sports writers have been questioning the entertainment value provided by the Premier League.
‘At the top level, most of English football is over-expensive, over-hyped, overrated and overpaid. This is the most boring Premiership season ever’, argued the Observer’s Paul Wilson (1). ‘Tell it not to Sky, publish it not on the screens of ITV but the Premiership has become boring’, concurred the Guardian’s veteran football writer David Lacey (2).
The Wilson-Lacey thesis is a response to the substantial gulf that has already opened up between the top three teams – Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea – and the rest. These three sides, as Lacey sees it, are ‘so far ahead that the championship has become a triangular tournament for the patricians while the plebs are left to scrap among themselves for what’s left’. Few would deny that the Premiership is a three-horse race this season. But wait a minute – it wasn’t so long ago that we were complaining that United and Arsenal had established an unhealthy duopoly over the Premiership crown. The title race hasn’t been this competitive for years, and yet some people still aren’t satisfied.
And where is the evidence that the Premiership is boring? Are armchair fans switching off? I don’t think so. Are spectators voting with their feet and staying away from live matches? Not at all. ‘There is no sign yet of empty seats or spectator disaffection’, admits Wilson. Too right there isn’t. A total of 27.9million spectators watched Premiership football last season – seven million more than in the 1992/3 season. Football attendances, which had been steadily declining since the mid-1950s, are now back to the levels they were at in the early 1960s. Surely all these spectators can’t be wrong?
Wilson, however, claims that ‘anecdotal evidence is building of a general dissatisfaction over the number of games that are meaningless, overpriced and utterly boring’. Okay, so he’s overheard a few fans moaning in a pub and listened to one too many football phone-in. But what does that prove? It is nigh on impossible to measure whether levels of dissatisfaction are rising because football supporters tend to moan quite a lot anyway. It’s all part of the match day ritual, isn’t it?
Football can provide nerve-fraying, edge-of-the-seat, shout-yourself-hoarse excitement. But much of the time we just enjoy the opportunity to spend two hours on a Saturday afternoon moaning freely in the company of other like-minded malcontents. We moan about the piss-poor beer, about the crap food, about team selection and tactics, about the standard of refereeing, about the quality of football and, nowadays, we also moan about the price of tickets and players’ wages. When the final whistle blows we go to the pub and moan some more. And then we go home, all moaned out.
According to Wilson ‘the most likely explanation for the dulling of the Premiership is financial’. And there’s the rub. What Wilson is really saying is that he is bored by football thanks to the unequal distribution of TV money. Never mind that our football pitches are no longer muddy quagmires, that exciting overseas players now grace our domestic game, that home-grown players are technically better, or that passing football has supplanted uncultivated hoof ball. As far as Wilson is concerned, football is duller because the little guys no longer stand a chance of winning the league.
Yes, the wealth gap between the top clubs and the rest has widened considerably. And of course I’d like to see smaller clubs like Crystal Palace receive a larger slice of the broadcasting rights pie. But you can’t blame Mammon for all football’s ills. Gerard Houllier has spent £100million at Liverpool but he still cannot produce a title-winning team. Newcastle have also assembled an expensive squad, but it was their poor early season form rather than financial problems that scuppered their title chances this season. By contrast Arsenal’s emergence as one of the dominant powers in the English game owes more to Arsene Wenger’s coaching and astute transfer dealings than the size of his chairman’s wallet.
The Premiership will never be an egalitarian 20-horse race. But it ought, at least, to be a five or six horse race. If bigger clubs like Villa, Spurs, and Everton were not underperforming so miserably then perhaps the battle for the fourth Champions League berth would also be more fiercely contested.
If you want to see a league really bereft of meaningful competition you need only cross the border to Scotland. ‘For truly world-class dullness the SPL [Scottish Premier League] brooks few rivals’, writes Tom Lappin in the Scotsman (3). True, but not quite as dull as listening to jaded football hacks moaning interminably about how money has ruined football.
(1) Yawn… it’s the worst ever Premiership, Observer, 30 November, 2003
(2) ‘Games are becoming Tom and Jerry affairs without the laughs’, Guardian, 13 December 2003
(3) Tired of the Premiership? Tired of life, Scotsman, 13 December 2003
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