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The State of Football

Association football in the UK is at a crossroads, threatened by the ravages of Covid-19 and the continuing dominance of a top-heavy system of massive TV money deals moving clubs in the Premiership further and further away from the grass roots game that gave them their existence in the first place. And in that growing distancing is part of, but not the only reason, that unless things change, the passion that football engenders is likely to be replaced by what amounts to the following of a soap opera played out on satellite TV channels ‘starring’ clubs that have no need for live spectators to make profit.


What follows will probably upset a number of people, and is ultimately impossible to enforce because of so many invested interests and sheer greed and arrogance by some parties, but if it does nothing but stimulate thought amongst the most important part of football, the fan, it’s worth the effort.


Firstly, I won’t deny that football needs to change to reflect modern society, its been obvious for years that the cost of maintaining such a far-ranging competition as the football pyramid in English football has gone beyond the ‘fixtures on a fag packet’ era that endeared it so much to our forefathers. Our tastes, fuelled by a barrage of technological advances and the advent of satellite TV monies has consigned what was the ‘working man’s’ game to history. However, the first thing that is lost when money and revenue becomes the primary driving force in what used to be a sport is integrity in competition. Rather than a thirst for glory, what we have now is a thirst for cash. And that has redefined the word success, which now applies to finishing 4th (or even 5th ) in a league which then gives those teams access to an even bigger pot of money via associated European competitions.


And the pursuit of financial gain has led to what we have now, a ruling elite of clubs who grow more and more powerful as ‘brands’ rather than sporting teams, who do everything they can to preserve that elite state to the detriment in most cases of the reason they are there in the first place, the fans, and the existence of the league system that allows them to be elite. Without fundamental change, the final outcome will be a set of super rich clubs who will play each other ad nauseum and no one else until boredom, or over pricing, will lead to the rise of a different passion for the masses, and the ultimate end of football, ending as a Harlem Globetrotters set of exhibition matches gradually fading in to memory about what we once had.


So how is this fixable? I don’t pretend to have the answer, because there are way too many variables. And there has to be a will to change, which to be honest I don’t see forthcoming from the elite club owners. Why should they change? They have all the money, they have the product which is currently the most lucrative in the world, and the near future, even under Covid-19, is still bright for them, as they have, with the help of SKY and others, converted football to a near perfect computer game played out in front of millions of paying ‘telly clappers’ who pay to support their favourite product from afar. There are still those fans who cling on to the ideal that they actually matter to these juggernauts, but, as has been seen even going back before the latest megamillion deals, that the attendance of anyone at an elite match is actually a very small part of the income, and most, if not all Premiership clubs could easily make millions of pounds of profit without them actually being at the ground physically.


However, further down the food chain, fans attendance is essential to keep their clubs alive, with again Covid-19’s invasion in to our lives illustrating the inequality of life in football, with only the larger, or well-run clubs likely to survive this season should crowds not be allowed to attend football.


And this is where the crux of the matter is. What will happen if these clubs fold, and the supply line of footballers that fuel the Premiership teams dries up? Where will they get players? Obviously, as we’ve seen, foreign players have become the staple diet at the upper echelons, but even this supply is finite as gradually, through lack of competition, the uptake of playing the game withers away. So then we look at youth development, and this is again an area of contention, as year up on year, Premiership team hoover up indiscriminately hundreds of young enthusiastic players, put them through their systems, and in 99% of cases, spit them out the other side of the machine, disillusioned in most cases with the dream of success now being downgraded to going to lower leagues.


Looking upwards, it is heart breaking to see the cream of local talent disappearing before even getting close to being part of their home team’s future, with children as young as 7 years old being approached by representatives of the elite clubs, or agents looking to add to their future ‘stable’ and realise profits in what is turning the dream of youth in to a product to be sold on. And to add injury to insult, the clubs that do produce talent usually receive very little of the true value of that player. In fact, for the teams that play just out side of the EFL, the pain is even stronger, with absolutely no compensation needing to be paid to take away what may be a star in the making after having up to 9 years of paid development put in to them.


One suggestion isn’t about redistribution of wealth by asking Premiership teams to fund or support lower league football by direct donation, but rather how things can be reorganised so that the game can grow healthy from within. Here’s a possible way of approaching it. Premiership teams should only have very limited youth development numbers, maybe enough for two teams aged from 16 upwards. These youth players should have to be purchased from lower league teams at a set minimum amount with competitive bidding allowed, to allow for development cost including the number of years they have been at that team. This would reduce the drain on youth from the smaller teams and allow for more local players to make the first team grade. It would also feed money in to the lower leagues, and reward good academies who are producing better players. Incoming funds could then be used to develop those clubs, improve coaching appointments and provide outlets to players who may thrive under less pressurised environments that the current Premiership academies.


Make no mistake, if changes are not forthcoming, football as we know it will be dead in this country within a generation, with the Premiership teams joining a European, or even World League, with no actually fans at a stadium, but with matches being played out on screens only, and only to those that can afford the e-ticket.


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