Premier League’s gift shows football is no longer the people’s game

Paul Wilson on 14 November 2018

Here is a handy memo to future historians of the national sport in this country. Note the date of 13 November 2018, because with the announcement of plans for Richard Scudamore’s parting gift of £5m – £250,000 to be volunteered by each Premier League club – it marks the formal end of football’s 140-year life as the people’s game.

Not that anyone will necessarily notice the difference. The whole point about modern football, a case in point being Manchester City’s alleged infractions of the Financial Fair Play rules, is that so much money is now involved, with its provenance repeatedly proving difficult if not impossible to track down, that there is little the ordinary guy in a striped scarf or replica shirt can do except shrug and hope the global concern he happens to support buys a better centre-forward than the opposition.

Football lost its soul yonks ago, if its soul had anything to do with working-class communities and a sense of pride in local identity. The only vestige of continuity left is the permanent surprise that something which within living memory was so cheap and freely available that in some cases it was quite hard to give away should have morphed into a magnet for petro-dollars and gated exclusivity.

Scudamore had plenty to do with that transformation, and on that basis alone he probably deserves the send-off his pal Bruce Buck is proposing. It is not the amount of cash that is problematic – with bonuses on top of his £2.5m salary the retiring executive chairman of the Premier League will most likely have pocketed similar sums in the past – but the ostentatious nature of the package sends out a terrible message to supporters struggling to meet the cost of their season ticket or grassroots organisations having to make do with inadequate facilities.

When the Premier League was first launched it was quickly dubbed “the greed is good league”, and though the evidence over the years has never been particularly difficult to spot, here is the final proof. The fact that every Premier League club can easily afford to chip in a quarter-of-a-million quid is in itself a powerful tribute to Scudamore’s success in raising income levels during his 19 years in charge – to put his mooted £5m pay-off into perspective every single club now receives almost twice that amount up front every time they have a match televised – but making such a public play of the demonstrable reality that everyone is now rolling in money is tasteless in the extreme.

It would have been better PR to present Scudamore with a carriage clock or port decanter and at least attempt to keep the financial settlement off centre stage. One fears, or rather one hopes, that next time a deserving cause such as Kick It Out or lower-league football make a pitch for a greater share of the Premier League’s undoubted wealth a whip-round of what amounts to petty cash for the big clubs will have to be made equally promptly.

A couple of decades ago, around the time Scudamore was settling in to his new job, in fact, the Premier League money-go-round was already travelling at remarkable speed and the standard reaction to whatever outrageous salary or transfer fee had just been agreed was to suppose that such exponential growth could not possibly last.

The bubble would burst, a tipping point would be reached, traditional support would turn away, not because the product was in decline – all too clearly it was in robust health – but because the sums of money were obscene, unrecognisable to the normal wage-earner, let alone anyone without a job. This never happened, and it is probably safe to say now that it never will.

Football has changed enormously in the last half-century, but the amount of money in the game has simply been accepted. If anything, it makes it more escapist and glamorous. Football has moved on from its working-class roots and is now seen as something impossible and aspirational, its participants as aloof and lavishly rewarded as film stars in the middle of the last century.

While he was working as manager of Derby County and coming to terms with the advent of the Premier League, Jim Smith was fond of saying the simple game he grew up with had evolved into a branch of showbiz. Clearly it did not stop there. Premier League football is now full-on Hollywood, for better or worse, and it might be worth remembering that when considering its boardroom excesses.

While openly boasting about wealth can never be a good look, the lesson of the last couple of weeks appears to be that no amount of financial grotesquery will result in audience alienation. The show goes on, at least as long as the product on the pitch remains worth watching.

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