Market forces. That’s what the west is built upon, for good and bad, for richer and poorer. It sure as hell is what the EPL is built upon and for a quarter of a century, it has delivered exactly what Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton envisaged, notwithstanding the fact that three of them have never won it and Chelsea and Manchester City have joined the party.
The Premier League was, of course, created in capitalism’s image. The big five or six of the time saw themselves as the footballing equivalent of the post-war economic elite, of the US, of West Germany as it was, giants who bestrode the globe and used the rest of the world as cheap labour, cannon fodder, allowing them the odd scraps from the table, but only after they’d gone home and under no circumstances could they eat from the same table.
As in the economy, so in the Premier League. In those early days, and largely ever after, the likes of Crystal Palace, Barnsley, Oldham, Sheffield United, Derby County, Cardiff, Southampton, Stoke were only ever there to make up the numbers, surrender the points and provide a bit of atmosphere that the big boys, sated to the point of obesity, couldn’t be bothered to provide.
But there ain’t nothing on earth that lasts forever. The economic might of the US, the UK, the West, suddenly woke up to find that other countries were doing it cheaper, better and were starting to catch up. Ironically, it was happening just as the Premier League was being formed in ’92 – remember Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid” election win?
Suddenly, the West was discovering that the free market, capitalism, competition, all of that long accepted orthodoxy, was only fun when you were winning. Once you stopped winning, it suddenly didn’t feel so good, and it was even worse when everything went into collapse and houses were being repossessed left, right and centre and the whole Tower of Babel came tumbling down.
Miraculously, through it all, the oldest league in the oldest country continued to thrive. Within it, the old winners carried on being the new winners, even if winning only meant finishing fourth and heading off for the additional pot of gold on offer in Europe. Given Everton’s failings, the big boys could live with the rise of Chelsea and Manchester City, the nouveau riche, because there was still enough gravy to go around.
There was a fair amount of squealing around the trough when Leicester somehow snuck up on them and stuck their noses in it, but that was but a brief interlude and it was clear they’d soon be bullied back into the background before long.
Even so, they don’t want that kind of thing happening again, hence the close scrutiny of what’s going on at Wolves at present. To cut a long story short, Wolves’ Chinese owners Fosun have a 20% stake in the business owned by “super agent” Jorge Mendes. Mendes has “helped” deliver manager Nuno Espirito Santo and a sheaf of players who you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the Championship to Molineux and promotion at a canter has duly followed.
While many are wringing their hands and crying foul at all these goings on, the Football League – caught napping as usual – has concluded that no rules have been broken and, while Wolves might have been sailing close to the wind, there will be no sanctions. If you support the likes of Leeds United or Coventry City and recall what’s been done to your club in recent times, you might find that a bit rich but let us recall the golden rule – mucking about with the laws is fine as long as you win. But God help you if you’ve done it and still lost.
The difference here is that those at the top can scent a bit of danger here. Fosun have plenty of spending power. Mendes has a list of clients that many of them would like to attract. Wolves might be able to access better players, and cheaper, then any side outside the top six would normally expect to be able to touch. Wolves might – and it’s a stretch, but it’s possible – begin to chip away at the gloriously insulated bubble in which that top six live. And they can’t have that.
Because if you end up seventh, you might not end up in Europe. God forbid Wolves – or another club doing similar work – might even get into fourth place in the fullness of time. And that’s when the Premier League is forced to take action to keep the top clubs sweet for all the while, there’s the underlying threat that if the Premier League doesn’t operate in their interests, they’ll pick their ball up and set up a European League. They’ve all got form for that after all – that was how the Premier League came into being.
Conflicts of interest are, supposedly, anathema to the Premier League and that’s the cover they’ll be using to investigate Wolves. But all Wolves have done is exploit loopholes in the existing rules. Is that any worse, for example, than Chelsea buying up every young footballer in the land and then loaning them out, just to stop anybody else getting their hands on them?
Equally, if you don’t think that some managers are better placed to get certain players because they share an agent, I’ve got a bridge I’m interested in selling to you. Wolves are more blatant about what they’re doing it’s true – and rather more successful – but if you want to suggest Wolves operate at a lower level of business integrity or morality than a Manchester City or a Liverpool, I’d argue that’s unfair. They’re all wrestling in the mud.
Returning to where we started, those who champion the free market when they’re at the top will do anything they can to ensure they stay there, so you can expect to see Wolves being targeted. Not necessarily in public, but there will be moves going on in the background to ensure that these uppity Portuguese-Chinese-Midlanders don’t get ideas above their station. Like any Empire, those in power will be desperate to cling onto it.
What happens though when winners become losers, even in comparative terms? We’ve seen that in the real world in the last few years haven’t we, in the US election, the vote for Brexit and the rest. Age old establishments, bewildered by change, venting understandable but unfocused anger around easy slogans. Make America Great Again. Take Back Control. Wenger Out.
Let’s face it, the blot on the landscape that is Arsenal Fan TV is essentially Donald Trump’s campaign, the suddenly disenfranchised complaining how unfair everything is now they’re not top dog any more. All of which is fine, even healthy to a degree because the desire to do better is the motive force that has driven the human race out of the swamps, into the trees and down into the SUVs.
But what it has returned to is the witch-hunt of the Middle Ages, the demonization of character, ideas replaced by hot air and the death of the kind of decency that marked the development of civilised discourse
That Arsene Wenger’s time had come is something the majority would probably agree upon. Equally, the right of supporters to voice their displeasure or disquiet at his leadership is their inalienable right. We are all believers in free speech aren’t we? Even when it disagrees with us? Good.
But free speech also requires decency and a refusal to descend into abuse. You can want a change in manager, you can vocalise it – you should vocalise it because often that’s the push a club needs to recognise the need for change. But when we give way to bullying, when we allow things like Arsenal Fan TV to become representative of anything, then we shame ourselves. We lose control rather than taking it back. We don’t make anything great again, we worsen it.
From his position where the weight has lifted from his shoulders and he no longer has to curry favour with anyone, Wenger now has the freedom to really speak his mind. That he should say that the behaviour of some fans – and as ever, it’s the minority, those with the biggest mouths which lie in direct opposition to the size of their other organs – did nothing for Arsenal’s reputation within the game.
Perhaps it’s inevitable in the world of social media, where you have to be more and more outrageous to get any coverage amid the cacophony, that intelligence and respect will be supplanted by abuse, stupidity and cat videos. But if we want to see a better game, and a better world, we’re going to have to grow up, accept that nobody stays at number one forever and simply enjoy the ride with a. smile on our faces, even when it hurts.
Want a better game? Then let’s become the change that we want to see.