One of my favourite footballing images from last year came via the razor sharp wit of the cartoonist Matt.
He took a cliché, turned it on its head and, with that, said it all. Twenty-first century football in one frame.
Once the laugher had died down and the lights had dimmed however, it got me thinking.
Quite an achievement really. But I couldn’t help it. I know that football and money are now well established bedfellows, one can’t live without the other and that their relationship is deep, committed and eternal – as eternal that is, for as long as football can survive the dark presence of high finance, the parasitic Incubus set upon draining all of the beauty and innocence out of the sport.
It is. And it will.
One of the symptoms of the ever more public and inextricable union between the two is the growing prominence and fame of the men and women who wield the real power in the sport; they who are ever more dominating its present as they chart its ever more uncertain future.
A future that will inevitably see all televised football, including the World Cup Finals, on pay per view TV; the evolution of football clubs into footballing franchises and the sort of blanket advertising on grounds and players that will ultimately see clubs being named after their sponsors rather than the town or city they play in.
A sixteen club Premier League in this country with no promotion to or relegation from; one that has every member club negotiating separate TV deals between themselves and whoever might care to pay the most. Nailed on.
Collective bargaining? Forget it.
“Welcome to the Stadium Of Flight for this Cosmic Saturday Night Football Show Down Spectacular Between Emirates FC and the Chevrolet Rollers, European The Shell Premier League action for you, live at the Kuala Lumpar Stadium, kick off 8.00am BST”
A flight of nothing more than fancy? I hope so. But I wouldn’t rule that sort of thing out entirely because as the men and women in suits become more and more well known in the game, the more they think they’ll get away with.
And let’s face it, the era of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar is coming to an end. Footballs up and coming superstars, the high rollers, high fivers and names and numbers that dominate the game in the 2020s aren’t going to be the players.
They’re going to be the sponsors, the owners, the chief execs and the directors. Theirs will be the faces we all recognise, the viewpoints we listen to and the makers of the decisions that affect us all.
Having to turn up at Carrow Road at 1pm in order to get to Blackburn for an evening kick off in the middle of the week will seem a minor inconvenience to what we’ll all be expected to put up with soon.
Terry Venables (remember him?) saw it all coming a long, long time ago. His 1972 novel They Used To Play On Grass accurately foretold the coming of plastic pitches, sponsorship, footballing playboys by the dozen and the advance towards a European Super League.
Another former Tottenham Manager, Keith Burkinshaw had seen the writing on the wall when he walked out on the club in the mid-1980s, saying of Tottenham on his departure that, “… there used to be a football club back there”.
He even reckoned that clubs would end up paying people to attend matches in order to provide an atmosphere for the countless millions worldwide watching it on TV.
Now we are lucky at Norwich.
We do seem to still have a football club to call our own. A club whose roots are very much immersed in both its home city and the county of Norfolk as a whole; one whose main stand is still, for now, named after a prominent local business and one whose shirts are still, to the end of this season, sponsored by a local company.
It might, of course, have been nicer to have seen Norwich Union emblazoned across the shirts rather than the somewhat bland Aviva but at least they are still a local company. For the time being anyway.
Aviva’s involvement with the club will diminish at the end of the season with the new shirt sponsor widely expected to be Coral. Are they, with apologies for sounding like a character from Royston Vasey, a “…local company for a local football club”?
Not quite. The Gala Coral Group Ltd are a British betting shop, bingo and casino operator who are jointly owned by the private equity firms Candover Investments, Cinven and Permira. Candover Investments, not that you are interested (but I’ll tell you anyway), are a private equity investment trust who are listed on the London Stock Exchange whilst Cinven are a global private equity firm of nearly four decades standing who have offices in Guernsey, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Milan, Luxembourg, New York and Hong Kong.
They may soon, albeit indirectly, have a little say, a little involvement, even a little interest in our football club.
Speculation of course. But, regardless of whether or not the rumours surrounding Coral and their sponsorship of our shirts are true or not, it deftly illustrates that for even for the smaller clubs the lookout has to be global rather than national these days if you are to stand a chance of surviving in football’s brave new world.
Survival, for Norwich City is, and likely always will be, nothing more than keeping a tenuous hold on the ever more priceless membership of the Premier League. Yet, to have any chance of competing on a level playing field, footballing-wise at least, we now have to look to the commercial world to help generate the interest and income that will be needed to do that. Yet we can no more compete with Manchester United commercially than we can on the field of play.
Take their club website for example. It includes options to go to equivalent sites in French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The sum total of hits on these club websites now well exceeds 60 million per month whilst the Red Devils have mobile phone partners in more than 40 different countries. MUTV meanwhile, is broadcast in over 50.
Forty different mobile phone partners. Whilst we can barely get a signal from any mobile provider in, of all places, Carrow Road itself.
The gap between the obscenely rich and the merely very rich grows all the time. With us down there somewhere in the ‘just about keeping our heads above the water’ league in terms of finance.
Clearly, we need a superstar of our own or two. But not on the pitch. I’m talking about the boardroom.
As far as the Norwich City boardroom is concerned, there was an element of forward planning on the part of the club’s owners revealed earlier this week when it was announced that Thomas Smith, nephew of Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones, had joined the club’s board of directors.
Thomas is, we have to assume, the heir apparent in terms of the club’s ownership; the man who will take the helm when, and perish the very thought right now, Delia and Michael feel that the responsibility of doing so is one they would rather not carry any longer.
Is Thomas an oil or property magnate? Is he the billionaire potential new owner that we crave? The man whose financial largesse will see us become one of the giants of the game and a club that can compete with the very best?
Well, no. He isn’t. He is however, as we now know, a big fan of the club; someone who has, in his own words, “…been a fan as long as I can remember so am deeply proud and honoured to be able to give something back. Delia, Michael (why am I disappointed he didn’t refer to them as ‘Auntie Delia and Uncle Michael’?) and myself are very close and one thing that binds us together is our love of Norwich City.”
Now look. If my response to that makes me, in the eyes of some, a ‘happy clapper’, then I have only this to say.
Clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap.
Because you know what? Despite the game drowning in money, despite Manchester United and their forty different mobile phone partners, despite Chelsea and all their new money, despite Arsenal and their corporate branding and Manchester City with the sights set on Lionel Messi, despite that and everything else that is bloated, over the top and, quite possibly, corrupt in our game.
Despite all of that we still have owners who love and support our club for what it is.
A FOOTBALL club. And long may that continue.
So you can, as they say, stick your billionaire oligarchs looking for a plaything up your ****