Here’s a question for you.
Do we, Norwich City, as a football club, ‘belong’ in the Premier League?
Is membership of the elite twenty something we should look upon as, if not our footballing ‘right’, then most certainly the ultimate goal of the football club and those who run it? Our place in the natural order of things. A place where we are either diverting all of our resources and energies to remaining in or, failing that, diverting all of those same resources and energies into reaching. Is it, in other words, the very reason for the existence of Norwich City Football Club?
And, if it is – then why is that. Is it for the football. Or is it for the money?
If it is for the latter, as I am increasingly feeling is the case, then that is worrying. Very worrying indeed. Because it will prove, at least to me and beyond all rational doubt that football is dead.
Why have I come to that conclusion so late people will ask. Football has, according to many, been bereft of both heart and soul for many years, possibly since the launch of the Premier League and resultant widening of the gap that it created just two decades ago. My claim, my fear, my personal revelation is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Indeed, its old news, something which seems to have dawned on me long after it reached the collective consciousness of others – so why has it reached me so late?
I don’t know.
I suppose the best analogy to give is that of a raging forest fire which consumes and destroys thousands of trees and properties every day. Luckily for me, my home is hundreds of miles away from the fire – aware of its reality but naive to its effects on me. However, as that fire comes closer and close to my home and all that I hold dear, I then become more and more aware of the dangers until, one day, I fear for both my own safety and that of my home – long after the same event has destroyed lives and homes elsewhere. In other words, wider problems are never problems until they become your own. Then you, finally, take ownership. They become personal… because they affect you.
So this great conflagration may well have been burning its destructive path through football for many years now – it’s just that I’ve been oblivious to it. It’s been incidental, there but not there. But now it’s reached the confines of Carrow Road. And I don’t like it.
Since football’s year zero moment with the creation and launch of the Premier League, the story of Norwich City has, primarily, been about the football. A remarkable first season at that level which ended in a third place finish. A first ever European quest. The era of Mike Walker, of names so familiar they roll off the tongue in foreshortened form – Gunny, Gossy, Chippy, Sutty et al. We all know who they are, their very mention and memory evokes smiles. And good memories. About football.
Three seasons into the life of the Premier League and the memories are tarnished somewhat. Footballing ambitions are questioned, players leave, Managers come and go. Nine successive seasons of Championship-level football follow, but, even then, much of the talk is about the people that matter, the personalities and players. They trip off the tongue with the same nonchalant ease that those Premier League heroes did, each for a reason, each relates to football and our hopes and dreams in that sense. With some hope, others disappointment. But they are all names we hung our aspirational hats on, as did our board at the time – from Martin O’Neill to Nigel Worthington and all points inbetween – the second comings of Walker and Fleck; the emergence (and disappearance) of the young and talented-Eadie, O’Neill, Bellamy and Johnson et al; the loanees, distinguished in name but unable to prevent the Canary flame from being extinguished – Molby, Rocastle and Parker, yes, Scott bloody Parker; plus those who encouraged hope – a Giallanza, a Nielsen and a Libbra. All footballing moments frozen in time, signs, we hoped of a better future. A footballing one.
Finances, like the distant and meaningless forest fire were relevant of course, but they were for other people to worry about. We just wanted to watch our football team. Besides, if anyone came along who did put the finances first and the football second – we chased them out. Goodbye Mr Chase.
Now, under the auspices of David McNally we praise the man who has put the football clubs finances first and stopped at nothing to do so. But hasn’t he been doing exactly what Robert Chase was preaching twenty years ago?
So, hello, is that a spark from a distant fire drifting my way?
Robert Chase was vilified because he saw the football club as a business first and a sporting institution second. And he was at pains to let us know just that. In his programme notes for our first game in the Premier League, the clash with Chelsea on August 19th 1992, he robustly and passionately defended the club’s decision to sell talisman and star player Robert Fleck to Chelsea at the start of the season, stating, “…there are certain facts of the real world, in business and in life-that must be faced. Norwich City, with some of the smallest gates in the Premier League, simply cannot afford to make a footballer, any footballer, a millionaire in four years…” He was unpopular for sanctioning the sale of Fleck (despite the fact Fleck had originally wanted to leave a year earlier) and became ever more the subject of the fans ire as the likes of David Phillips, Chris Sutton, Ruel Fox and Darren Eadie ultimately followed that well worn path out of the club, sold because the club needed the money and had to put the financial side of things, the business, first.
David McNally and Alan Bowkett are cut from exactly the same kind of business cloth as Robert Chase. Their brief, their overwhelming directive has been to secure the long-term financial stability of the football club. The business. The subtle difference between them however, is that whilst Mr Chase seemed set on letting the football drive the business, McNally and Bowkett are letting the business drive the football.
Like I said. Subtle. But telling.
Whereas we once sold players to survive financially, we now invest in them to do exactly the same thing. Where once we couldn’t afford to keep players of the calibre and related expense of Fleck, Sutton and Bellamy et al, we now can’t afford to be without players of a similar high calibre – a Bassong here, a Snodgrass there – plus the retention of those who have risen to prominence whilst at Norwich, Grant Holt for example or Wes Hoolahan. The Norwich City of Robert Chase would never have dared to invest in a Sebastian Bassong back then for example – to pick up the phone and have a word with his Tottenham equivalent in 1992 would have meant signing Neil Ruddock or Sol Campbell –unthinkable!
I’ll say it again. Where once the football perpetuated the business, now the business perpetuates the football.
It’s the modern approach to the game. And a cyclical one. The more money the business can generate, the more successful it can aspire to be. And, as the business becomes ever more successful, the more money it can attract. And so on. We’ve been a perfect example of that. Upon relegation to League One in 2009, the club was on its financial uppers. That relegation meant a gargantuan drop in income, one that was so substantial that, at around the time of the FA Cup match at Paulton Rovers the club wasn’t even looking at administration in the face – if only! – no, the very real threat at that time was one of extinction. The end of Norwich City Football Club as we know it. It was that bad.
It took the conviction and business acumen of people like Alan Bowkett and David McNally to persuade the banks to give the club a chance. To let us stay in business when all reasonable logic was telling them to shut us down and get back whatever they could from the wreckage. A swift promotion followed. As did another one. Suddenly the club was back in the Premier League with all its attendant riches. And we were safe. No-one who stood outside City Hall on that warm spring evening almost two years ago to the day will have forgotten Delia Smith’s claim that the club was now financially secure. It got the biggest cheer of the night. How times have changed. Football supporters, lauding the club’s owner for telling them the club is financially secure rather than the on-field number nine for completing his hat-trick.
Reminding us, again, that football is not about football now. But about business.
And, biggest cheer of the night or not, it got me thinking. Indeed, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since – and, with our woes and failings on the field of play over the last few weeks raising the spectre of the ‘R’ word in everybody’s mind, I’ve been thinking about it some more. Because, with the possibility of relegation very much to the fore amongst us all at the moment [not least the club itself, with parties cancelled and a state of near lockdown introduced as a further consequence] what is the one point, the overwhelming concern amongst nearly all Canary fans – and certainly every single one of the members of the Board – related to relegation?
Is it the fact that we won’t have the chance to play the great and the good of the game again next season? To see if we can beat Manchester United at our own ground in the Premier League for the third time in four fixtures? To see players like David Silva, Juan Mata, Gareth Bale and Robin Van Persie at Carrow Road? To see Managers like Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and, you never know, Jose Mourinho in the Carrow Road dugouts – to acknowledge that their presence and that of the teams indicates that we are part of the footballing elite in England, their equals and their on our own merits? Is it that we won’t be last on Match of the Day anymore – and have to put up with being maybe second or third on the Football League Show instead – and that it won’t be Alan Hansen or Mark Lawrenson demonstrating a lack of knowledge about us but Leroy Rosenior or Steve Claridge showing quite the opposite. Maybe it’s the fear of seeing some of “our” players in the colours of another team or of being reduced to a sideline in the Sunday papers rather than one of the main stories, that and transfer gossip and speculation that links us with a utility player at Doncaster Rovers rather than an internationally capped striker at Deportivo La Coruna. All of that surely, all of that thing called FOOTBALL??
But no it isn’t.
What we are lamenting is the loss of income that relegation would bring. The effect on the balance sheet rather than the team sheet. We’d be missing out on the biggest ever TV payout to Premier League teams following the introduction of the new deal with Sky, BT and the BBC, payments that include a staggering £6.5 million just for having one of your home games televised. £6.5 million! That would pay for Ricky Van Wolfswinkle in one go. Never mind having to save up, to sell in order to buy. Yes, a Sunday kick off is inconvenient to some but look at the fringe benefits. Ninety minutes of that and Martin Tyler gets you a Dutch international striker. Not so bad really.
Think about it. At the peak of the discord with Robert Chase, the man that wanted to maximise the clubs income potential and generate as much money as possible in order for it to thrive and prosper as a business, there were platoons of police horses stalking Carrow Road, ready to beat any wayward or rather too vocal opponent of his into the river. Protest and discord. It shouldn’t be about the money we argued, the money is not important. This is a football club not a business-kindly treat it as one or get out.
Now, twenty years on with the possibility of relegation hanging over us all like a green and yellow sword of Damocles, we live in fear of its consequences on the business side of the football club, how the drop will adversely affect our chances of maximising the club’s income potential and generating as much money as possible for it to thrive and prosper as a business.
Because there is a little piece of Robert Chase in all of us now. Myself included. And that is what worries me. Because what that says to me is that I am more worried about the business and the financial state of affairs at Norwich City than I am about the football. Is that what being in the Premier League means? Is that all it is about now, season after season of trying to finish in at least seventeenth place so that the business can be sustained for another year? Is that a measure of achievement, mere survival?
How about these games against Manchester United and City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham when the stated aim before these games is that just to get something out of them would be a “bonus”? That the ones which count, the ones that you should win are those against your fellow bottom feeders. Is that it, is that what our football club has become, one which measures success by finishing seventeenth or higher and which over the course of a season pretty much writes off at least twelve of its fixtures – nearly a third – as something from which any semblance of goals scored or even points gained is a ‘bonus’? All I can say to that is thank God for those “bonus” six points we got against Manchester United and Arsenal then, because if we had reverted to expected type then, we’d be down already.
The Premier League. Scrapping for survival and hoping to hang on in there by whatever means are deemed necessary – which this season has seen some pretty forgettable football as a consequence – just so we can look forward to doing it all again next season. And the season after that. And so on and so forth. Just so we can get our hands on the money that it brings. And to what end? Talk of using it to improve the quality of the squad, to build and progress with it is all very well, but it’s not as if it’s only us getting the windfall in 2013/14, all the other nineteen Premier League clubs will as well. So yes, we might be richer. But we’d still be running to stand still – just be wearing nicer trainers.
And I’m not sure if I want to go through everything we have gone through this season just so we can do it all again next season.
If the worse was to happen and we ended up back in the Championship for next season at least we’d have reasons for optimism. There wouldn’t be one game, not one, that we went into thinking that defeat was inevitable and that anything we got out of it would be a ‘bonus’. Neither would we be looking to finish seventeenth. No, we would, and with some justification, be looking to win games and finish in the top two. And failing that, the play-offs. Hell, even a mediocre team in the Championship can make the play offs at the end of the season, take Crystal Palace for example; they lost eighteen games last season. Eighteen! That’s four more defeats than we’ve had this season – and we’re in a higher league.
Surely we can get through a Championship season and hope to lose fewer games than that, surely therefore, by definition, we could be play-off contenders every season. Going for success. Winning games, scoring goals, making the opposition think about us for once rather than bigging them up. That’d be nice. All of that plus some away days to savour. A trip to the seaside to watch Bournemouth. The return of the local derby matches against that lot from down the road. A chance to renew acquaintances with our very dear friends at Leeds United. Proper footballing days out, each and everyone. None of this football as tourism lark and posing for photographs outside of Old Trafford simply because… well, it is Old Trafford and a legal requirement. Nope, forget all that. Give me Dean Court and The Valley any day. Better burgers, better beer and better banter. That’s the Championship.
It all looks as if I am not only living with no fear of relegation, but that I am positively looking forward to all of the benefits it might bring – the biggest being the return of the football! Hanging on in quiet desperation is the Premier League way – surviving, fighting, treading water and hoping for the best, grinding out those 1-0 wins over the Southamptons and the Stoke Cities of the world, celebrating survival and more of the same to come, being a minnow in a sea of business sharks and fighting, always fighting, for the occasional scrap, an acknowledgement, a kind word or two – or even a summary from the Match of the Day team that doesn’t belittle or patronise us, nor show an arrogant disregard for the club, that “…the Norwich number six knocks it in and the big lad in the centre of their defence bangs it home…” sort of thing.
Do I really want all of that for another year? Or would I like some football?
The answer is as clear cut and crystal clear as the water that adorns a mountain spring.
You bet I do! I want us to be part of the footballing monster that is the Barclays Premier League. I want us to be part of it next season, the season after that and the season after that. I want us fighting for every point, defying the odds, surviving, thriving, looking to defy the odds and the pundits – again, again and again. Norwich City and the Premier League: do we belong? Maybe not. Do I want us to be part of it – now and in the future? Hell yes. Because for all of its faults, for all of the hype, the glitz, the top heavy glamour and the obscene wealth and coverage that it generates for its life members and the fact that we will never win the thing – or qualify for the Champions League and that the ambition that we will enter every season will be nothing more than survival – the Premier League, the greedy, overblown, overrated and fiercely uncompetitive Premier League is the only place I ever want my team to be.
And THAT is what worries me.