An article on the digital version of one of the regions more popular newspapers has caused quite a hubbub over the past few days plus no little debate with the writer’s assertion that he would rather see Norwich City relegated and plying their trade in the Championship than competing with and against some of the best players and teams in the world as we currently do in the Premier League.
The assertion is that, with Premier League survival now as much a financial necessity as a footballing one, much of the joy and fun that there was to be felt in supporting the Canaries has been lost. This sense would have been heighted in the minds of more than the reader when, just a few days before the article appeared, Canaries Chairman Alan Bowkett outlined just how much a place in the Europa League would be worth for the club with one clear, succinct phrase.
Chief Executive David McNally added fuel to the fire that had, in one instant, been left to burn away our dreams of a run in Europe to equal, maybe surpass that which we all enjoyed and treasured so much two decades ago when the name of Norwich City made shockwaves across Europe’s footballing landscape.
“It (Europa League qualification) costs you money. If you get to the later stages you might make some money but it would perhaps be a merit award (about £1.2 million) or one and a bit if you get to the final.”
So there you have it. Finish bottom of the Premier League at the end of the 2013/14 season and collect at least £50 million in ‘prize’ money for a campaign of failure. Reach the final of the Europa League however, a long and challenging journey which could take a club as many as fifteen games to achieve and you might just make a million and a half quid for your efforts. In sharp, almost embarrassing contrast to that, Bayern Munich received well in excess of thirty times that amount last season for winning the Champions League.
It’s not difficult to see why the powers that be at Norwich City are not interested in participating in the Europa League when it’s even more evident that UEFA obviously do not give even the faintest damn about what is their own competition. In fact, you could go as far as to say – and I will – that they have managed to strangle it so effectively that the competition will cease to exist in the next few years. For UEFA, I suspect, it will be a monkey that they are only too glad to remove from their already bloated backs.
It thus becomes academic as to whether or not Norwich City should look to progress, on the field at least, for a league position else domestic cup success that would guarantee them a place in the competition as, by the time we are ready and able to do so – it will no longer exist. That would only leave Champions League qualification as the incentive for all Premier League clubs to strive for at the beginning of every domestic season but, as we all know, the chances of that ever happening are, for us and around fourteen of our peers about the same as Alan Bowkett’s perceived financial worth of qualifying for next season’s Europa League.
But it’s not only the Europa League that has become devalued in recent years.
The League Cup, a competition that is shamelessly tossed around between myriad sponsors so much that it has become the footballing equivalent of a pandemic, is not only scorned by all of the Premier League but, so much has its stock fallen in recent years that clubs in the Championship and even League One now see it as a thorn in the side of their league campaigns, fielding weakened sides at the first available opportunity so that they can get knocked out as soon as possible.
Look at our recent game at Watford for example. Much was made of the eight changes that Chris Hughton made to his starting XI for the game – the same as those made by Hornets boss Gianfranco Zola. Clearly for Zola, the priority is promotion to the Premier League, an objective that comes above all else at Vicarage Road. No doubt as and when that objective is reached he’ll be doing the same to ensure that they have the best possible chance of staying there.
So what chance does the League Cup have when even managers of clubs in the Championship treat it with such disdain and as such a low priority?
As for the FA Cup, well, that appears to have become the embarrassing elderly relative of the footballing family, the one that everyone professes to love but who all, secretly, hope that someone else will have for Christmas this year.
Its demise in the game is well known. From its lofty position as the last game of the domestic season, one played in glorious isolation for the viewing edification of millions around the world and enjoyed domestically here with an all-day televised orgy of football that started at 9:30am, it is now bounced around the schedule as an afterthought, fitted in as something extra rather than something extraordinary.
As far as the Premier Leagues elite are concerned, it has become a priority to be found a little above remembering to order extra milk and just below ensuring the clubs sponsor’s logo gets prominence during a live game – in other words, it’s just another box to be ticked. Despite that however, it is now a competition that is dominated beyond compare by those clubs. Sixteen of the last twenty FA Cup Finals have been won by just one of four clubs – Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool.
But does this speak volumes of their desire to win the trophy and the importance they each place on the competition?
Not at all.
It reflects their ability to top load their squads with the sort of strength in depth, player wise, which means that, whenever an unwanted FA Cup match comes along they can still field a starting XI more than good enough to beat an as good as normal starting XI from any other side.
Such is the reward of continued Premier League prominence and success this has become a knock on effect that most clubs didn’t even realise would happen.
This then is the state of English domestic football in 2013. A Premier League that only, at best, six clubs can ever hope to have a chance of winning. A European competition that acts as an incentive for the ‘have nots’ that costs clubs money to participate in whilst we have two domestic trophies that seem hardly worth bothering about, such is their relative importance to Premier League survival.
Even if a club outside of the elite manages to buck the trend of the top heavy giants and manage to win one of the things – such as Birmingham City with the League Cup in 2011 or Wigan in the FA Cup last season, stretching those meagre playing and financial resources enough to ensure a day in the limelight can often be too much to bear – as both those sides found, celebrating cup success with the dark pall of relegation from the Premier League at the end of each of those seasons.
Taking all of that into consideration – and it is a pallet that is laden with so much doom and despair, you almost expect the four footballing horsemen of the apocalypse to thunder across the skies as a result – it’s easy to relate to the musings of that afore mentioned Pink Un writer who suggested that what all of this means for Norwich, as far as he is concerned, is that we might just find ourselves enjoying our football and our team more, if we were playing in the Championship.
Compelling evidence is provided.
An opportunity to be competitive every season. A very real chance of winning every game that we play in, no matter who the opposition are or where we are playing. Why, in fact, travel to Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool in dread when we could make our way to Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Wolves and think that we have a fair to good chance of winning. Away from the maelstrom that is the Premier League we could, perhaps, redefine ourselves as a football club and that the football, rather than the finances, might come first.
Sounds like a sporting Utopia. Everything that membership of the Premier League isn’t. So am I for it, do I agree with his thoughts at all?
No. No, no, no, no and no. A thousand times no.
Because as much as the Premier League is an unforgiving place, a competitive and overtly commercial behemoth of an organisation that puts greed above good and serves only itself and its member clubs, it remains, for now, the only place where I want to see my club play, week in and week out.
Our chances, admittedly, of making anything other than a fleeting impact upon the league are, at best, minimal. Will we, for example, ever come close to repeating that glorious third place finish of that inaugural Premier League season of 1992/93? Probably not.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop believing that we can, we could or that it is an impossible dream. Far from it. What greater challenge can there be, for any professional sportsperson or organisation than to repeatedly look to not only prove itself but improve itself, despite the fact that every conceivable piece of sporting and financial logic is stacked against it ever succeeding. And that’s ever as in forever. Because we could play our football in the Premier League for the next hundred years and never come even remotely close to winning the damned thing. But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t all, from fan to Chairman and all points inbetween, strive to achieve that goal one day.
The argument that there is no fun in striving just to finish seventeenth or above every season – and little else apart from that – is, for me an invalid one. Indeed, I would counter with the argument that it is that perpetual struggle to survive, to turn survival into consolidation and to follow that with progress which should be seen as fun, as enjoyable, and as something to look forward to, not to write off and run away for a perceived easy life of the Championship.
Because football is not about logic. It is not about reason, common sense and any perceived idea of what might be “for the best” because it is sensible and built on solid foundations. Not at all.
Football is anything but that.
Football belongs to the heart. And it is in our hearts where our mutual love and support for Norwich City lies. Not in our heads. And that means, for me that, as much as the Premier League is mad, bad and dangerous to know; a competition bad to the bone with clubs whose shadows will always fall upon us and players whose egos are probably bigger than our stadium, it’s where I want us to be.
Indeed, ask me one hundred times and then ask me again after we’ve been smeared all over the pitch at somewhere like Old Trafford if I ‘d rather swap a 5-0 defeat there for a gritty 1-0 win at Burnley or Sheffield Wednesday, and you’ll get the same answer every time.
No thankyou. It’s the Premier League for me every time. Bring it on.