‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ – Winston Churchill
I never expected to begin a piece of writing about Norwich City with a Churchill quote but so much of what we have seen in 2020 in this country resonates with this quote, including within football.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting the latest proposals emanating from the top of English football are fit to be compared with ongoing attacks on the legal system or the use of public funds to pay government donors for PPE that is either unusable or will never arrive.
It’s too easy to displace our frustration and disillusion at the world around us onto issues relating to the running of our beloved club. This is not life, death, or a viral pandemic, after all. It is only football and there are times when we’d all do well to remember that.
However, an unsuccessful power grab disguised as an attempt to level up should not be ignored as just something that happens. This is not an isolated event. Rather, it is part of a culture fostered over many years, with the current crisis being used as cover.
An insidious attitude so normalised that those who have had leading roles in creating it seeks to solve issues by further entrenching them. The fixation on what can be gained by a few while ignoring what can be lost by everyone else has led to the richest and most powerful clubs in England – in this example, Liverpool and Manchester United – treating everyone else with little more than contempt.
(At this point that I check to make sure I am in fact talking about football rather than politics).
The attitude appears to be that only the elite clubs are truly entitled to be where they are, and they will do whatever is necessary to maintain that position no matter how underhand that may be. They deserve it by virtue of being “special”. The rest of us just need to accept it, along with any scraps left for us to fight over while doffing our caps to our betters.
I don’t want to go into that much detail on the plans for ‘Project Big Picture’ (somehow an even more ludicrously self-important name than ‘Project Restart’) although, I will offer that oft mentioned truism that something needs to be done to help lower league teams. On the face of it then, PBP offers some ideas about how to go about it.
The problem is when looking beyond the headlines and the small print only reveals the flagrant opportunism of it all. There is no doubt that the headline figure of £250 million from Premier League TV revenue and 25% of the future revenue looks generous. However, that initial sum would be more like a loan deducted from the 25%. So not as generous as it first appears but still fine in principle.
The added problem comes when you factor in the current enthusiasm among the ‘Big Six’ for pay-per-view services run by the clubs themselves (and the cynic in me cannot help assuming that £14.99 per game EPL streaming package is a dry run for this).
If this came into effect, even for a relatively small number of games there will be a drop in TV revenue as BT, Sky and Amazon would be getting less for their money. Naturally, if this went even further then we can all work out how much 25% of nothing adds up to – especially when tied to a potential £250 million owed by the EFL and its clubs. Generous is not a word to describe it even without taking the much-discussed extension of the voting powers of the ‘Big Six’ into account.
This is not actually a new crisis or a new solution. The financial inequalities and exploitations at the heart of football have existed for so long they have become nothing more than a symptom of a sickness we have been made to think is normal. It has become written into the shorthand language of the game as spoken on TV and newspapers without any variation, just repetition. Where once we had the nonsensical innocence of, ‘it’s a game of two halves,’ or ‘it’s the goals in the back of the net that count’, we now have ‘you’ve got to show ambition’.
There is nothing innocent about it. It is cynical. It is all about money. Cold, hard cash has become interchangeable with success in the language of the Premier League. This is to such a degree that any club doing anything that differs from this model is viewed with suspicion or downright contempt. Better to run the risk of bankrupting yourself trying to survive than be brave enough to be different.
Instead, we are left with a league that is little more than a hollow brand; revelling in its apparent diversity and unpredictability, with its fairytale narratives and master motivators, that ends almost every season with the richest clubs at the top and the poorest at the bottom.
Sadly, we football fans tend to believe what we are told even when it does not quite match with reality – often hidden behind a veil of jargon and clichés so overused as to be meaningless. “Football is a results business,” they say and we go along with it. So, we push our clubs to get results the way we are told makes sense: We get the manager sacked and call for more money to be thrown at the issue.
If that does not work or the club cannot afford it, then we want the owners replaced with someone who can. And if that doesn’t help either, then we want someone even richer – what does it matter if they murdered someone or plan to asset strip the club, just show me all that money “to take us to the next level!”
Obviously, that’s ultra-simplistic but there is some broad truth to it, and it goes some way to understanding many of the problems in English football that have been compounded by COVID-19. It also makes clear to me that while the English Football pyramid should be an eco-system run for the benefit of all it is actually designed for just six clubs at the top who don’t really want to consider anybody but themselves. Increasingly it resembles a pyramid scheme – the money gets pumped in and stays at the top presumably until football in England is completely shaped by the ‘Big 6’ and everyone else follows the script by bankrupting themselves.
This is why I am generally proud and comfortable with how Norwich City is being run (the rights and wrongs of furloughing staff earlier this year is something I reserve judgement on without knowing the intricate details of the club’s finances). We are in a stronger position than many and that is to be commended.
The pressure from the fans is still there and is understandable. As I said before, for years we have been sold the idea there is only one way to be successful and the club were standing at odds with that even before Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke arrived. This means, unlike many clubs outside the Premier League, we at least have some control over our own destiny. This summer’s recruitment – with eyes both on the present and the future – should show that groundwork has been and is being done without a reliance on handouts from the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United (excepting parachute payments and player sales, of course).
I like to think of our club as being run like a business with a firm community wellbeing or social value conscience. That has its limitations and is not as exciting as having a Saudi Prince or unscrupulous sports utilities owner throwing cash around for a season or two but it may be the best way to cope with the current crisis and the kind of power grabs that the club have no real control over.
I’ve seen some comments about how relegation has taken away our power to influence at such a crucial time and this is used as another stick to beat the club with. The problem I see with this statement is that it is about 25 years too late. Being founder members of the Premier League means nothing now, as evidenced by the patronising treatment we receive when we are there.
The reality is we are a moderately sized, self-funded and well-run club swimming against the tide and doing things our way instead of the way that everyone else does. It gives us a relatively solid footing in these difficult times.
Now, that might not guarantee success (but then English football consistently shows that for most team’s money does not do that either). Hell, it might make it even more unlikely, but each victory is truly our own, earned by doing things the right way.
And when things really come together, like two seasons ago, well, I would not trade that for all the Premier League Fool’s Gold in the world.