As the curtain came down on the Premier League’s latest stage production, the fortunes and failures of all clubs were carved into history. Every sports desk immediately released their “2022/23 SEASON REVIEW” and finally we knew how to feel about the last 38 league games our team played.
And then the rumour mill begins. Tedious Fabrizio Romano chat becomes increasingly inescapable at the pub. My homepage becomes a quagmire of “5 players your club MUST sign next season”’s. We eagerly anticipate the upcoming 38 matches harbouring anything from quiet confidence to full-blown this-is-our-year-ism!
But, look at a table comparing 21/22 with 22/23 of The Best League in the World™ and what really changed from one season to another?
Chelsea imploded as they are wont to occasionally do, while Spurs and Liverpool’s poor showings left Champions League football seemingly up for grabs. Brighton, Brentford and Fulham all had exceptional seasons with performances and results beyond the wildest dreams of their supporters.
Yet they still had to settle for a season in the Europa League at best, while the usual contenders will surely come back stronger next season.
All this to say, for fans that don’t follow one of the mega clubs, what’s the point? What are we really looking forward to next season that will be different from the one just gone?
“But, Paddy…” I pretend to not hear you say.
“But Paddy, WHAT ABOUT NEWCASTLE?!?” I groan.
Newcastle: A Spring for success?
On the 7th October 2021 Newcastle United were 19th in the Premier League having earned just three points from a possible 21.
On the same day the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia bought the club and within a month had replaced Steve Bruce with Eddie Howe as manager. Some shrewd January signings, coupled with the clear coaching upgrade saw them finish a very respectable 11th.
More impressive work in the transfer market and a managerial masterclass from Howe saw them finish last season in 4th and qualify for the Champions League.
Cue pandemonium and joy for every Newcastle United fan, right? Maybe not.
John Hird is a lifelong Newcastle fan from Felling and he speaks nostalgically of his early days going to St James’ Park, first with his dad, and then using his dad’s season ticket when it was passed on.
He passionately refers to Newcastle as “My club”, though ever since the Mike Ashley days he’s found himself protesting ownerships as much as enjoying success on the pitch.
Referring to those years under Ashley in which the club were relegated, promoted and then in perpetual dogfight for survival, he tells me:
“You could see that Newcastle weren’t gonna go anywhere with Ashley and there was also this other side […] There was the ‘Sports Direct shame’, which we had a campaign against.
“I spoke at a demo outside the club shop on the main street in Newcastle and there was a march to the ground and it was linking together the two issues – the mismanagement of the club, but also how he treated his workers as well with the zero hour contracts.
“It was awful to suffer it, but it’s like going from the frying pan and into the fire. If fans could rightly complain about Ashley’s zero hour contracts, why can’t we complain and protest about the human rights abuses that they’re [Saudi Arabia] committing on a daily basis.”
The idea that John and the rest of the campaign group Newcastle United Fans Against Sportswashing can’t protest against the regime is something that he later refers to as a “very unspoken pact of silence.”
He adds: “I think there’s a lot of people thinking they’re gonna get something outta this.
They think we’re gonna win something. They’re doing mental handstands, jumping around in circles and saying ‘oh, it’s got nothing to do with us.’
“Basically most people have decided we’re not gonna say anything ‘cause they like it [the success on the pitch].”
He describes these fans as the ambivalent majority. The supporters who’d rather have different owners but also won’t end their lifelong support over something seemingly out of their control. After all, they didn’t ask for this, why shouldn’t they enjoy their club’s newfound successes?
John talks of the traditions of the area – the historic support for trade unions, upholding democracy and opposing racism, and while he is disappointed the majority of fans aren’t supporting these values, it’s clear he places the blame elsewhere.
He says: “The main point is the gatekeepers of local Geordie public opinion – that’s the fanzine editors, official fan groups, the Evening Chronicle,the politicians, who are mostly Labour, have not done their job. They’ve not kept to their commitments.
“That’s all we’re saying. Keep to the commitments that most of them actually said before the takeover. They said that they would be a critical friend to the new owners, and that means raising human rights issues […] but none have actually bothered to mention any of the absolutely horrendous cases that are going on at the moment.”
As John continues to protest it strikes me he’s facing a form of resistance from all directions.
The ambivalent majority who would rather he focused on the success on the pitch, in addition to threats from a vocal minority on Twitter who have declared him an enemy of the club, with the final kicker of the friends who have given up their season tickets because the club no longer represents them.
I wonder whether he might prefer to join the silent majority, but he’s uncompromising:
“Basically, I don’t see any glory in winning this way.
“I started supporting Newcastle long before the Saudi dictators came in. And we’ll be here long after they’ve been kicked out.”
The Premier League’s Financial Hellscape
So, how did we get here? How utterly broken has the Premier League become for a club’s fans to think that it’s worth staying quiet over human rights abuses from their owners for a sniff of success?
I speak with football finance expert and host of the Price of Football podcast Kieran Maguire to better understand the financial hellscape of a Premier League club vying for success.
He says: “On average the Big Six have a £330 mil per year advantage over the remainder of the Premier League. Manchester City generates £600 mil per year, Manchester United high £500 mil.
“At the bottom of the Premier League, we’re probably looking at revenues of £85- £130 million whereas it averages around £450 mil for the Big Six.”
The biggest clubs have this financial advantage purely through their own successes. Champions League participation alone can give them a £100 mil advantage over the rest of the league, while sponsorship opportunities are also greatly elevated by playing in Europe’s elite competition and at the top of the Premier League.
It’s tempting to wonder where Financial Fair Play (FFP) fits in with all of this, if clubs have such a clear economic advantage which is being compounded year on year, then surely there are measures in place to level the playing field. I ask Kieran and he claims this is simply not the case.
He explains: “The purpose of Financial Fair Play is to preserve the gap, to act as a glass ceiling between the elite clubs and the aspirational clubs.
“Those clubs are handicapped under FFP and that’s its purpose, it’s not to create a level playing field. And UEFA – at least they’ve been honest enough to admit that… They say it’s to try to ‘preserve clubs’, but it’s actually more inclined to make it more difficult / impossible for the likes of Aston Villa to break into the cartel.
“Although it can be done, as we’ve seen in the case of Newcastle, who have taken advantage – if we’re honest – of a very poor season by Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool on the pitch.”
If we’re saying Newcastle is the blueprint, then how have they done it? We know PIF has more than enough money to bankroll success, but how will they do it while getting through FFP?
Well it turns out having to turn a blind eye to the human rights offences of the regime at the helm of your club isn’t the only thing you have to live through. This golden season for Newcastle hasn’t only come about thanks to the faltering of the top sides – the feverish frugality of Mike Ashley has also played a key part in allowing the club to now invest and seize the day.
Kieran adds: “Whilst he is the Lord Voldemort of Tyneside, in the sense that he showed very little ambition being an owner, in making the club challenging, Mike Ashley actually left behind a very good FFP portfolio because under the rules you’re allowed to lose £105 mil over three years, he probably left behind a profit of £110 mil based on my calculation.”
To recap: in order to break the Big 6’s stranglehold on the top of the Premier League you need:
- Multi-billionaire owners (and to look the other way from where the money comes from)
- At least three of the Big 6 to have an off season
- To be so low in ambition in the boardroom over the three prior years that you somehow turn a profit allowing for investment at the right time
All of this just seems a bit unfair to me; I ask whether we can expect things to get fairer in the future and the answer I get is decidedly bleak.
Kieran tells me: “I would be very surprised if a level playing field is created because the last thing that the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester United want is a competitive football environment.
“I think you have to be very careful with fairness. Talk of fairness always tends to involve somebody richer than you becoming less richer than you, whereas you make pay your wealth advantage over those that are poorer than you.”
Leicester: A bleak Fall
Godwin’s law is the theory that the longer a discussion online goes on, the closer to 100% the probability of a comparison to the Nazis is.
In a similar vein, the longer you discuss the inequality of the Premier League due to explicit financial kneecapping, the closer to 100% the probability of a comparison to Leicester City 2015/16 is.
Because that was good, wasn’t it? Vardy, dilly ding dilly dong, Mahrez ‘n’ all that. There’s your proof the Premier League isn’t broken!
Last season Leicester City Football Club finished 18th and were relegated.
Not only did they struggle to keep up with the top 6 (later the top 17), but, as Leicester Mercury’s Chief Leicester City Reporter Jordan Blackwell tells me, the feel-good feeling began to dissipate as well.
He says: “The relationship between the fans and the club was really good and the fans felt like the owners really cared about the team and the team’s success.
“And fans felt that the club cared about them as supporters which I think is a rarity and I think that’s probably dwindled a little bit over the past couple of years.”
What happened to the feel-good factor that seemed to illuminate the city of Leicester between 2015-20 and which led to them regularly being held up as the example for mid-table fans to wish for?
Jordan points out that there wasn’t a string of bad decisions to hang their demise on. There wasn’t a catastrophic falling out between owner and fan, and there weren’t demonstrably poor performances on the pitch until 18 months ago.
He adds: “The key thing for me was that there was a novelty about winning the title. And in the following year, obviously being in the Champions League, that was a new experience.
“All of a sudden, that level of success – and particularly when they finished fifth twice in a row as well, and won the FA Cup – that sort of success becomes the norm.
“I mean, partly because the club was spending money on big players, they were one of the biggest payers of wages.
“So with those sorts of things, you do expect more success. But I think that changes the feeling around a club, because you get this sense that when you win it’s a relief and when you lose, it’s a disaster.
That’s what was lost I think. I think the excitement was lost throughout the city.”
Newcastle fans beware. What happens when success becomes the norm? The highs become less high and anything other than looking upwards is a disaster.
However, it is true the Magpies are unlikely to suffer from the same drying up of funds that signalled the beginning of the demise on the pitch for the Foxes.
Jordan explains: “The owners’ money-making business was in duty-free tourism and that’s obviously harmed by the pandemic. So that didn’t help and it meant there were cost cutting measures in the summer, but it just felt like they weren’t probably doing quite enough in trying to get around those issues.
“For me, it felt like there weren’t necessarily always bad decisions, but it was a lot of just not making a decision.
“I think they thought they could sort of have a fallow year and they could just leave the club untouched for a year. Everything would be fine, then they’d get to this summer and then they could start again.”
In the end it’s not in the top flight that Leicester City will be starting again as they became the first club of the Premier League era to be relegated following five successive top-half finishes.
The dream for a mid-table football fan then? Grab any money that comes your way, whether it be coloured crimson or oil black, and don’t ask any questions.
If you’re lucky, your last few seasons will have been so miserable that FFP doesn’t bring you crashing to Earth.
And then pray the money doesn’t dry up because past success only shades future success and if you start going backwards, you may fall into the dark abyss of… The Football League. Gasp!
Existential crisis? What existential crisis?