Saturday, 12 June 2021

Fans on Board? That wouldn't be Super

The European Super League (ESL), conceived by a cabal of financially distressed continental clubs and financially greedy American owners of Premier League clubs, went from launch to collapse in around 48 hours. A lot of the credit was ascribed to the howls of protest from fans of the prospective ESL clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in particular. Journalists such as David Walsh in the Sunday Times and Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail pretty well said "it woz the fans wot dun it". Many did indeed make their views very plain, Chelsea fans saying they wanted their cold nights in Stoke and Inter Milan's Ultras (not a widely praised group hitherto) saying they weren't interested in the Inter v Bayern, Real Madrid or Man City games without the away day in Prague or even "the 24 hours to Benevento and back in the car". (Benevento is somewhere near Naples). I commend them all for their opposition to closed shop competitions. And there clearly was an impact on owners - John Henry of  Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, especially. I'm not so sure about Arsenal's Stan Kroenke, hide of a rhino I suspect. But I'm also not sure that the fan reaction was the biggest factor.

The strong push back from UEFA was to be expected and was commendably quick and firm. It was UEFA's Champions League that was really in the sights of the breakaway group at this stage. The ESL clubs had realised that there are actually plenty of fans like me who have zero interest in group matches between them and BATE Borisov or Sparta Prague, let alone matches between teams like those two. So UEFA's truly awful tweak to the Champions League, guaranteeing entry to clubs with recent history of success who would otherwise miss out through their abominable and anti-competitive "club coefficient" concept wasn't enough for the likes of Juventus. They just wanted the marquee fixtures. The same ones, year after year.... boring!

UEFA reacted by threatening things that football authorities around the world have retained as powers for pretty much the whole history of the sport: expulsion from all officially sanctioned competitions for the clubs and their players. No World Cup for any of you! It was hard not to laugh as UEFA's spineless approach to the big clubs over the last 20 years helped to create the situation in the first place.

But I don't think UEFA's reaction was the biggest factor either. Firstly it would have been anticipated by the clubs and their legal advisers, who no doubt had looked into things like competition law. Oh, UEFA could have carried out their banning threats but would have been beset by injunctions which might well have allowed the ESL to launch without sanctions. And once launched it would have been harder to kill. Secondly, FIFA was suspiciously quiet on the matter, so it's not clear they would have backed UEFA up. The World Cup is FIFA's competition after all. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that FIFA quite fancied a world scale version of the ESL.

I felt queasy when the UK government waded in, possibly driven by the desire to seize on a populist issue, because I don't like politicians meddling in sport. Indeed on this and many other issues I long for the days when ministers used to bat away parliamentary questions with a dead bat, saying "that is a matter for the Football Association" or whatever body had responsibility, rather than commenting on and interfering in anything and everything.

However, unlike many journalists, I think the Prime Minister's threat to drop a "legislative bomb" on the ESL was material and quite possibly the biggest single factor. I can imagine the legal advisers of the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal had told their principals that they could deal with UEFA's threats via competition or other laws giving folk the right to go about their business and earn a living. But when the Prime Minister of their clubs' host country talks of a legislative bomb... 

For a start, exactly what does that mean? I've been critical of Boris Johnson's poor communication skills during the pandemic. He waffles, he makes things up on the spot, he uses confusing language and obscure analogies. The comparison with Mark Drakeford's clear coronavirus briefings in Wales has been stark. But on the Super League the PM, probably unintentionally and inadvertently, played a blinder.

The total lack of clarity and bewildering uncertainty behind the phrase "legislative bomb", especially when combined with the suggestion that competition law could be amended, would have left those expensive American lawyers saying something like "we don't know how to advise you on that". "But we're punting billions on this". "Yes, but we can't advise you how laws that haven't been passed will operate". The clincher was Johnson saying space would be found in the parliamentary legislative programme.

When the least enthusiastic of the ESL members, Chelsea and Manchester City, pulled out the house of cards collapsed remarkably quickly. Indeed I should perhaps see City in a new light. Unlike the American owners of Premier League teams, who are all ultimately in it to make a buck, their owners - and Chelsea's Roman Abramovich - are in it for glory and prestige.

It was just as well it did collapse quickly. Had the ESL clubs got more of an act together, I had wondered on day one of the two whether they would seduce clubs like Everton and West Ham with the promise "be patient, there will soon be an ESL 2". So I was pleased to see Everton come out very strongly on the morning of day 2, before the other 14 Premier League clubs had even met. Saying the club was "saddened and disappointed to see proposals of a breakaway league pushed forward by six clubs" they went on to say (amongst other things):

"Six clubs acting entirely in their own interests.

Six clubs tarnishing the reputation of our league and the game.

Six clubs choosing to disrespect every other club with whom they sit around the Premier League table.

Six clubs taking for granted and even betraying the majority of football supporters across our country and beyond.

At this time of national and international crisis – and a defining period for our game – clubs should be working together collaboratively with the ideals of our game and its supporters uppermost.

Instead, these clubs have been secretly conspiring to break away from a football pyramid that has served them so well."


"This preposterous arrogance is not wanted anywhere in football outside of the clubs that have drafted this plan.

On behalf of everyone associated with Everton, we respectfully ask that the proposals are immediately withdrawn and that the private meetings and subversive practises that have brought our beautiful game to possibly its lowest ever position in terms of trust end now."

(It was strong stuff. There was more...!) Some cynics said this was rich as Everton had been one of five clubs considering breaking away from the Football League in the developments that led up to the founding of the Premier League in 1992. Others noted that the Premier League itself was a breakaway, though promotion and relegation were of course maintained - the Premier League was about the clubs controlling TV rights. Others said Everton were only coming out so strongly because they hadn't been invited to join the ESL. But Everton's majority owner, Farhad Moshiri, gave a two word answer on talkSPORT to the question would Everton ever join any kind of super league: "Never. Never". (Actually I suppose that's a one word answer...) While delighted that Moshiri had invested in Everton, I always wondered what he was in it for and, I suppose, whether he could be trusted. I shouldn't have doubted that Bill Kenwright would only sell to someone he was confident in. I expect there will be some tension in the air when the Everton directors next meet their equivalents from the Premier League red group (Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal).

Moshiri didn't stop there, calling for the breakaway six to be disciplined, possibly by points deductions. I didn't think that was right. Everton had an interest in qualifying for Europe which, without points deductions, they blew. And the core of Everton's case was that success should be earned on the pitch. Fines? Well that's now been done, though at a trivial level, with the six clubs making a "goodwill" payment of £22m - small change for them. I didn't see fines as appropriate as the Super League idea was so short lived there was no damage to the other clubs which needed financial reparation. And the six clubs will have suffered significant abortive costs. Indeed the fact that Juve, Real and Barca haven't yet quit the ESL is presumably just to avoid having to pay their share of the costs. But as this "goodwill" money will go to grass roots and community projects it makes some sense.

I think it's more important to see if the rules and constitution of the Premier League need changing to prevent the problem re-emerging later. Which it will, as the idea has been around for ages. And, while it was the Champions League in the six clubs gunsights this time, their equally awful Project Big Picture announced and rapidly binned last year was aimed at giving them more power in the Premier League. After all, getting a slice of the TV revenues raked in by the Premier League is why Juve and Real Madrid were prepared to consider clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham "super".

What is important now is that a window of opportunity exists for the FA, the Premier League and its 14 non ESL clubs to make those changes. And fortunately a far sighted man - surprisingly Ken Bates, then of Chelsea - saw to it at the establishment of the Premier League that 14 votes carries the day. This was because he was worried about the then so called big 5 getting up to mischief. (The five were Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. No, Chelsea and Man City weren't "big" then, kids!) With the 14 clubs pretty united at the moment almost any rule change aimed at preventing a repeat of the ESL or Big Picture proposals would stand a fair chance of being implemented.

Plenty of commentators have noted the need to act quickly. But to enact what exactly?  The clubs have put in place a rule which would mean larger fines and a significant points reduction next time, though I worry how next time can be defined. Is that enough? I don't think so.

Martin Samuel wrote in the Daily Mail sensibly suggesting template Articles of Association which all clubs would have to implement and which would tie the hands of club owners. These included heritage protecting statements such as "The name of this club is...."  to prevent renaming, such as when an owner once attempted change the Hull City to Hull Tigers. And "the club's main colours shall be...." e.g. blue in the case of Cardiff City. This is all good, important stuff but, unusually for Samuel, rather seemed to miss the point.

What else would I do, besides binding the clubs to the Premier League? Well firstly - and perhaps obtusely - I'd scrap or heavily modify the Financial Fair Play rules which are designed to preserve the closed shop at the top of the game. "We don't want any more Leicester's" an un-named executive at one of the ESL clubs is supposed to have said. My inclination would be to scrap FFP but the fact that Manchester City and PSG are owned by one of the richest sovereign wealth funds does make me queasy and is the reason I would be more inclined to heavily modify FFP.

Fans need hope and FFP practically eliminates the prospect of major investment allowing a club to break into the very big time. Jack Walker couldn't take Blackburn to the Premier League title now. The argument that it is to protect clubs from going bust is blatantly fallacious. For a start most super-rich owners want the club to become sustainable having reached their holy grail, even Roman Abramovich. Maybe a simple rule could prevent a small number of clubs going out of reach of the rest by having an absolute cap on spending on playing squads at all clubs, excluding projects such as new stadia and training grounds. What could be fairer than that?

I accept that, as FFP is fundamentally a UEFA concept modifying it can't all be done from England. So the Premier League 14 need to gang up with their equivalents in other countries to press for club representation in UEFA to be completely overhauled. The clubs are represented by the European Club Association which was a thinly disguised modification of the G14 group of "super" clubs. Oh sure there are "associated members", in England's case Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Leicester top up the founding members which were basically the Super League cabal. ECA is in a state of flux after the Super League group quit. A more democratic method of club representation is badly needed.  It might be possible to construct Premier League rules that binds any clubs representing English clubs at UEFA to act in accordance with the democratic will of the Premier League clubs.

Thirdly, anticipating that the above measure might not work, I would enact a Premier League rule that says a club cannot compete in European competition if it has finished behind a club that has not qualified. I promise you this is not gobbledegook. The UEFA plans to appease the super league clubs include use of historical coefficients which could mean a club like Liverpool could finish 5th but qualify in place of a club like Leicester finishing 4th. This idea is not totally anti-competitive as it does draw on historical performances but it undermines the concept of a football season and would pretty much preclude a club qualifying for the Champions League on the basis of a one off fourth place finish. Indeed, without getting into Europe a club can't bolster its coefficient so the proposal is basically a way of constructing a closed shop.

As such the proposal, due to be implemented from 2024, would seriously undermine the Premier League's attractiveness. The race for 4th place has become a major feature of the season. Indeed this time it produced one of the great moments of last season, or any other, when Liverpool's goalkeeper Alisson Becker scored a memorable headed goal in the last minute of their match at West Brom. If Liverpool had been sure of their place in the Champions League even if they had finished outside the top 4 would Alisson even have bothered going up for the corner? 

But remember UEFA want their Champions League to be the main event, they don't care about the Premier League and envy its commercial success. So a rule to frustrate such coefficients is needed.

What else? A more equitable distribution of revenues. The Super League clubs wanted the closed shop aspect of American franchises without the ruthlessly equal revenue distribution found in American sports. (Thank you Mikey47 for pointing this out to me). I've always said that the attractiveness of Premier League games between clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United is exactly that - it is a Premier League game, not an exhibition match. The league has 20 clubs. TV revenue should be shared equally. I'd let them keep their commercial revenues for shirt sales, etc though they don't in the NFL, it's all split between the clubs. The revenue distribution point must of course address future revenue sources, e.g. from streaming.

Some have argued for fan control or at least the ability to block proposals. No thanks. If you have ever played at any kind of sports club you will know this is a recipe for disaster.  If you haven't look at the comments on a fan forum for any club and you will soon see how unrealistic if not totally loony things could become. Brighton fans recently called for their club to sign a striker who could guarantee 30 goals a season in the top flight. OK, so within Europe that's only Messi or Lewandowski...

Anyway it would be no guarantee against super league type proposals. Those Manchester United fans on the pitch who caused the postponement of their match against Liverpool weren't protesting against the Super League, they were protesting about the club's ownership - and only because of their relative lack of success in recent years. A fan representative of the Man United board might well have thought guaranteed inclusion in a super league was a spiffing idea.

Fan control would also kill inward investment. Why would you spend billions on a Premier League club if you can't control it? Moreover, unless fan control is via a single golden share it would limit the potential for clubs to raise money from shareholders. Imagine if Liverpool or Manchester United were owned by the fans and a capital injection was needed. Sure, try going to 50,000 fans and asking for £1000 each. Even if the answer wasn't a raspberry you'd only raise £50 million. Manchester United currently has over £450 million of debt on its balance sheet.

But my big no-no would be anything to do with political interference. If you have any doubt how little politicians understand football and just how much these jumped up preening jackasses like pandering to what they think is popular then look at almost anything the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has ever said on football. Its chair, Julian Knight, criticised Premier League clubs for using the furlough scheme. He "called out" the clubs for using government money to pay their non-playing staff while at the same time paying top wages to players and called for a "windfall tax". 

Pause for a moment to just consider the absolute stupidity of such remarks. Companies carrying out to any and every activity across the economy could use furlough. Wealthy individuals, from sheiks to oligarchs could benefit. But a marginal Premier League club like Burnley were supposed to keep their ticketing staff on with nothing to do. Oh sure they could sell a player, making relegation more likely and prejudicing the jobs of those ticket staff in the future. The furlough scheme was designed to protect jobs and those ticketing staff are just as worthy as employees of companies which don't happen to be engaged in football. Sure the wages of the players are preposterous but I didn't hear any call for the wages of other high earners, such as BBC "talent", to be cut.* 

Moreover, how could a windfall tax be imposed on companies losing money (which most premier League clubs do)? This was ill thought out, easy publicity seeking. By an MP who wrote a book on how to avoid inheritance tax. Hypocrite.

Ministers have been no sounder on football. In the early days of the first lockdown Hatt Mancock called for Premier League players to set an example and take a pay cut without saying why he had singled out this group or explaining just how the government collecting less in tax (which ultimately comes from mugs like me paying dosh to Sky) could conceivably help the NHS.

I have a word (well I think it's a word) for this kind of nonsense....[REDACTED]

I don't know whether the ESL clubs had a good business model anyway. I can't tell how many football fans, like me, are not very interested in those marquee matches. I can occasionally show some interest in, say, Barcelona v Liverpool or Man United when it is a knockout match with something significant at stake. But the Champions League group matches between teams like these have been a yawn. In the early group stages they are cagey affairs. Later in the group it is often already well on the way to being decided. Maybe it's just me, but I think the fans of Villa, Newcastle and the Baggies probably feel the same way. Of course those fans (and me) weren't the target of the ESL, that is the international audience.

But there was a potential upside of the Super League: I wouldn't have had to watch as much football, which would probably have been good for my blood pressure. And made me more pleasant to live with - after all I don't shout and swear at the TV when the golf or cricket are on.....

*It is worth noting that Everton's players voluntarily accepted to defer pay and the club kept paying its casual staff like stewards throughout the lockdowns. 

The Everton board's statement on the ESL is at

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