The dust barely had time to form let alone to settle when the whole edifice came tumbling down. As fans gathered outside Stamford Bridge to express their opposition to the formation of the Super League there were already cracks appearing within the dozen clubs. The protests had been gathering ever since the news broke on Sunday. The timing of that announcement was interesting to say the least, a case of trying to get it out under the radar. It failed dismally because football supporters never sleep.
It’s pretty certain that those behind the Super League failed to detect the irony that the 17th April – the eve of the news coming out – marked the 133rd anniversary of The Football League. That the original concept of the Super League barely lasted 48 hours in contrast to the longevity of English football’s foundation clearly illustrates that money is not omnipotent. While it would be naive to suggest that money is not a prime driver of football ownership, this just might be an opportunity to redress the balance and restore the idea that clubs’ primary responsibility is at the heart of the community.
It is worth looking at what the man behind the formation of the Football League, William McGregor, wrote about any future changes in 1905 – “I wonder what would happen if you could blot out the league system from sport from this day onward? I wonder who would be the better for it? Ninety-nine players out of a hundred, and ninety-nine clubs out of a hundred, would be infinitely worse off, because no principle ever formulated in connection with sport has caused so much really genuine, bona-fide competition as the league system.”
The fact that the very notion of a closed league sparked such universal condemnation is in many ways reassuring. Gary Neville was one of the most vociferous critics, and considering his love of Manchester United he did not hold back with his views on a highly charged Monday Night Football alongside Jamie Carragher, crystallising many people’s thoughts in a scathing attack on his own club, which he had launched straight after the United Burnley game.
“I’m ashamed of them,” Neville said. “Absolutely ashamed for two reasons; one, that they want to sign up for a competition that is ‘franchise football’ essentially with no promotion or relegation. That is not the ethos or the ethic that Manchester United was built on. The second reason is the timing of it, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of an economic crisis in this world to demonstrate greed rather than compassion is an absolute shocker.”
Neville then turned his ire on Liverpool – “Liverpool football club, Liverpool the club of the people, you’re a shambles just like this lot are here. You’re all the same. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and all that rubbish we listen to and the stuff about looking after things. I’m absolutely livid.” Carragher joined Neville in castigating his former club as “an embarrassment.” Neville correctly predicted what was going to materialise. “The proposal will get kicked out, the fans will hate it, governments will hate it, Fifa will hate it, Uefa will hate it, the Premier League have already come out and said they hate it, you’ll hate it, I’ll hate it.”
While it is easier to fire arrows when you are a pundit and no longer inside the game the thoughts of those still involved in the game were hardly less damning, and even managers and players of the six English clubs were steadfast in their opposition to the very notion of a closed league. Pep Guardiola pointed out that “it is not a sport if you can’t lose.” Liverpool’s captain Jordan Henderson, backed by his teammates made the players’ views very clear. “We don’t like it one bit and we don’t want it to happen. This is our collective position. Our commitment to this football club and its supporters is absolute and unconditional.”
Such was the unprecedented furore over this that the government declared that it would bring in legislation to halt its progress as it was anti-competitive. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby voiced his displeasure while pointing out that several clubs were founded by the church, reminding the clubs that their role in the community was an essential element of their foundation and should remain so.
I am proud that my club’s chairman, Steve Parish was among the most eloquent and damning critics and he pointed towards the possibility that this just could be the tipping point for football when the relentless, selfish dash for cash might just have got its comeuppance. As the Big Six’s greed has been exposed and successfully resisted for the time being, now is the time to change things.
“This was a coup to try and steal football,” Parish told BBC Breakfast. “And what happened was, which is fascinating, is fans, players and staff said: ‘We are going to fight for the right to lose’. We don’t want to be in some kind of elite where there is no jeopardy and no risk.” He continued with a note of optimism – “This is a fantastic day for football, but let’s not rest here and allow them to bank the gains that they got before.”
In the wake of the collapse of the Super League, Arsenal and Liverpool apologised to their supporters – the very people that they should have consulted in the first place. Trying to sneak this through the back door of The Emirates or Anfield failed, and to publish these mealy-mouthed mea culpas was just another exercise in public relations rather than heartfelt contrition. If they really respected their supporters then surely those very supporters should have been represented in discussing such a radical departure. The fans’ opposition to this was powerful and made more so by the swathe of football voices such as Neville, Guardiola and Henderson who all expressed their indignation. The message to the owners is clear: do not underestimate the bond between clubs and supporters and do not mess with the fundamentals of our game.
“The [Super] league’s biggest impact would be to blow up football’s cornerstones: competition and tradition.” This is not the view of a football insider, it is not the view of a fan-based organisation but it comes from Simon Kuper of The Financial Times, a publication many would associate with capitalism. Kuper also rightly pointed out that originally the FA used to forbid owners from profiting from their investment by statute. Those were the days, but the rule was changed in the late 1980s, just before the creation of the Premier League.
And so back to Stamford Bridge where a game took place as the protests continued outside. Chelsea and Brighton drew a blank in a match that had few inspiring moments but it was a game that had repercussions for many clubs. West Ham and Leicester were among the clubs who would have been delighted that Chelsea did not collect three points while Fulham and West Brom would have regretted that Brighton moved further away from relegation by earning their first ever point at Stamford Bridge. There, in essence, is why a league system based on merit works, because matches do have an impact on other clubs and history adds both colour and context. The fact that the Super League offered none of these is why it failed so quickly and so categorically.