When John Buchan wrote his most famous book in 1915, he probably did not envisage that his indomitable hero Richard Hannay might be a precedent for the machinations of English top-flight football a century on. In “The Thirty-Nine Steps” Hannay’s enduring ability to avoid the tightest of scrapes with the forces of evil and become the archetypal ‘man-on-the-run’ is reminiscent of the Premier League’s relentless pursuit of staging an additional game outside England. The modern version has reared its head once again in the last week.
The idea has been doing the rounds for many a year and it does not seem to be going away anytime soon as it keeps resurfacing despite concerted opposition. For example, almost seven years ago The Guardian’s Owen Gibson wrote: “The so-called 39th game idea, which would have meant an extra round of fixtures played abroad, was abandoned in 2008 under pressure from fans, the media and governing bodies and ruled out again by the chief executive of Premier League, Richard Scudamore, in 2010.”
“The clubs wanted it then and they all would still probably want it now,” Scudamore said in October 2014. “It will happen at some point. Whether it is on my watch, who knows?” One thing we do know for sure is that it won’t happen under Scudamore, who was replaced by Richard Masters as the Premier League’s head honcho in November 2019. Masters raised the possibility of this being back on the negotiation table at a recent shareholders meeting. The US, China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are tipped to be in the running to host such matches as they are all considered as markets ripe for the Premier League’s never-ending search for new fans.
Gibson highlighted the success of American sports exporting games, and since then Tottenham’s impressive new stadium has opened with its ready-made astroturf NFL pitch built beneath the standard football one. “But, given the widespread acceptance of playing regular-season NFL and NBA games in London, there is a growing belief that a version of the idea could be dusted down before the end of the decade. Building on the lessons of the previous aborted attempt, it would be likely to take the form of an existing round of fixtures played over a single weekend – a ‘38th game’ rather than a 39th.”
We have now reached the end of the decade to which Gibson refers but this international game has still not materialised but as the popularity of the Premier League seems to know no bounds there is an appetite to make the most of its global appeal. There are only five countries in the world – Afghanistan, Cuba, Moldova, North Korea and Turkmenistan – that do not receive coverage. In reaching almost a billion homes with the overall audience estimated to be just shy of four billion – over half the world’s population – the Premier League is keen to exploit its title as the most watched league.
As The Athletic’s David Ornstein exclusively revealed that rather than pushing for an internationally based game as part of the regular season, there are tentative plans for an enhanced overseas pre-season tournament. Previous incarnations include the Premier League Asia Trophy, which was last held in China in 2019 featuring Manchester City, Newcastle, West Ham and Wolves before the Covid pandemic kiboshed any chance of another.
Naturally, fan groups representing clubs in England are implacably opposed to the exporting of any meaningful game to other countries. There is already simmering resentment amongst supporters that kick-off times are dictated by television, which makes following one’s club so much more arduous and complicated. It is bad enough for fans being forced to travel up and down the country for Saturday lunchtimes or Friday evenings. If Newcastle fans are incensed of having to travel to Brighton for a 5.30 kick-off on Saturday 6th November just imagine the rightful furore that would be ignited by a game being played in Beijing or Los Angeles.
Having said that, supporters cannot stand in the way of their clubs going east, north, south or west for lucrative pre-season friendlies. When Manchester United met Real Madrid in Michigan a few years ago, the game was played out in front of 109,000 fans, dwarfing the highest attendances domestically. That would have whetted the appetite of many owners and especially so for the likes of American owners such as the Glazers and Liverpool’s Fenway Sports Group. There may be an element of shuffling this through under the radar as a least worst option and in the wake of the twin failures of Project Big Picture and The Super League [https://bit.ly/3gziruc] to gain acceptance, the idea of a match being played abroad appears relatively harmless, benign even.
There is a bitter irony that in post-Brexit Britain when, as a nation, we have become more inward-looking and insular that the focus of the Premier League is very much towards foreign markets and global expansion. Since the original proposal back in 2008 this is the latest in a handful of attempts to introduce the concept of a match to be held outside these shores. This is a tale of three Richards and it remains to be seen if Masters can succeed where Scudamore failed in becoming football’s twenty-first century Hannay. They may have only taken a handful of steps so far and there is a long way to go before they reach the 39th step to finally get that much talked about 39th game.