It has long been said that football is a great reflector of society. In some ways that has seldom been more true than now. Back in March, as the Covid-19 pandemic first began to take hold and the United Kingdom went into lockdown, the sport did its bit. With no matches allowed, Premier League stadia devoid of football fans were made available to the NHS and the players made a collective decision to take a wage cut. All the while, the general public were obeying government rules and a collective spirit spread across the nation.
Fast-forward six months, and as the second wave gathers pace, the mood among the people is far removed from the all-in-it-together approach. Debates are raging on masks, social distancing, lockdowns, regional and national and whether health or the economy takes precedence. Football, meanwhile, has hardened its stance, too; any goodwill expected was thrown out of the window this week, twice.
The caveats to that rather sketchy comparison are two-fold; it was the footballers who deserved credit for the wage cut, not the clubs, authorities or television companies, who are right in the firing line following the latest news cycle. Some clubs also took a long time to refund supporters on season tickets, Newcastle United still haven’t done so, and the furlough scheme was used to avoid paying staff wages. Redundancies have become more common, too, all while the top-flight spent over £1bn on transfer fees,
Pay Per View Games
When football was able to commence again, doing so in mid-June at Premier League and Championship level, doing so under the guise of ‘Project Restart’, no supporters were allowed through the turnstiles. It was for this reason that, from League One downwards with the exception of the playoffs, all action was curtailed and seasons were scrapped. To compensate, football fans unable to attend games in the Premier League, a comprehensive, unique agreement was formed which made every match available to watch via either Sky Sports, BT Sport, Amazon Prime and the BBC.
Prior to a worrying rise in Covid-19 cases throughout September, when the new season started at all levels, the plan was for supporters to be eased back into grounds meaning there would be no need to carry on the temporary broadcasting agreement. However, in the week before the games started, the agreement was revived for the first month of the campaign after a backlash from those who would still be left without a chance to watch their team.
Plans were officially shelved as the health crisis deepened again and the broadcast agreement has finally gone with it. From now on, only the initially agreed matches will be shown on the television for Sky Sports and BT Sport subscribers; the other matches will be on their Box Office pay-per-view channels. Everyone, including those who already pay for the existing services, will need to part with a further £14.95 each time they watch one of the matches which would usually not be viewable in the UK. This starts from October 17, when Newcastle host Manchester United at 8pm.
No amount of negative press seems likely to force a u-turn here. Subscription services and hefty prices are nothing new to football fans but this announcement was a real sting in the tail after months of being told that they were the lifeblood of the game. That was hardly believable at all. In truth, changing kick off times and extortionate ticket prices bust the myth long ago. But at least now the cat is out of the bag, there can be no denying or spinning of this. Football fans have been treated with contempt in the most open way possible.
Project Big Picture
To make matters worse, over the weekend it emerged that plans for ‘Project Big Picture’ were being discussed. Essentially, Manchester United and Liverpool have devised an overhaul of English football which would see immense power shifted to a small number of clubs; namely the ‘top six’ and three others. That includes themselves, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Manchester City along with Everton, Southampton and West Ham United (the three longest serving ‘outsiders).
Among the proposals were reducing the Premier League from 20 teams to 18, scrapping the League Cup and even offering the top clubs a chance to veto a possible takeover elsewhere in the division. The Saudi Arabian-backed consortium’s failed bid to buy Newcastle was rumoured to have been rallied against by Liverpool and Tottenham, which the Premier League denied. After this news emerged, suspicion amongst those on Tyneside began to grow again. These clubs would also get a larger share of the revenue generated down the line.
There are some positive aspects to the plans; the EFL has been badly harmed by having no gate-receipts, which make up a huge proportion of their income. Calls for money to be funnelled down the league pyramid have been heeded, and there is a donation to the FA on offer too. Nobody would be against either but, unsurprisingly the whole thing has been met with a wall of disapproval.
In the argument about which is the best league in the world, competitiveness is the Premier League’s trump card. It has been proven this season already with two sides who are nowhere to be seen on the proposal, Leicester City and Aston Villa, scoring a combined 12 goals past Manchester City and Liverpool. The idea that the ‘top six’ even exists anymore is questionable; Leicester finished fifth last season and won the title in 2016, while Newcastle and Southampton have also broken down the barrier in the past decade.
English football’s excitement and unpredictability are supposedly things that everyone loves but if this week has shown anything it is that those at the top want nothing more than money and power. The sport is on its knees; core values have been lost, football fans are the fall guys once more.
The EFL supports the proposal because it is desperate for financial help. Discussions were tentatively underway but will now be pushed from the agenda as the mask slips and everybody comes to terms with what is really being suggested; a hostile takeover of the beautiful game and a power grab to make the rich richer.
It is unlikely to go through, because it needs 14 clubs to agree and the league itself has already condemned it. Nobody in their right mind would sign up to something which would make life tougher on themselves.
Whether it does or doesn’t happen isn’t really the point; top clubs have been pushing for a breakaway European Super League for years. This is just the latest example of the elite attempting to stack the deck in their favour. Whether it is clubs, organisations or broadcasters, nobody cares about what really matters to football fans anymore.
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