Captain Edmund Blackadder once said “This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact if you’ve got a moment it’s a twelve story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof saying ‘This is a Large Crisis’. A large crisis requires a large plan. Get me two pencils and a pair of underpants”.
This to me sums the state of English Football up nicely and the attempts so far to address its issues. It is in crisis. Let’s not kid ourselves and put our heads in the sand like true Britishers hoping that the problem will go away if we just ignore it. This current crisis is a shameful story of unsustainable yet seemingly relentless greed, extortionate ticket prices that have now filtered down the leagues, the working classes being priced out of the game completely, officious stewarding, no standing areas, poor performances by the national senior team and the recent abject capitulation of the under 21 side in Israel.
Unfortunately there is no one true answer to these problems. The new TV deal with BT, Sky and the Premier League (worth £5.5bn) means that more money than ever is flooding the game. You have to hand it to the marketing men, they really have made a truly global brand out of a much hyped league where the football isn’t sometimes as wonderful as is made out, where, despite the massive TV revenues and the never ending riches of foreign ownership, clubs still feel that they have to charge fans a premium price. If you don’t go to the stadium then you still pay to watch them with either Sky or BT. It is the promised land. The land where clubs in the Championship battle amongst themselves like a herd of water buffalo charging across a crocodile infested river only to reach the river bank with massive relief only to find a massive pack of hungry lions waiting to devour them on the other side. But its ok isn’t it? They’ll get a nice fat payment even if they go down. QPR for example received £39.7 million for finishing bottom and they’ll get parachute payments for the next four seasons of £16m+£16m+£8m+£8m. Manchester United for winning the premier league got £60.8 million. The difference between top and bottom of the Premier League in monetary terms is less than a Robin Van Persie. It sounds quite totalitarian doesn’t it?
Basically the monies are shared out equally. Each club got £13.8 million from the domestic TV market, £18.9 million from foreign TV markets and then the variance in the rest of the pot is down to the finishing position in the table (a so called merit payment, yep that includes QPR?) and an extra payment for the amount of live games each club participates in. The statistics will show amongst the top European leagues that the gap between rich and poor is the smallest in the English Premier League, where the official ratio between top and bottom is 1.53 to 1. This compares with the Bundesliga’s 2 to 1, Ligue 1’s 3.5 to 1, Serie A’s 10 to 1 and La Liga’s 14 to 1 when you take into consideration that both Barcelona and Real Madrid negotiate their own TV deals. However these figures don’t take into account the money accrued from Champions League and Europa League ties nor does factor in the extra revenue from the new £5.5 billion pound TV deal which would’ve meant Man United getting £100 million and QPR getting £60 million (3 or 4 Christopher Sambas).
So why is it getting so expensive to watch a game when the TV money itself should mean that clubs could, in theory, drop their entrance prices? Again it’s not simple and although you could compare the Premier League and the Bundesliga the top level statistics don’t really explain the differences. Last season Man United took almost £100 million through the turnstiles and Arsenal £92 million. Borussia Dortmund who averaged over 80,000 at the Westfalenstadion took just £25 million in gate receipts. They’ll get £12 million more for the recent sale of Götze. The price of seated accommodation at Bundesliga grounds is comparable with Premier League clubs. Not quite as high but not far off. Where the major difference is that Dortmund have a terrace that holds 33,000 people who all pay €190,5 Euros each for a season ticket (excluding cup matches). At Arsenal the cheapest season ticket starts at £985 which is more expensive than Man United’s most expensive (£935). Man United’s cheapest season ticket starts at £535 (16 quid more than Norwich City) whilst Arsenal’s most expensive comes in a giddy £1,955. I suppose you can’t really compare the prices here to the prices in Germany when German clubs don’t rip off the hardcore support who want to stand (€140 for a terrace season ticket at Bayern Munich). But they don’t seem to rip off those who wish to sit either. A season ticket for a standard “sitzplatz” in the Bundesliga will see you pay as little as €200 (Wolfsburg) and as much as €372 (Dortmund) and €380 (Freiburg). The most expensive season ticket seats in the Bundesliga range from €470 at Bayer Leverkusen to €861 at Dortmund. However despite the apparent disparity in ticket prices total revenues in the two leagues were £2.9bn in the premier league and £2.2bn in the Bundesliga.
Interestingly enough, there does seem to a comparison between entrance prices in Germany and England as you drop through the leagues. If you want to stand at a German football match the difference in price to stand at Wuppertal is only a few Euros away from what it costs at Dortmund. Last season the average ticket price in the premier league was £34. In the 4th division the price of admission has been steadily increasingly where it’s now a surprise to get in for less than 20 quid. 2 seasons ago I paid £25 to watch Torquay at Swindon Town. That was only a £2 increase when Torquay last played them back in 2005. Which ever you cut it that’s a shocking amount of money for 4th division football isn’t it? The main difference here between Germany and England is that in Germany they’ve decided on a price to stand and watch football that fans find acceptable, in England they charge what they can get away with charging in order to maximise revenue. It’s a subtle difference but an important one. Without pillorying the Bundesliga as a utopian beacon of a wonderful footballing model it does put the fans first before anything else. Without being too simplistic and sensationalist, when you can stand and watch football at all German 1st and 2nd Division clubs for more half the price of what you would have to pay to stand at Torquay United this season (£340, £295 on the “early bird scheme”), then you have a massive problem no matter what kind of spin you put on it. In fact for £315 (£25 less than Torquay) you can watch recently relegated Wigan all season plus all of their Europa League games. Even more bizarrely you could’ve got a season ticket at Manchester City for £299 even though they took almost £58 million in TV revenue alone last year. Economies of scale, price elasticity and revenue management is the order of the day in England.
So what’s the answer? Again it’s not simple. Football has to be affordable in order to be sustainable. At the moment the huge amount of money being generated in the Premier League stays in that league and the only time it comes out is down to the parachute payments made to clubs who’ve been relegated from that League. A little more has filtered down in the way of monies available to football league clubs signing up to the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan). This meant that the Premier League would increase funding to Football League Club’s academies providing they signed an agreement which would see less in the way of compensation being paid to clubs if Premier League clubs signed a player before he reached 17 years of age. But the main issue lies in lower division clubs not seeing enough of the revenue generated at the top of the game. It’s far more cost effective to spend the same amount of money on an established foreign international player than it is to spend it on a young, largely, unproven English talent from a lower league club. This old revenue stream for lower division clubs has largely dried up, if they’re not nicking players on the cheap before they turn 17 they’re certainly not buying them afterwards. The other issue is that wages have risen in the lower leagues as players demand a relative amount to what players receive in the big leagues and clubs like Torquay have little option to but to price accordingly knowing that they can charge a certain amount and still a motley hardcore of between 2,000-2,500 will turn up. In Torquay’s defence if you’re under 18 you can watch the team all season for less than £100 quid and the club have announced a £30 family ticket which compares favourably with an adult ticket at Paignton Zoo.
But it’s just chipping away at the surface of the problem. I think by adopting the German model and re-introducing terracing in the top two divisions it would help matters. The top English clubs can absorb the slight shortfall in revenue by charging people who sit the same price and it would help to regulate ticket prices and not completely kill of the link between the game of football in this country and the working class communities which helped build the clubs in the first place and who actually get some sort of atmosphere. Let’s not forget that The Taylor Report recommended all seated stadiums but didn’t rule out safe standing areas. So far though only Aston Villa have really shown an interest in safe standing areas. Villa are amongst the cheapest clubs in the Premier League already but there has been demand for non seating areas. Let’s face it. All seating and charging £985 for the cheapest season ticket hardly makes for the most raucous of atmospheres at Arsenal does it? Your average Arsenal supporter gets more enraged by the lack of Duchy’s Originals in Waitrose than he does by Arsene Wenger’s cautious transfer market expenditure. I know Arsenal season ticket holders who want to stand up and shout at “The Emirates” (I hate that expression by the way) but are surrounding by people of a different demographic who don’t. There has been a few schemes to try and sit the noisier fans together in stadiums but it just doesn’t work as well as it does when you have terracing. Again Germany seems to be the model but the atmosphere does lack a little spontaneity
To be fair to Arsene, he is trying to cling on to some sort of sustainable model. When you look at all the Premier League clubs it’s not difficult to see that the two most successful clubs (Manchester United and Arsenal) have built their success on a sustainable model and have a long term plan for the clubs. The two other most successful clubs are not based on this type of model. Chelsea owe their existence and sustainability to a very rich Russian gentleman alone and the new upstarts in Manchester would be nothing without the money in the middle east, but even they refused (allegedly) to pay over €65 million for Napoli’s Edinson Cavani. Liverpool are showing signs on wanting to develop their club properly after the daft sums of money that went down the drain on Carroll, Henderson and Downing. Randy Lerner’s Aston Villa also seem to be fully committed to building a young side with a sustainable business and football model.
The last crisis regarding English football is the national team or its direct issue of the quality of English players we as a country produce. Currently Roy Hodgson has to choose a national squad from mainly a division where only 36% are available for national team selection. Such is the clamour to stay in the totalitarian gravy train that clubs (apart from Man United, Arsenal and Everton) are seemingly loathe to risk bloody young English players even though their academies are scooping up the best local talent at a young age, pay them handsomely and then dump them into the real world when they aren’t going to get a first team berth. A lot of these players get dumped by the bigger clubs at an age where they should’ve had 50-100 first team appearances but the majority are joining lower division clubs without much experience and find the transition hard work. It’s all very well being technically gifted but it doesn’t make you a fit for purpose player lower down the leagues. Tom Cruise arrived at Plainmoor at the start of last season from Arsenal. He played against Olympiakos in the Champions league but made his debut for Torquay as a substitute at Highbury. That’s Highbury in Fleetwood by the way. He’s a neat and tidy player but hardly fit for division 4 football. By the end of the season however he’d replaced experienced left back Kevin Nicholson and started to look the part, more importantly looking like he understood the requirements of lower league football. In my opinion the bigger clubs are keeping these young players for far too long in reserve and academy football because they are scared of another club snapping them up and succeeding where they have failed. I call that the Marko Reus syndrome who was released by Dortmund, snapped up by Aalen, then found his way to Borussia Mönchengladbach before Dortmund had to part with over 17 million Euros to bring him back into the fold.
There are signs of hope and small shoots of recovery in the midst of this gloomy crisis. I think Roy Hodgson is the right man for the job, he knows his onions internationally. I’m glad Stuart Pearce has finally got the chop as under 21 coach and I hope that the FA are brave enough to appoint someone with vision. The under 20’s showed the other night against Iraq that they a) treated the ball with care and b) showed tactical awareness even though they were ultimately undone by a slightly more experienced team. With Dan Ashton heading up the FA’s technical coaching team you can only hope that the next generations of English talent will be fit for purpose, to be technically and tactically adept as well as encompass some of our better national traits. There’s no point blindly copying the Dutch system, the Clairefontaine model, the German model or the Spanish model if none of these systems will suit us. It’s all about learning what works for us and what doesn’t. Give it another 2 or 3 years and there will be another country’s model for ITV Sport commentators to wank over.
There are so many issues the game needs to address but England needs people who are brave enough to ignore potential financial risk and put the game, the players and supporters before the clubs and the TV companies. We have more money floating around our game than anyone else, it’s about time we started to use it properly and stop ripping proper fan’s off before the powers that be kill the game off completely.