The Premier League: Allowing heroes to come fourth


Let me take you back to 1986, a very different time for English football. A time when the kind of money offered by the Premier League and it’s TV deals, would have seemed as plausible as Liverpool not winning the league title (they did after all win it 6 times in the decade). However, perhaps more crucially, this was a time before the Champions League. European football was of course highly desired in those days, but nowhere near as financially rewarding as it is today. Before it’s re-branding in 1992, only the winners of each country’s championship could enter the tournament. When, following the Heysel Disaster of 1985, English clubs were banned from European competition for 5 years, naturally they lagged behind their continental neighbors. If such a thing were to happen today, they would be light-years behind.

I highlight 1986 because there is an interesting parallel to be found between two different versions of the same footballing giant.  It may sound impossible to believe, but by 1986 Manchester United’s wait for a league title was entering into it’s 20th season. Despite being top of the league in February, Ron Atkinson’s side hit a bad run of form and relinquished their challenge, eventually finishing in 4th place. Ron would last until November of the next season before being succeeded by a relatively unknown Scottish Manager, fresh from European success with Aberdeen, and the rest as they say is history. 28 years later, and David Moyes will be dreaming of such a league position.

This represents the transformation not only English, but European football has underwent as a whole, in only 22 years. In 1986, the last time Manchester United finished in 4th place, it represented a disaster of a season, in 2014 it would represent salvation. Champions League football has transformed top clubs priorities, and it’s reasons are mainly separate from sporting considerations.

Firstly, the financial benefits are extremely lucrative. Every year UEFA distributes around £750m across it’s 32 participants in the form of TV and prize money  while the eventual winners pocket £16m. The motivation to not only qualify but progress through  the tournament is obvious as potential earnings increase at each stage of the competition. Premier League teams are in an enviable position to take advantage of the opportunity as UEFA rations it’s prize money based on the value of the television market in each county, with the English market ranked especially high.

The rewards of Champions League football can have an immediate effect  on the pitch, especially when it comes to player recruitment. One only has to look at the Luis Suarez saga over the summer to realise how highly players factor in the Champions League when deciding which team to sign for.  Miss out on the tournament and you miss out on the top players. Not only does this have a direct impact on the quality on the pitch, but a squad full of world class talent brings with it further financial benefits, most notably higher shirt sales and higher sales of season tickets.

However the main question that arises from this, has the growth of the Champions League improved English football? While the top English teams over the last 10 years have consistently reached the latter stages of the competition there is gradually a growing chasm between the rest of the league. Those who defend the Premier League point out that anyone can beat anyone on their day, but a look at the league table over the past few seasons show that it is consistently the same teams who finish in the top 4 positions. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Premier League however, all across Europe the spirit of competition is being eroded by the growth of European  superpowers. Gone are the days of the late 70’s when a team like Nottingham Forest could win promotion and in their first season of the First Division win a title. The finances of the top club’s make such an idea ridiculous at best.

Purists of the English game also point that the prominence of the Champions League has degraded the old staples of English football, most notably the FA Cup. While in the past, fans and players alike dreamed of a day out at Wembly, today FA cup weekends are met with groans  and weakened teams. One only has to look at Arsene Wenger’s continued assertion that a Champions League position is more important than ending an eight year wait for a trophy, to understand the position of the domestic honours.

This debate unfortunately seems purely arbitrary. In reality, football has little place these days for romance. In the modern game, as in life, money talks. It just so happens the Champions League has the most to say.