Why We Should Be Grateful For FSG In Age of Sportswashing
(You Don’t Have To Like Them But ...)
This is a slightly shorter version of the article from last Friday. The full version can be found here for TTT subscribers.
I found myself strangely anxious and unhappy with Liverpool’s recent defensive displays [Saturday was a nice return to normal], as if I have a right to expect perfection. Perhaps it wasn’t so much conceding five goals in two games (and let’s be clear that conceding two against Man City is never a shame, and Brentford away may prove a tough challenge to many) so much as conceding the latter four pretty much immediately after taking the lead.
It felt like four instances in a row of being given a wonderful present, only to have it taken away; in what were, objectively, great games.
Had Liverpool fought back to draw with both Brentford and City when getting the same results, it would have felt very different. As it stands, Liverpool are in the glass-half-full-or-half-empty position of being unbeaten and 2nd (with a 100% record in the Champions League), but also having won only two of the past five league games, and not having had the hardest fixture list (on paper) compared to the other two clubs in the top three.
It occurred to me that as much as I don’t engage with the FSG-Outers (or the ‘Gouters), and the Klopp-is-a-fraud brigade stopped bothering me around 2018, I still harbour this sense that Liverpool FC is in its own culture war; with everything on the planet these days divisive in some way or other – perhaps due to the way information is shared and how noisy fringe opinions become inescapable, even if you try (like me) to not read anything on Twitter anymore. (Someone’s distorted personal perceptions are now more meaningful than facts.)
These external voices got inside my head. It feels like Liverpool need even more success to shut these people up. (Yet of course, they won’t shut up.)
On the one hand, I don’t really care what people think about FSG, as for all the mistakes over the years (and there have been a fair few), the club has achieved everything (and more) that felt possible when they took charge of an institution teetering on the verge of extinction in 2010; and done so, despite the biggest financial catastrophe to affect the game since WWII, without being in danger of collapse. To me, the good massively outweighs the bad – especially given the context of what they walked into, eleven years ago.
But the football never ends. When you win and achieve all your goals, one defeat later and the critics will be back. No one concludes the football and says “that’s it, you’re the best, it’s set in stone”. That’s part of the fun, but also a driver of the madness. Even if you get it, it gets taken away.
The developments at Newcastle United have helped me to put things in perspective again. As happy as those Toon fans may be, it feels like they’ve sold their souls to the devil in order to escape a deeply unlikeable arsehole.
By contrast to this latest lavish sportswashing scheme, Liverpool’s owners may seem grey, and relative paupers; but Amnesty International aren’t appalled by them, and no one is claiming that they cut up their spouse. Call me old fashioned, but I know what I prefer.
(And in relation to my recent angst, if it means shipping a few goals due to a more attacking style of play, as Virgil van Dijk spends the next few months working back towards Peak VVD, then so be it.)
So I thought I’d take a long look at the moral imperatives of ownership; what we have a right to expect, and what we don’t; including what Newcastle had with Mike Ashley (and now have with the Saudis) and what the Reds have with FSG.
And also, to look at just how toxic it is when every new sportswasher forces honestly-run clubs one further place down the league table, which often means the difference between on-pitch success reaping honest financial (and sporting) rewards and missing out on those honest (and sporting) rewards.
People loathed the idea of the European Super League (in some ways, with good reason), but how long before the top four is comprised of sovereign states and oligarchs?
While I always feel that I should point out that I’ve met and spoken to some of FSG and executives at the club over the years, I’m not in any way friends with them, and my loyalties are to the club (albeit in that amorphous sense of what the club is, and would be, without the people currently shaping it).
I have said many times – because it’s true – that I don’t know what FSG’s long-term aims for the club are. At some point they may sell, because most things get sold sooner or later; but so far, eleven years in, they haven’t flipped the club for a quick buck (and eleven years is not so quick; even a marriage is doing well these days to last eleven years).
But also, I’ve always said that if they cash out after revamping the club and winning the biggest trophies, they will have “morally” earned that reward.
This is in contrast to if Mike Ashley had cashed out for an obscene profit without really bothering to improve Newcastle; in the end, it seems that he made a decent profit on the sale, but also got stiffed by hidden costs of almost £100m when he bought the club (albeit his due diligence was poor), and after initial optimism and rounds of investment and renewed excitement, he ultimately lost interest, and the place became toxic. That said, I don’t think he profited beyond an acceptable level with the sale, or that he ruined the club – it was in okay health, financially, if bankrupt spiritually.
(Which isn’t a defence of all aspects of his ownership, nor his other business practices. Nor his fireplace vomiting antics.)
I’ve often likened ownership to investing in a beat-up, broken-down classic car. If you invest time and energy and effort in doing it up to the highest possible specifications by paying for elite mechanics and bodyworkers and detailers, to make it a world-class exemplar, then you rightfully earn any profit it gains; while if you do nothing, you may be lucky to make a small profit if its value rises, but you’re not really a good custodian, and by doing nothing you also risk making a loss.
I don’t think Mike Ashley ran Newcastle into the ground. He wasn’t a good owner either, for various reasons, but, to contrast, how has Derby’s overspending chasing pipe dreams helped them? (“Hubris, over-spending and on-field failure have finally caught up with Derby County”).
Fans can help drive their own clubs into destruction, like maniacal children yelling at their parent to drive faster when they’re already doing 128mph on the M1.
I don’t think FSG have just sat by and watched Liverpool improve; they have driven the improvement, not by injecting billions of their own money – albeit injecting some money (to improve the infrastructure) – but mainly by trying to find the best people to analyse the game, buy the most undervalued players, and get a manager who can form a team that exceeds the sum of its parts.
You can say that FSG lucked into Michael Edwards, Ian Graham and Jürgen Klopp, but equally, they fit the profile, back in 2010, of the kinds of people they ideally wanted. I know, because I was asked back then for my opinions on the kind of people worth looking at.
(And I didn’t have a good answer, as I’m no expert in what’s beyond the Premier League. But I spoke to a European scout and future big-club director of football who, amongst others, recommended Ralf Rangnick – now linked with a role at Newcastle. I never heard back from John Henry about my suggestions, and wasn’t eager to chase him anyway – I did not want an active role at the club, and I was simply answering a question posed to me as to what was out there – but Rangnick is almost a precursor to Klopp. I could have pretended I knew more, and tried to fake it until I made it, but I had no desire to pretend I knew more than I did to get some kind of job at Liverpool.)
In 2010, the owners just didn’t know the identities of the now current key personnel, and nor did we. Yet, through trial and error (and that’s how a lot of progress works), they found the right people while dismissing the wrong people. Often you don’t know who is right until you start working with them; ditto when signing players.
If the owners had appointed Neil Ruddock, Neil Warnock and Sam Allardyce (as facsimiles of Dennis Wise, Joe Kinnear and Steve Bruce), then we might have sensed something was seriously amiss. In going for Damien Comolli they got it half-right; in that he brought in Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson – one of the best players we’ve ever seen, along with a captain and 400-game servant while lifting all the top trophies – as well as some mediocrities and expensive duds. But more vitally, Comolli brought in Edwards and Graham. Comolli was not the right man; he did not communicate with Boston in the way they wanted. But he set in motion the revolution.
Even FSG’s punt on Brendan Rodgers has aged well after his relative and impressive Leicester successes and his Celtic titles (albeit he’s having a difficult season, and remains strangely terrible in Europe, while Celtic were winning titles both before and after him – although he did seem to take them to a new level); while the earlier appointment of Kenny Dalglish at least rid the club of the toxic cloud that had formed under the utterly unsuitable Roy Hodgson.
(Obviously the owners alienated some fans by sacking Dalglish, a move that I genuinely never saw coming; but we can now look back at Dalglish’s initial firefighting as the first in a series of steps towards the club rising to the rank of 4th in the all-time European statistical rankings 18 months ago.)
You could argue that Dalglish stemmed the bleeding, and Rodgers was the infusion of fresh blood – and for a while, the heart of the club pumped crazily, with 2013/14 the first we’d seen proper fervour in at least half a decade (driven by the vampiric Suarez), and the closest title-race the club had been involved in since the halcyon days. It went down to the wire, after one hell of a crazy ride. Rafa Benítez’s best sides were better; but this was insanely thrilling.
It then went horribly off course between 2014 and 2015, perhaps as some kind of body-host organ rejection (maybe Rodgers proved to be the wrong blood group), but the club had moved forward in other ways.
The transfer committee was in place, and by the end, the only problem with it – as seen since he left – was Rodgers. Rodgers joined Comolli as imperfect appointments who, all the same, helped move some things in the right direction.
By 2015, the types of football analysts that FSG always wanted were in place to say, after diving deep into the data, “Go get Klopp!” at a time when others felt the German was perhaps a busted flush, given the clusterfuck of his final season in the Bundesliga. FSG’s Mike Gordon was able to convince Klopp to join, when the execs at Manchester United had scared the German away. Ergo, it was another way FSG succeeded beyond luck.
Despite all this, it feels that unless Liverpool win every single game, the knives will be out for the owners. At some clubs (and at Liverpool at points in the past) that knife-sharpening and sights-aiming is mostly for the manager. Klopp is rightfully bulletproof at this stage, but even if he agrees with the decisions FSG or Michael Edwards makes, FSG will be lambasted for them.
Klopp has never wanted superstars, nor a big turnover of players. He doesn’t want a wage structure that overly rewards some and under-rewards others. If you listen, the owners and the manager are mostly on the same page; whilst a few differences are normal within any relationship.
And I just find it tiring. I find myself wanting Liverpool to do well – beyond just normally doing well – to shut up the noise around the club.
At times I learn to ignore it, especially as I don’t use social media much anymore, but as with all these things, it can creep back in, slither under your skin. Twitter is not real life, but its lunacy permeates real life.
And while you can make valid criticisms of most people in life – point out the mistakes that we all make – the insane twisting of logic and rationality feels like an assault on the very notion of being an intelligent, rational person.
So, when Harvey Elliott got horrifically injured by a red-card tackle (not malicious, but reckless), this was the fault of FSG’s transfer policy; when, in truth, Elliott even being in the team and already looking like a £50m player having cost just £3m, was a literal reflection of their transfer policy.
As such, you can see that there is no example that cannot be twisted to fit a narrative, as has become an art form on Twitter (especially) for anything vaguely political. Nuance has become evil, silence has become violence (while people who feel ‘unsafe’ employ actual physical attacks on others), and “science” is either treated like gospel or mocked as snake oil. On both the left and the right, reality and facts are denied; Covid was a hoax, cancel culture isn’t real; truthers versus deniers. This nonsense then seeps out into the real world.
The randomness of the best teenager in the Premier League getting injured could be laid at the owner’s door, rather than heralding the emergence of the best teenager in the Premier League. Instead of it being so good that Liverpool had unearthed and helped develop the player, it was a mistake not to have loads more players who cost a ton of money.
Which isn’t to say that any transfer policy is foolproof. Life gets in the way; shit happens. And it’s not to say that FSG haven’t made some really poor choices in 11 years (as have I, and as, I imagine, have you).
A parallel can be seen with the pandemic: no matter what the outcome, and no matter whether the country or state was under leftist or right-wing rule, the latest data will be used to confirm or deny a theory, even if it seems to suggest the exact opposite.
It’s not just that people change their mind, as doing so is normal and often a good thing; new evidence is meant to help us do that. But it’s that whatever the development, good or bad, it often becomes something that must be made to look bad to fit the narrative depending on what your worldview is.
Similarly, FSG do something bad, it’s “FSGOUT!” I don’t want FSG out, but I get the frustration if they cock up.
But if FSG do something good, it’s also “FSGOUT!” due to the twisting that makes that good thing a Very Bad Thing.
If Liverpool had spent £73m (that the club did not have, especially after Covid) on a talented but slightly wayward winger (okay, a bit of a ‘dickhead’ in football parlance given a penchant for being late or not turning up for training at all) who then failed to settle immediately, but who had to be given game time to justify the expense, Harvey Elliott would not have been in the team. If the club was paying that new £73m under-performer more per week than anyone else in the squad, the group dynamic could be shattered. If that new £73m winger was not training very hard but still getting picked, it would kill the “we’re all in this together” work ethic that cannot be “announced” like when winning the transfer window.
Equally, we saw Gini Wijnaldum – about to turn 31 – leave in part because, when the pandemic hit, Liverpool lost a ton of money (over £100m, but again, the club were never in danger of going bankrupt). Only in 2021 when full crowds were going to be back were all the key players offered new deals, with some still in ongoing talks. Critics of FSG wanted £73m signings – dammit, £100m signings; but the priority was the costly tying down of the core of the squad.
Now, I’ve written at length – including in books and academic papers – about how transfer spending (adjusted for inflation) correlates with success, but this was also done with the acknowledgement that wages – as had already been established by 2010 – was indeed another indicator of future success. With Graeme Riley I co-created the Transfer Price Index in the months before I’d even heard of John W Henry to show that transfer spending does matter, but that it’s not a case of net or gross spends per summer, but the total cost of the team adjusted for inflation.
Yet neither model works just by paying the money randomly; spending £500m on players is no good if they’re all donkeys, while doubling someone’s wages doesn’t make them twice the player. (I wrote this line, only to see Ian Graham had used it at the Statsbomb conference; he also quoted what Dan Kennett dubbed “Tomkins’ Law” a decade ago, i.e. how only half of transfers work out, albeit he used a different method to reach that conclusion.)
“Football clubs are just a complicated way of giving money to players!” he said.
“Some teams can fund transfers through sales. We’ve had a modest transfer spend in recent years but we’ve got the fourth highest gross spend. So we use those sales as an extra source of revenue for transfers and funds for wages for players. Some economists would tell you that wages cause performance, but that is not right. You can’t just double the wages of your squad and watch them win the league! Wages are a result of performance. If you’ve done well, you need to pay your players more money to keep them.
“So it’s about extending contracts and hopefully they can repeat that performance next season.”
The models are proxies for a balancing out, in terms of averages, of clever spending. Spend more and you can increase your chances of having more hits, but even then, there are plenty of expensive duds. Giving someone a pay-rise doesn’t make them a better player.
Rather than just waste money on the wrong (glamorous) players and destroy the harmony with excessive wage gifts to lazy superstars, Liverpool found ways to improve the odds of success without spending money the club didn’t have. They did so in ways beyond what seemed possible to me a decade ago, when a high percentage of transfer failures seemed unavoidable.
Liverpool’s success has been more linked to the wage bill than transfer spending, but in part because the wage bill was heavily incentivised. As such, you have a situation where the egg begets the chicken. Liverpool’s transfer spending was modest, and the wage bill was quite large; but the wage bill would only get very large if there was first success. And of course, success followed. The transfer spending was shrewdly low, relatively speaking, but the wage bill rose to super-club level (top five in Europe). Most other clubs would only be able to do this by a huge spend on both transfer fees and wages. Take away the bonuses and the wage bill was manageable.
But the kicker was that the usual financial rewards a club receives from success were in part denied by winning the title in the middle of a global pandemic that shut club shops, emptied stadiums, and cut television income. Indeed, the first lockdown almost exactly coincided with Liverpool’s all-time-great form hitting the skids, and then last season was a financial challenge, impacted by an all-time-bad injury crisis.
Klopp is a key component in improving the hit rate of transfers, because he improves so many players. But FSG presumably wanted a manager who improved players, not one who filled them with terror and bad tactics, and who cast them aside, sent them to the U18s, punched them in the face.
If FSG bet on the right horse, it was because he was a fucking beast of a stallion in a field full of nags and carthorses.
Remember, Klopp did not come from Bayern Munich where they had double or even treble the budget of their rivals and where, every summer, they’d pilfer their rivals’ best players. He won back-to-back titles and reached a Champions League final at Dortmund with a club that was as good as bankrupt when he arrived. Bayern have had some great managers, but winning the league at Bayern (just as at Celtic or PSG) doesn’t necessarily tell you a lot, such is the gap in resources. What Klopp did at Dortmund – while no guarantee of future repetition – was indicative of genius.
I think Klopp is a uniquely brilliant manager, but you cannot say that FSG got lucky in appointing him, any more than you can say that Klopp was just lucky and had zero to do with how good a player like Mo Salah (who was not his pick) has proved, because it still needed his coaching, his style of play, his fitness work, his man-management, to help take Salah – who had never scored more than 19 goals in a season (which itself was an outlier) – to the next level, where he averages well over 30 and peaked at 44.
In football, you make decisions, and while you need some luck, you can’t have people dismiss all your successes and focus on all the failures (or vice versa). You expect people to look at the balance of outcomes.
I happen to like that Liverpool have worked within a budget and sought marginal gains, rather than just being pumped full of petrodollars. I hate the “This Means More” slogan (marketing is bullshit – who knew?), but compared to the financial dopers, it does mean more. Just as it means more to get a top job right out of college at Microsoft or Apple or Amazon if you’ve come up from poverty and put yourself through college by working three jobs than if your surname, through no dint of coincidence, happens to be Gates or Jobs or Bezos.
There’s nothing hard-won about what Bayern and PSG now do in their respective leagues, even if Bayern are not financially doped per se; they’re just in a pool where they are the only giant fish, that is free to get bigger and bigger by feasting on its rivals, who slink off with great chunks missing. Again, so what if Bayern win the league? How thrilling is that?
Once they had not only kneecapped Dortmund by taking the players Klopp had turned into elite superstars, but doubled the advantage by adding that quality to their XI whilst obviously removing it from Dortmund’s, the Bundesliga went from an interesting league with lots of different competitors to perhaps the dullest in Europe.
(And again, Bayern, like PSG – who bar a rare blip almost own the French title these days – could look like superheroes for defying the European Super League. Yet they also happen to be perhaps the two clubs most guaranteed of Champions League income and increasing wealth gap in their homelands, as they “eat” their own leagues. Man City and Chelsea, the two most financially doped clubs in the Premier League to date, were the first to pull out of the European Super League, as again, they didn’t need the money. Which doesn’t make the ESL the correct solution, but it does show that there are serious problems with the future of football. Equally, Barcelona remain wedded to the idea of the ESL, and they are totally broke through utter stupidity on their part. It’s a shitshow But it does show that the clubs who are not state-funded are more likely to struggle. But is state-funding a fair and palatable solution either?)
While I don’t support the idea of the ESL (I remain agnostic as I don’t know the full plans, and certainly disapprove of aspects of what was made known), if taking the money away from UEFA was seen by certain clubs as the best way to safeguard their own existence, then that has at least some justification – if, in the modern game, absolutely everyone in football is out to get what they can, while they can, as if there is no tomorrow. Yet it would almost seem irresponsible for a club to not have its own interests at heart; just as corporations act as psychopaths by having to put profits before all else.
The problem with football is that it’s hard to separate what seems like pure greed with the need to be sustainable. And clubs owned by people who can print their own money (and make their enemies disappear) are going to be the ones driven by the aim of global PR, not sporting excellence or finding ways to keep afloat.
They exist in this weird bubble, where they don’t care about losing money as there’s too much in reserve to make a dent; and, unless they suddenly have to extricate themselves (at which point the club collapses), there’s no worry about future viability. There’s no sense of risk, or of sport.
Yet of course, this sportswashing, within a few years, just likely forces another honestly-run club out of the money-generating rewards of top-four football. It pushes another club into the relegation zone (especially as Newcastle are there right now) and into the 2nd tier, where the mania to get promoted is like mass insanity, as everyone risks oblivion for the promised land.
No one has a right to the top four, of course – but if the top four is soon comprised of Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle (especially if FFP continues to lose its teeth), then isn’t that somehow just football reduced to pro wrestling and the Harlem Globetrotters?
Clubs like Liverpool live in a different reality to those backed by sovereign states and oligarchs. It is these different realities that make a mockery of the sport in 2021.
What’s interesting is that Newcastle – not unlike City and Chelsea – had a natural place within the pecking order, and now it’s like they could be just any other club upon whom the richest people in the world descend.
Football clubs will have fallow years, but the premium aim has to be to avoid bankruptcy (and/or excessive debt), and then, to be in the highest tier possible. It’s not about winning trophies, as that is the icing on the cake; if all clubs existed only to win trophies, then football would be 99% meaningless each season. If you genuinely are first-or-nowhere, clubs would be near the brink of extinction.
Indeed, it would means teams in the Championship spending twice what they earn on their wage bill, and basically playing Russian roulette with their futures. (Oh, wait…)
Clubs have to try and do their best, and sometimes that will include winning trophies, or at least going close. Even then, no one has a divine right to success.
Yet at the same time, I understand the mania.
For Newcastle, their level is – was – the Premier League; for a select few other clubs, that level can mean usually being in the Champions League.
No one wants to accept their place in the pecking order if it isn’t first, but Newcastle are – were – a big club who are – were – not big enough to be in the top four. That is – was – the natural order of things; albeit they now have some unnatural funding. (As do some others.)
Based on history, trophies and global fanbase, Newcastle are – and still are – not so important. Based on passionate city-based support (and the ability of their fans to punch a horse in the face), they are a special club. They are absolutely huge … in the city of Newcastle. Now they are owned by the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
It’s their new reality, but part of the problem – not that most of their fans will see it that way – is how it distorts reality for everyone else.
As football fans we need to dream, but it can be like having a perfectly fine spouse and dreaming of Taylor Swift or Idris Elba. While it can at times perhaps be true, a friend telling you “you deserve better, you’re special, you can have any man/woman you want” is often enabling delusion and seeding disillusionment.
Do Liverpool fans think the club can do better than FSG, who also ended Boston’s 86-year for a title in baseball? Again, Boston fans seem to hate FSG during the difficult days, but they’ve won four World Series titles in 20-or-so years, after going almost 100 years without one.
I don’t think statues should be made of owners; to me, their job is to be quiet and unobtrusive. Indeed, showy owners are often a sign of something fishy; of self-promotion. Public promises are often virtue-signalling. Only liars make promises over things they cannot control. FSG are criticised for being too quiet, but better that than too noisy.
Communication can let them down, but not all ideas can be discussed publicly, especially when people (often fans) leak stuff in a heartbeat. We can’t even trust Liverpool fans with the team news.
Perhaps owners deserve more respect than the old Shanklyism of them just being there to sign the cheques, as they have to help lead the entire strategy, now that the task is well beyond the purview of a manager.
Do FSG use their ownership of Liverpool and the Red Sox to constantly strut in front of the cameras? Are they trying to launder vile reputations gained via human rights atrocities? Are they loading debt onto the club? Are they ignoring the infrastructure, such as the stadium and training ground? Have they siphoned money from the club? The answer to all these reflect positively on their stewardship.
To put it euphemistically, Newcastle have essentially left a loveless marriage, but where the mortgage for the house (a mock Georgian mansion in a nice area) was paid, for a fling with some rich international influence-seeker with the small matter of several exes who died in suspicious circumstances.
By contrast, FSG are much better partners, somewhere in the middle; albeit the European Super League is the turd in FSG’s bed, that no one wants to roll onto.
I don’t think the idea of the ESL – from what little of it emerged – was necessarily as bad as many said, given the utterly screwed financial state of the game in England (and further afield), but the non-relegation issue was obviously unpalatable. It could have been just another power grab, as people said; but haven’t people noticed the continual power grabs – by murderous regimes – taking place to shoulder shrugs? Has anyone noticed the great lie that is football finance these days, and the mountains of debt?
The possibility of doing away with relegation in some super league caused actual riots; but thousands of deaths in Qatar and states who have people murdered are greeted almost greeted with open arms – and street parties on Tyneside.
I don’t want come across as too superior, as I’ve said and thought some crazy shit in 20+ years writing about Liverpool (and, as a human being, I will continue to think and occasionally say some crazy shit), but I hope that, based on the journey I’ve been through as a Liverpool fan now aged 50, I’d take indifferent owners over corrupt, murderous owners.
Yet just chugging along as a football club feels like a kind of death; standing still feels like careering backwards. But given the hedonic treadmill, no one can stay happy with success anyway, as the mind craves the next level of success. How long did Liverpool fans remain happy after 2005, or 2019, or even 2020?
A good, stable owner seems all the more important, as football, like many businesses, seems be a jumped-up Ponzi scheme. Life increasingly seems to be about borrowing money you don’t have (and in some cases, could never earn) to look like you have that money, in order to attract more money.
Fake it ’til you make it; spend now, worry later. I see so many houses of cards, ready to topple. All the while, more and more games are needed to pay off more and more debt.
I think that the collapse of Football Index was perhaps some precursor to football itself: a Ponzi scheme, where the money coming in is already long-since spent, and so new money is needed to cover those losses.
Maybe football (in contrast to Football Index) is not an actual Ponzi scheme, but modern life is increasingly about racking up debt and employing cognitive dissonance to pretend it doesn’t exist, and that everything will work out just fine.
Everything today feels like it’s on the never-never. But some day the debts get called in. Sooner or later, the thugs with the baseball bats will break your legs. Go public and criticise the thugs and you might end up chopped into various pieces.
Football cannot continue to rack up debts it cannot pay.
So many people are creaming off the money that they cannot draw a halt to the runaway gravy train; or, maybe even worse than creaming off the money, is the panic about money creamed off (or wasted) in the past, and the shortfall it has created – as epitomised by Barcelona, just a few years ago the richest club in the world, now reduced to penury.
UEFA wants more football. FIFA wants more football. National associations want more football. TV companies want more football. People in other countries want to see more football – Premier League teams in the flesh. (The players don’t want more football, especially international football, and yet again we have another international break where players are injured or barred from club football in the aftermath, while the clubs, via their fans, pay their wages.)
Club fans are footing the bill, with the TV subscriptions, season tickets and merchandising expenditure. It’s possibly elitist to dismiss international football, as players often (but not always) begin as kids in the nations they represent. But now we can’t see players in the Premier League because of three insane fixtures in South America, or because a national team (Spain with Ferran Torres, England U21s with Curtis Jones) fielded them with known injuries. Liverpool are without three starters for tomorrow’s insane 12:30pm kickoff due to international bullshit.
Everyone in football is trying to feed the beast – to take their cut – and like a Ponzi scheme, it feels unsustainable.
At the very least, there are so many new forms of drains on the game; just looking at agents, agents’ advisors, middle-men, etc. In a sense I also leech off the game, but I don’t seek to take directly from the pot – subscribers are willing payers to a harmless sideshow.
Fans are the enablers, irrational in their demands. Fans are like the drug addicts who keep the gangs in business. We need to temper our own demands, and be less spoilt and entitled. And it’s harder to make big demands when the game is essentially rigged in favour of the richest. Again, the sport is in danger of eating itself, just like Bayern in the Bundesliga.
Virtue never tested is no virtue at all; yet I still hope that I’d take a Mike Ashley over the Saudi state, if offered it today.
Ashley didn’t push Newcastle close to extinction, and he handed over a club – in the Premier League – that was not laden with debts. He seems like a total douchebag, but I don’t think his ownership was immoral; whereas looking at what Leeds did almost 20 years ago when chasing success strikes me as more worrisome. Owners who buy the club via debt in a leverage buyout (the Glazers, and FSG’s predecessors at Liverpool) are a serious blight on the game. And funding your club via a murderous regime seems the worst of all.
My conclusion keeps returning to: football is fucked. But while we can muster enough enthusiasm (thanks to this team, this manager, and I’d say, these owners and execs and analysts) to keep going, we keep going – on TTT, at least.
But football in ten years’ time? I expect it to be unrecognisable. And possibly not in a good way.