Saturday, 9 January 2010

PREMIER LEAGUE: Is the bubble going to burst and who's going to stop it?

"There we were, now here we are, all this confusion, nothing's the same to me - I can't tell you the way I feel, because the way I feel is oh so new to me."

Ironic that my feelings on modern-day football can be summed up by something penned by a fan of Manchester City, a club, which like Chelsea, is fast becoming the epitome of the game in the current era.

Noel Gallagher's lyrics to Columbia seem to perfectly pinpoint my thoughts on where Liverpool, and the game in general, finds itself.

Teenage Cancer Trust - Noel GallagherMaybe I'm getting old, but I remember, once upon a time, when fans bickered about who had the best centre forward, not who had the owner with the biggest bank balance.

But now it's less about the football, more about the money.

And while Chelsea and Manchester City fans smugly smile at being bankrolled by foreign zillionaires who haven't put a penny on to the club's debts, Liverpool and Manchester United fans wince as their owners create doom and gloom headlines with their carpetbagging antics.

Pausing at Liverpool for a moment, as a fan I honestly don't know what I want anymore. Obviously, success - isn't that what every football fan craves? But what price that success - the soul of the club?

Roman Abramovich To Buy  ChelseaDo I really want a superficial sugardaddy with a bulging wallet riding into town, paying over the odds for less-well-off club's stars in some kind of peverse game of fantasy football?

I'm not sure I do, where's the fun in that? But it's hardly laugh-a-minute under Liverpool's current owners who seem to be taking the club nowhere but backwards, so what now?

Who can sort out this mess and what do us fans want?

Someone who respects the traditions of the club, won't pile debt on to it, will build a stadium, fund transfer buys at the top end of the market and keep ticket prices low? It's a big ask.

Whatever happens, some repair work is essential to restore things to how they once where at Anfield, on and off the pitch.

Even the relationship between fans is on a downward spiral. Has there ever been so many factions in the Liverpool support? There's anti-owners and pro-owners, anti-Benitez and pro-Benitez - it's gone from throwing insults to throwing punches in some cases, all because there's no blanket agreement on the best way forward for the club...

"There we were, now here we are, all this confusion, nothing's the same to me..."

But don't get me wrong, this isn't just about Liverpool, or the painful reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. And I'm not just ranting away because of our disappointing season so far (although it hasn't helped, obviously).

No, there's wider concerns for me, like football in general, where is it going?

Look at recent events - Portsmouth struggling to pay wages, fans snubbing the FA Cup, clubs struggling for sponsors. There's plenty of speculation about who will be next to "do a Leeds" after the Yorkshire club famously plummeted into administration after making it to the semi final of the Champions League.

Even away from the woes of individual clubs, there's the Premier League itself. Since it was formed in 1992, only four teams have ever won it - Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Blackburn.

The league was formed under the pretence of being for the benefit of the game, coming with promises such as an 18-team competition - an idea which was supposed to benefit the national side. Seventeen years later, it's still 20 teams.

The truth is the birth of the Premier League was all about the money - it was a move which meant the big teams got bigger and the little teams fell further behind.

The established clubs puffed out their chests, negotiated huge TV deals with no trickle down to the grass roots, and now we have a watered-down version of what was once a genuine competition.

Look at the predictability of the top four, the struggle by promoted sides to compete and the boom in players' wages.

SUNDERLAND V NEWCASTLEJoey Barton (in a classic case of 'pot kettle') recently said most footballers are 'knobs' and struggle to stay in touch with reality.

When even the average Premier League salary, according to the PFA, comes in at almost three times that of the Prime Minister and more than 28 times that of a police officer, is it any wonder?

Just 10 years ago, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were among the top earners in the top flight, pocketing £30,000 a week. Now, as infamously revealed on the internet, average players like John Arne Riise can pick up that money while top players bank four or five times that amount.

So where does it end? When does it stop? Where's the line in the sand? From a fans' perspective it's already changed beyond recognition. Supporters are older and richer than they ever were with the younger and less fortunate fan left on the outside looking in.

Because as wages and transfer fees keep on rising, so do the ticket prices.

Clubs bank on fans' loyalty but everyone has a breaking point. Research last year estimated that one in four Premier League season ticket holders are planning on cancelling their ticket next season whilst one in ten are planning on sharing the cost of next season’s ticket with a friend.

Virgin Money’s Football Fans’ Inflation Index revealed that the rising cost of following Premier League football coupled with the economic recession is prompting supporters to cut back on their football spending.

The survey also revealed that the average cost of following a football team in the Premier League, including match tickets, replica shirts, transport, food and drink, now amounted to £95.60 per game - an increase of almost 23% since 2006.

It can't go on indefinitely, it's surely not sustainable, but what will stop it?

Well, aside from a really big club going pop and providing a huge wake-up call for everyone else, it requires the powers that be to grow a pair and do something.

It's all well and good Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter throwing themselves around their plush offices talking about salary caps and homegrown players quotas (both good in theory, both a nightmare to put in place) but they're like the spoilt kids at the nursery...

Everyone ignores them and carries on playing.