As counter-intuitive as it might sound, a European Super League might be the best chance left for normal fans to gain a voice in the game.
The Championship, and the wider Football League, is great fun. It is, in my view, where the heart of real football support is in England.
The Football League is what attracted me to football to begin with — the gloss, glamour and overbearing media saturation of the Premier League made it hard to get interested in. But the League, with its rough edges, its culture and its character, sucked me in.
The big boys are incentivised to leave us behind
It’s not fashionable to say it at the minute, but following your hometown club in the flesh is just different. The relationship you develop with your team as a Championship or League One supporter is alien to anything you can get following a team from abroad.
Many Premier League fans would argue that supporters in Melbourne, Mumbai, and Massachusetts could have the same relationship with Manchester City as someone from Moss Side. That enjoying your sport through a screen makes you just as much a part of the club culture as the people stood on the terraces. This isn’t true. Anyone that rocks up every week to home games, season after season, knows it’s not true.
It’s a white lie, sold to let an audience believe their favourite television show is part of their identity. That they have access to the same parochial thrill of watching the team with your hometown’s name, a club most fans grow up alongside, without stepping foot in the city whose team they support. And it’s perpetuated by marketing departments that want international fans to believe it’s true, to justify treating football clubs as money-spinning multinational brands.
I’m not saying this as an excuse to denigrate overseas fans. They’re entitled to support whoever they want, they’re a welcome part of the game, and their passion for the teams is real. The point is simply that overseas fans aren’t embedded in the fan culture of the majority English football support, and there are hundreds of millions of pounds resting on making sure they don’t dwell on that fact.
In fact, it’s in the interest of global brands is to separate the regional English identities of football support to make sure the product is accessible to fans around the world.
The rich and powerful tend to get their way
In serving the needs of taking English football to the world, the Premier League has knowingly wrestled the game away from the domestic fans. Sanitised, packaged and exported to the globe, England’s top flight increasingly serves of the needs of the global audience before it serves the needs of its fans.
As a result, supporters are often forgotten, their needs ignored, and their contribution to the game diminished. The last vestiges of what English football is meant to sound like are looking more like museum pieces than the bellowing, boiling crowds we saw 30 years ago. And the recent Big Picture proposals show us the league’s big boys have no intention of changing their course.
While Big Picture, leaked ahead of time by the Telegraph, has been defeated, we shouldn’t expect any serious opposition to what Big Picture signals. With their power and wealth, the biggest clubs are a fundamentally unstoppable force in English football, and they’re bored of having to justify themselves.
The signal is clear. The billionaires at the top of the game are growing tired of having to justify themselves to the rest of English football, tired of losing votes to smaller clubs. The league system is a millstone they’ve long-since grown tired of dragging behind themselves. They neither want, or particularly need, English football as a sum of its parts — they just need the Premier League.
The Premier League’s giants will always be able to coerce and extort the rest of the league system with their vast access to wealth, as they did with sucking the joy out of the League Trophy, and the destructive overhauling of academy player pricing in the last decade.
The Big Picture proposal is a power grab that looks to offer a meaty pay-off and a wish-list of concessions for the lower leagues in exchange for total power of decision-making being handed to a select group of clubs in perpetuity.
An offer they think the league system just can’t refuse — in fact, it might have been just that. Had the Telegraph not leaked the plans, there may have been time for it to gather serious support throughout the Championship, Football League, and FA. Big Picture was voted down in an emergency meeting, so we’ll never know just how well it would have sold in a less public setting.
What the proposals wanted was clear though. Lay the groundwork to make the sneering, indifferent mentality that drives top clubs’ attitudes to local fans the only significant voice in the Premier League.
You and I have never been less powerful
As rank-and-file football fans, with no serious wealth or influence to marshal in the face of Fenway Sports Group, or the endless resources of an oil state, we are powerless to stop the way the river flows.
We can’t even withhold our support, our cash, or our viewership as punishment — it’s simply too late for that. Their global audience swamps the power of activist fans, the television rights dwarf our match-day revenue, and the buy-in from the dominant media forces will keep it front and centre in the news.
Big Picture being voted down doesn’t indicate any kind of sea change in the way football in England is being run. If it’s not Big Picture, it’s the death by a thousand cuts we’ve watched the Premier League inflict on the leagues since the early nineties.
This is the inexorable direction of travel. If it’s what powerful, rich, people want, they will find a way to get it. Instead of resisting, it would be wiser to accelerate to the endgame.
Roll on the European Super League.
It’s coming regardless
Across Europe, leagues are becoming lopsided and hegemonic. PSG dominate France, Bayern dominate Germany. Barcelona and Madrid dominate Spain. Juventus loom over Italy. England is a bit more egalitarian than others, sharing the silverware around more often, but we still have a direct correlation between big money and big trophies.
You might point to Leicester’s freak league victory as a counterbalance, but there are caveats to their success. 2016 was not just a period of disruption and rebuilding for the major players in England — Leicester won the league with a points total that would usually land a team third — Leicester also spent good money achieving it.
It’s worth reading about how King Power managed such a lucrative naming rights contract with King Power, and asking whether they’d have enjoyed the same success without that loophole. Would they have even been in the league?
At some point, teams like PSG will start asking if they’re bigger than the league itself. If they aren’t already asking such a question. Do they gain so much by playing teams like Angiers, Nantes, and Montpellier? Would it not be more fitting, and profitable, and special, for a club as prestigious and dominant as PSG to spend their time being tested against the best in Europe?
Bayern’s own players have indicated it might be true. Thomas Muller once said it was harder to train against his own Bayern than play other German teams. To Muller’s credit, it was just a joke, but Bayern have still won 15 of the last 20 German titles, taking seven in a row. In Spain, only Valencia and Atleti have punctured the Barcelona/Madrid back-and-forth three times in the last 20 years.
It’s not difficult to borrow the perspective of the fabulously wealthy clubs who prize European competition above all else and see why they would want to split away. Why would Man City want to play such unfashionable fixtures as Bournemouth and Sheffield United away, when Juventus are sat in Turin spinning their wheels hosting bloody Crotone, thinking the same thing City are?
What Big Picture signals is the desire for self-determination for the biggest clubs. A European Super League guarantees that. A playground where only the interests of the most monied and storied clubs in Europe are entertained. It sounds truly awful.
But perhaps, in doing that, they’ll go away and leave us alone.
Better to own less than rent more
Losing some of the most hallowed clubs in the history of English football to a European Super League would be a tragedy. The international interest, the investment, the media coverage, and the money in the game would collapse.
It would be a period of challenging adjustment for English football that would, by its very nature, lead to reforms in the entire league system. But it would provide an unprecedented opportunity for us to reform our game without the influence of sporting superpowers.
We would enjoy the first time in two decades that every team left dealing with the aftermath would have to turn to the fans and say, “We need you. What can we do to make sure we get you?” The first real shift in the balance of power since the formation of the Premier League.
Without those powerful interests driving the shape of the game in England from the top down, we would be free from their yoke. Free from having to compete against their unfathomable depths of cash, free from having to starve while serving their interests. Free from living in hope of scraps from the table like Big Picture.
I would rather have a stable, sustainable domestic game than watch my team play Liverpool. A domestic game that treasures the role match-going fans play in the culture of football, and seeks to include them. A game everyone can afford to enjoy in-person. A game that allows success to be earned through skill, ingenuity and creativity, not bought. A game that we own, operate, and benefit from as a community.
Surely, surely that’s better than languishing in between the Championship and Premier League, trying to decide if you actually want someone credibly accused of genocide buy your club out so you can push for a Europa League play-off spot? Surely just having the dignity of taking our game back is worth it?
We might lament bringing down the ceiling on English football, in making our top flight less special, but it’s a fair trade. I’m never going to watch my club win the Champions League. The game is rigged to make sure that doesn’t happen. From the coefficient systems to the group stages to squad depths, it’s built to weed out anyone but the big boys.
I would rather own a smaller game that serves my needs, and the needs of the English fans, than beg for a place in a bigger one that resents my very involvement.
It would still be fun, and it would be ours
If you don’t believe we could still love this game without the big six, take a look at EFL Trophy Final between Coventry and Sunderland in 2019. Look at the joy, the passion, the fun. Both of these teams have known the top flight, been to major finals, even won them. It doesn’t matter on the day.
From 8th in the Premier League down to the National League, none of us are in this for European glory or a Premier League title. We’re in it for Saturday afternoon. To go and watch your club pull on your shirt, and do their best to win football matches. To enjoy the spirit, the atmosphere, and the culture of your own team. Something built by cascading decades of supporters before you and carried on by those that will come after, all under the same banner as the place you know as home.
Let the rich and powerful have their shiny toys. Let them have their European Super League and its callow, brushed aluminium culture. Let the international fans, so sick of their favourite players getting injured playing promoted teams and cup fixtures, realise what a soulless money trench they’ve bought when they fly in for their first home game.
We’ll have something to call our own, something to build, a future in our own possession. That’s more than a fair swap.