Super Greed: the Fight for Football – Sky Documentaries

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This morning, before the Spring Statement, Sky News sent a reporter to Bury Market, to interview some of the people who run the food bank at Radcliffe.  Our region was very badly hit by the pandemic, and we’d had more than our fair share of socio-economic problems even before it.  And, in April 2021, with all that going on, when we were just starting to emerge from Covid restrictions after being under them for longer than any other part of the country, United and City signed up for the proposed Super League.  Liverpool too.  It was absolutely shameful.  For all the clubs. How on earth did the owners get it so wrong?  And it was the owners: the players and the managers more or less said that they were as disgusted as the fans were.  Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even told about it until after the news had made its way into the press.

It was a bit ironic that this programme was made by Sky, given that it was Sky Sports who enabled the set-up of the Premier League.  But the Premier League’s not a closed shop.  It’s competitive.  There’s promotion and relegation.  And, yes, it’s been dominated by a small number of clubs, but Blackburn won the title in its second year, and Leicester won the title in 2016.  Relatively small clubs (no offence intended) such as Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town have played in the Premier League.  And the money doesn’t all go to the Premier League clubs.   It makes its way down, throughout the English game – although even that didn’t stop Bury going out of business in August 2019, nor Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League in 1888, from very nearly following them.

Even the talk by one of the reporters on this programme of “the traditional Big Six” was nonsense.  What tradition?  When I was a kid, we had a “Big Five” – United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.  Give it a couple of seasons and maybe we’ll have a “Big Seven”, with Newcastle in there.  Or maybe, given the current goings-on, Chelsea’ll drop out of that “Big” group.  Who knows?   All the best to Nick Candy’s consortium with their bid to buy Chelsea, by the way.   Until a couple of weeks ago, all I knew about Nick Candy was that he was married to Holly Valance, but he’s a Londoner and a lifelong Chelsea fan.

Going back, again, to when I was a kid, United’s chairman was Martin Edwards.  People used to call him for all sorts, but he was still one of us.  The Edwards family were self-made people from Salford, lifelong United fans.  Then along came the Glazers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against any of the Glazers personally, and I’ve certainly got nothing against Americans, but what did they know about United, about Manchester, about football in general?  I remember once being on holiday somewhere in the US, Atlanta I think, and hearing the local American football club referred to as a “franchise”.   I mean, what?   A “franchise” is where you go for a hamburger.  A football club is an intrinsic part of a town or a city, of people’s lives.   And people, if they’re lucky to get tickets, travel to away matches, to other towns and cities.  Not to other “franchises”.  They do here, anyway.  They even do in Russia.

That was how it all seemed here, that it was about greedy foreign owners who knew nothing about the clubs.  The one exception being Spurs, whose owner had been born above a pub in the East End.  People pointed to the fact that Bayern Munich, who dominated German football to a far greater extent than any club dominated English, Spanish or Italian football, hadn’t got involved – because they were owned by their fans.  (Paris St Germain hadn’t either, but that was because their owners wanted to keep in with UEFA and FIFA.)

But it was different abroad.  Barcelona were also owned by their fans.  One of my initial reactions had been that Barcelona fans would be horrified.  Barcelona, mas que un club, surely they of all clubs would see how wrong this was.  But … well, it must have been representatives of club members who’d made the decision.  Juventus had exactly the sort of chairman we looked back to from the supposed good old days (er, not that English football in the 1980s was exactly “good”) – Andrea Agnelli was Turin born and bred, a lifelong fan, and had succeeded his father as chairman.  Florentino Perez, the chairman of Real Madrid, and the driving force behind it all, was a Madrileno.  None of that fitted the way it looked to us.

What was different?  Well, according to this programme, it was mainly money.  Italy and Spain had also been very badly hit by the pandemic, and some of the clubs involved had already had huge debts.  And, especially in Spain, the media and the government backed the Super League.  Sky put this down to the influence of Perez himself.  Who knows?   Italy was hardly mentioned, which a shame.

There was a lot of talk here, at the time, that the Government backed the Super League plans, and that there’d been secret meetings involving people connected with United.  I’ll just say that, whilst I can’t know for certain, I genuinely don’t believe a word of that, based on what I know of the people allegedly involved.  Anyway, with the fans of the clubs involved, the fans of other clubs, and every part of the media so vehemently opposed to the plan, the Government came out against it.

But it wasn’t about the Government, or even the media.  It was the fans who killed the proposal.  The fans of the clubs involved, who held huge demonstrations against it.  Sky spoke to someone from Marca, a publication which does not generally have anything positive to say about English football, and he said that the Super League proposal had been killed by English football fans.

And he was right.  And I think we can be rather proud of that. The whole thing collapsed within a week.

Watch this, if you get the chance.  It’s not perfect – as I said, it barely mentioned the mood in Italy – but it was very, very interesting.  And be proud, that we put football above money.  There are still all sorts of issues going on with English football, but we got this right.  The owners got it wrong, but the fans put it right.

 

 

 

Fever Pitch: the rise of the Premier League – BBC 2

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I was half-expecting this to be a load of soul-searching about whether or not English football’s sold its soul to Mammon and the extent to which lifelong fans have been pushed out by the prawn sandwich brigade.  Instead, it was largely a nostalgia fest about the wondrousness that was 1992/93.  I rather enjoyed it, and I’m sure that fellow United fans did too; but I should imagine that everyone else was wondering if they’d tuned into MUTV rather than BBC 2 by mistake :-).

In 1991/92, I was in my last year at school, United hadn’t won the league since 7 years before I was born, and we lost out on the penultimate week of the season to Leeds.  That was the last year of the old Football League.  In 1992/93, I was in my first year of university, in Birmingham – not the best place to be as United battled it out with Villa for the title.  This time, we did it!   26 years of hurt came to an end.  Did we care that it was the “Premier League” rather than the “Football League”?  No.  It was still “the league”.  We’d won the league.  And that was all that mattered.

I came home from Birmingham for every weekend home match.  I’d been going to every home match for years.  Did anything change for me in 1992?  No.  Did, as BBC 2 suggested, anything change for me after Italia ’90 (and don’t get me started on the day I had three GCSE exams on the day of one of England’s group matches)?  No.

What about Sky TV?  Well, I’d nagged my dad – sorry, Dad – all through the early months of 1990 to get Sky, so that I could watch tennis all year round rather than just for the few weeks of the year when it was shown on the BBC.  He’d eventually given in.  So, when everyone else rushed to get Sky installed so that they could watch the new Premier League, we’d already got it.  So no change there, either.   Do I feel that I embarked on a “journey” (why is *everything* a “journey” these days) in 1992, as Alan Shearer said?  Well, TBH, no.  But, yes, in some ways, it *was* all change.

I don’t half miss knowing that matches would be at 3pm on Saturdays.  You try to plan something for more than a month or so ahead and it’s impossible.  The match could be at half 12 on Saturday, half 4 on Sunday,  5:15 on Saturday, 2 o’clock on Sunday, Monday night or even Friday night.  Or, of course at 3 o’clock on Saturday.   Not to mention the travelling.  Newcastle v Southampton on a Monday night?   Norwich v Liverpool at half 12 on a Saturday?  Anything goes!

That all started in 1992.  But there was a load of other stuff as well – oh, dear, what on earth was some of it about?   Remember the “Sky strikers”?  What a load of sexist rubbish!   And the rest of “glitzy” nonsense, like the giant inflatable men being brought on to the pitches at half time.  No-one wanted to see that!   A few snooty remarks were made about brass bands.  Well, bring brass bands back, I say!   Older generations reminisce fondly about the days of brass bands at football matches.  Bring them back!

Other than all the talk about United, there was quite a bit of talk about the rise of Blackburn Rovers, bankrolled by Jack Walker.  Complete with a load of rather patronising clips of Southerners saying that they didn’t know where Blackburn was, which I could really have done without.  People moaned at the time about clubs buying success, but now I’d love to see people like Jack Walker and Jack Hayward in the game, owning their hometown clubs, the clubs they’d loved all their lives, rather than money men from America or Russia or the Middle East.  And that sort of thing was what I was expecting this series to be about; but it isn’t.  It’s just basically a lot of nostalgia, and interviews with the great players of the time.  I enjoyed revisiting that wonderful year, but it wasn’t really anything that you can’t see on one of the Sky Sports channels in the hours of TV that they fill up with reruns of old matches or interviews.  Still, I shall definitely be watching the rest of the series!

 

The United Way – Sky Documentaries

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This felt more like a home movie than a documentary, but I mean that in the most positive of ways.  It was like catching up with old friends.  People whom I hadn’t seen for years.  Arthur Albiston.  Kevin Moran.  Norman Whiteside.  Paul Parker.  Ron Atkinson was like some embarrassing old great-uncle who always says the wrong thing and makes everyone cringe!  Some were people we still see regularly.  Bryan Robson, my childhood hero 🙂 .  David Beckham, still one of us even if he’s a world famous megastar living in America.  And, of course, Eric Cantona.  Wearing a flat cap and making cryptic comments, although at least he didn’t mention seagulls.

People were relating little anecdotes, like you do at family gatherings.  Players reminisced about Alex Ferguson making them have margarine instead of butter, and talked about feeling like part of a family, part of a tribe.  United director Mike Edelson, whose daughters were at school with my sister and me, told the bizarre tale of how, in 1986, he rang the Aberdeen FC switchboard, put on a fake Scottish accent and pretended to be Gordon Strachan’s agent, knowing that he’d never be put through to Alex Ferguson if he was known to be from United.

I was hoping that it’d tell the full story, starting in 1878, but it started with the Busby Babes and ended with That Night in Barcelona in 1999.  So it wasn’t really a history of Manchester United: as I’ve said, it was more like a home movie.  Was that really 22 years ago?  “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?”   I’ve got a miniature troll which I bought on holiday on Norway in 2004, and he’s called Ole Gunnar, long before anyone ever dreamt that Solskjaer would one day be the manager.  Well, what else could I have called him?!   A girl in my year at school had a dog named after Kevin Moran.  Plenty of people have named babies, never mind trolls or dogs, after footballers.  This is what we do.  This is us.

The word “Glazer” was never mentioned.  Nor, for that matter, was the word “Knighton” or the word “Maxwell”.  No mention of boardroom politics.  No mention of sponsors.  No mention of TV companies.  Not even any mention of the changeover from the Football League to the Super League.  Instead, we had appearances from Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, and Peter Hook from New Order, all lifelong United fans.  And Andy Burnham, who, although we all know he supports Everton, was welcome because we know he loves football.  He mentioned that his dad, working in Manchester at the time, went to the first match after the Munich Air Disaster.  So did my dad, with his dad.

This is us.  This is coming out of school and learning from the Manchester Evening New billboards that Ron Atkinson had been sacked.  No mobile phones in those days.  The odd Walkman made its way into school, but I’m not sure that we had Walkmans with radios in 1986.  We certainly did by 1990/91, because I remember sneaking mine in so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear the Cup Winners’ Cup draws for the next round!  This is arguing (amiably, ish!) on the school bus with kids who support City.  And this is hundreds of thousands of people packing into town to cheer the treble-winning team on their open top bus tour when they got back from That Night in Barcelona.

Let’s get back there.  It’d be very nice indeed to get back to the glory days of 1999, but, first, let’s get back to having packed stadia, and to having people crowding into the streets to cheer on teams after winning a trophy or winning promotion.  And let’s get back to everyone accepting that the clubs belong to us, to generations of loyal fans.

We got a bit of general social history.  Partly from Andy Burnham.  Partly, bizarrely, from Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock: I’ve got no idea how they got in on the programme!  And we got the general story.  From 1958 to 1999 only.  If you’re actually reading this, you’ll probably know it all.  The glory of the Busby Babes.  The tragedy of Munich.  Matt Busby’s incredible building of a new team.  The European Cup triumph in 1968.  The struggles after Sir Matt retired.  26 years without a league title.  Tommy Docherty running off with Laurie Brown’s wife.  The drinking culture in the Atkinson years.

And the struggles in the early Fergie years.  We didn’t appreciate quite what a mess he had to sort out.  By early 1990, there were all sorts of stupid jokes flying round.  “Alex Ferguson, OBE – out before Easter.”  “What’s red and costs £15 million?”  “An expensive tomato.”  £15 million was an awful lot of money in pre Premier League days.  And the Mark Robins goal that saved us all!   Then the nightmare of 1991/92, when we blew it.  Signing Eric.  And then the joy of 1993, and the many wonderful years that followed.  They didn’t end in 1999, but I suppose it seemed like a good place for the programme to end.

It’s 22 years to the day since That Night in Barcelona.  I’m hoping that that’s a good omen for tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk.  In 1983, the year that my little self finally convinced my dad that I’d behave if he took me to Old Trafford, and I attended my first match (we beat Stoke 1-0), Lech Walesa, Gdansk’s most famous son, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he couldn’t accept it in person because he was afraid that the Polish communist government wouldn’t let him back into the country afterwards.  And in Valencia, home of Villarreal, tonight’s opponents, it was only a year since Spain had completed its transition to democracy after the death of Franco.  I feel really old now I’ve written that!

Anyway, we’ll all be watching, wherever we are.  Alex Ferguson.  Eric Cantona.  David Beckham.  Bryan Robson.  The musicians, the politicians, the journalists, and everyone else who featured in this programme.  Like Eric said, we’re a tribe.  And, whilst this won’t be winning any awards for great documentary making, it wasn’t half great viewing!