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.