James Lawton: Premier League's idiocy driven by same impulse that killed the Brooklyn Dodgers
The Premier League is simply a vehicle for the making of ever increasing profit
Saturday 09 February 2008
Not a lot is known about the literary taste of Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League. Still less that of the army of well suited and booted marketing whizzkids who were yesterday rallying so zealously to the banner he has raised for the grab-all club chairmen who now want to take the show on the road. But some good money here says that neither he nor any of his disciples have read a book called The Boys of Summer.
Had they done so it is unlikely to have checked their belief in the fiscal wisdom which is apparently so irresistible it is worth destroying the competitive integrity of the oldest football league in the world. It might, however, have given them a little idea of that which they now so nonchalantly dismiss in their stomach-turning talk of the "Hollywoodisation of the league" – yes, someone did say that – and the greater good of "globalisation".
The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn, is about what happened to the members of a wonderful baseball team called the Brooklyn Dodgers, and what they meant to their community, and why it was, when the club defected to their new Los Angeles lotusland in 1957, grown men, many of them grandfathers who had taken several generations of their families to the fabled Ebbets Field in the district of Flatbush, held up banners which said things like, "Good riddance, ya bums."
They didn't really mean that. They were were just saying that a vital ingredient in their lives had been taken away, they had been given the equivalent of a farewell note neatly folded on the mantelpiece, and for what? A better stadium on the other side of the continent, and of course, a lot more money for the owner.
This is utterly premature and alarmist talk, we will no doubt be told, but one of the advantages in remembering the past, and how certain ways of thinking got started, is that it provides at least half a clue about what's likely to happen both today and in the future.
Scudamore – and Birmingham City chairman David Gold, among many who should know better – tell us that we should be excited about the bold reach to new horizons that would be represented by playing league matches in far-flung cities. Nor should we worry that it will be done with the help of a seeded draw for an extra fixture, which would count in the final reckoning and, at a single stroke, wipe away the perfectly even field which stretches back to the founding of the league 120 years ago.
The critical reaction to this sickening absurdity has already been both hostile and acute and scarcely needs any elaboration here, but if it is the kernel of the problem, this utter failure to understand the value of durable and absolute standards, there is an equally pressing reason to be rather more alarmed than excited.
It is that the Premiership are saying – as the Football Association did 16 years ago when they waved in the new league and its revenue-hogging TV deals – that the reasons for the outrage first provoked in New York all those years ago do not begin to rank with the overwhelming imperative to build on current profits. This is confirmed by the admission that the League simply needs to be first in globalisation, that having Manchester United play Middlesbrough in Kuala Lumpur in a league match is merely a reaction to the commercial demand of the moment – and that in 10 years this might be considerably more extensive.
The truth can be couched in Biblical terms. The Premier League, with this latest initiative, is simply proving that it is what it was in the beginning, is now, and always will be. It is a vehicle not for the pride of communities, of committed fans, but for the generating of ever increasing profit. When you look at that first prospectus, with its promise of a reduced fixture list, down to 18 clubs at most and sharply increased time for the development of the national team, it tells us all we really need to know about today's assurances. This is especially so in the promise that the increasingly foreign ownership of the Premier League will not sooner than later reach the conclusion of the proprietor of the Dodgers, Walter O'Malley.
That was, of course to move the franchise. He started with a few warning shots, playing league games in Jersey City, and then, two years after winning the World Series, he simply packed up and left for a glittering palace overlooking downtown LA. Ebbets Field was knocked down, along with half a century of devotion, three years later.
A New York court pronounced O'Malley's action, "one of the most infamous abandonments in the history of sport".
That's what a lot us thought, of course, when Manchester United were allowed to abandon their defence of the FA Cup – when it was part of their historic treble of 1999 – in favour of a tawdry, and instantly discredited, world club tournament in Brazil. It was said that United's action would be immensely helpful in England's campaign to stage the 2006 World Cup, which itself was based on the dishonourable decision to abandon a gentleman's agreement with the eventual hosts Germany. We didn't get the World Cup, only a tragically reduced FA Cup which is now the tournament of convenience – and one for which a player of Reading said recently he wouldn't "give a shit".
It was not a phrase which earned much admiration for Dave Kitson, but it had a degree of honesty and it was, essentially, what the FA and arguably the nation's greatest club said when they backed the interests of "international expansion". No one is saying that Liverpool will one day become the Los Angeles Kickers or that Arsenal are likely to wind up in Annapolis. But after the first betrayal – which is unquestionably what the exploitation by dilution of football's old league represents – everything that follows, you have to believe, is just a matter of degree.
That, certainly, is what the followers of the Lakers discovered a few years after the Dodgers and baseball's New York Giants moved to California. The fans in Minneapolis lost their team to Los Angles.
Unlike Minnesota, Los Angles doesn't have lakes. Just a market share to make the mouth water.
Yesterday's heroes seldom hurry to leave the stage – you have to push
England's injury- and morale-ravaged rugby team will have to produce something special in Rome tomorrow if they are to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment heaped upon them by Wales at Twickenham.
Defenders of the retention of Jonny Wilkinson, who played so poorly against the Welsh, say that England can't afford to lose his experience at such a critical hour. The argument doesn't really hold up. Indeed, it looks rather as though the problem is being mistaken for a solution.
One of the toughest jobs in sport is picking the moment to replace an established hero with someone whose form, confidence and sheer talent has left him knocking on the door with some impatience.
Fabio Capello had no qualms about leaving out Michael Owen at Wembley this week. He faced up to the reality which has been obvious to almost everyone accept Owen himself. Current form and confidence simply did not just justify his inclusion. The rugby coach Brian Ashton would have won a lot more respect if he had addressed the same truth concerning the heroic Wilkinson.
Instead, he again chose to keep the coruscating Danny Cipriani on the bench. Prudence is a fine quality, but when the going is tough there really isn't anything quite like a touch of nerve and, let's be honest, plain old moral courage.
One survivor adamant that silence must not be denied chance to speak
Sir Bobby Charlton was aghast at the suggestion that instead of a minute's silence fans should be asked to applaud the memory of the Busby Babes in tomorrow's Manchester derby.
The argument that those City supporters intent on wrecking the tribute would thus be drowned out seemed to represent an appalling compromise, an acceptance that the spirit and the conscience of significant sections of the nation had disappeared beyond recall.
"What would we be saying?" asked Sir Bobby. "That we have to conform to the lowest standards? That would be horrendous. At solemn moments we do not cheer, we show respect."
That, anyway, is the hope of Munich's most distinguished survivor. Or is it a rather desperate prayer?
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