He is not a man given to bestowing compliments lightly, especially when he has spent the previous 90 minutes berating officials over various decisions, but even Arsène Wenger could see that this was an occasion when the opposition was worthy of praise.
His team had beaten Brighton & Hove Albion 3-2 in the FA Cup fourth round, avoiding the bloody Football League uprising that had claimed Chelsea and Manchester City – two habitual bullies when it comes to Arsenal. At their Amex Stadium, Brighton had refused to go quietly in the second half and one could remember Champions League group games of recent years where Arsenal have been tested less.
“Yes, it’s a Championship team,” Wenger said of Brighton, “but at a lower level now the teams are prepared. They are players from the academies in the Premier League who don’t quite make it but can maintain the pace for 90 minutes. Even in League One, teams play good football and if you are not ready you can lose.”
Cambridge United included, this was, all told, a wonderful weekend for the Football League, 72 clubs that survive on an annual television deal comprising £65m in total. Or in other terms, less than Manchester United committed to the signing and salary of Angel Di Maria. As the prospect of the new £7bn-plus Premier League TV deal rolls into view, the gap between the 20 in first class and the 72 back down in economy will only grow greater, and the Cup shocks that much more shocking.
There is an argument for saying that, for all the lustre the FA Cup has lost over the years, there is nothing to compare with a current-day giant-killing. That they still occur is some kind of minor miracle.
That the giants of the game are still downed is a result, in part, of the complacency of some Premier League managers and players in their attitude towards the FA Cup. But more than that it is also great testimony to the footballers of the lower divisions and their capacity to show that, on any given day, the biggest discrepancy between them and the elite is the money they take home each month.
The old Cup story is that for one day of the year – for one day in a lifetime – the gap can be bridged. That a footballer can have his whole career in the space of one day, or at least that part of his career that he will for ever find himself stopped and asked about in pubs and supermarkets. Yet, there are other signs that the gap is not so pronounced.
The Milton Keynes Dons midfielder Dele Alli is the latest Football League prodigy to make the move to a top-flight club, a £4m deal with Newcastle United having been agreed. In a global market, where even non-EU players are waved through on appeal, the 72 clubs have held their own as a production line for Premier League footballers.
It helps, of course, that Premier League teams are required to have eight homegrown players in their domestic squads, but equally it is some achievement when the Football League academies can outproduce their wealthier cousins. Chelsea have won three out of the last five Under-18 FA Youth Cup finals, yet increasingly it seems the best chance their academy graduates have of getting on the pitch on match day would be to borrow the Stamford the Lion mascot suit.
The Premier League has a policy of wealth redistribution like no other league in world football but, even so, that comes with conditions. Its solidarity payments more or less match the Football League’s television income, albeit with the stipulation that the biggest slice – the parachute payments – is bestowed upon those relegated clubs who have left its own gilded kingdom.
The Football League says that transfers from its clubs to the top flight remain a major part of its members’ income and the figures bear that out. Last season, Football League clubs earned £46.5m over 18 transactions with their Premier League counterparts. In 2012-13 that was £66.4m over 24 deals. The previous season, 2011-12, it was £82.1m over 26 deals, and these figures are for contracted professionals only and do not include the academy compensation deals.
There is no discernible downward trend in the figures for transfers with the Football League over the last 10 years, during which time there have been three seasons when the total has exceeded £80m and only one, 2010-11, when it has dropped below £25m.
Last summer, the biggest sales tended to be those players leaving clubs relegated from the Premier League, the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Steven Caulker, Leroy Fer and Jordon Mutch. Yet, for Wenger alone some of the mainstays of his squad – Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey – have been plucked from the Football League, so too Carl Jenkinson, who now looks a top-flight player.
Of course, no Football League player of recent years has outperformed Gareth Bale and, although he left Southampton at 17, he is the most celebrated player in a generation of British footballers who have gained a valuable grounding in the Football League. They include the England internationals Michael Carrick, Peter Crouch, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Joe Hart, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne, but there are many more.
It was telling that in the two biggest shocks there were rejected academy boys on the winning teams – Billy Knott, the Bradford player formerly of Chelsea, or Adam Clayton, the Middlesbrough midfielder once of Manchester City – a reminder that it is not just a case of the stars needing to align for a good player to make it at a big club. To break through these days at City or Chelsea requires a whole cosmic event.
As Wenger concluded his post-match briefing on Sunday he was asked about the signing of Gabriel Paulista, the Brazilian defender from Villarreal who has played as many games for Brazil as Brighton’s two centre-halves – which is to say none at all. That Wenger could confidently predict Gabriel would be given his Home Office work permit at the following day’s Football Association hearing showed just what a farce that appeals process has become.
The immediate assumption is that it would be unrealistic to expect Wenger to find an experienced centre-back in the Championship with a British passport who met the standards Arsenal require. Do not bet against it one day, though, because despite their comparatively straitened circumstances, the poor relations of English football keep coming up with the goods.
Serious opposition to Blatter plays a long waiting game...
As he approaches the election for his fifth term in office as Fifa president, it is hard to ignore the fact that Sepp Blatter is talking like a dictator who has just witnessed the intimate, private burial of his nearest political rival. “All this opposition is coming now, it’s unfortunate to say – but it’s true – it’s coming from Uefa,” he told CNN this week. “They don’t have the courage to come in [to the election]. So let me go [on for a fifth term] – be respectful!”
The Twitter generation would describe this as world-class trolling of Michel Platini. Either way, the Uefa president looks, not for the first time, like a man whose only solution to ridding football of Blatter is to wait patiently for him to die. Of course, that is the one guarantee of all dictators, but it hardly says much for the opposition.Reuse content