There are few businesses in the world as successful as the Premier League who are required to defend themselves as stridently and as often – especially when the charge is that they are culpable in the decline of modern English footballers, rather than a bright shining vision of the future.
Another August and the show is starting again, today alighting on a quiet corner of Willesden in north-west London to sprinkle a little of the glamour of the most lucrative sports league in the world. At the Capital City academy, it was the Premier League which funded the students’ new 3G pitch, and in order that the world should know, the likes of Vincent Kompany, Manuel Pellegrini and Gus Poyet were brought in to tell them.
Sky Sports took it so seriously it built a studio beside the pitch, where governors of the academy had their picture taken alongside the trophy. The Premier League was keen for all to know that, as reported in The Independent yesterday, it has pledged £10.5m to primary school sport. What is £10.5m for a league that earns £1bn annually from television revenue? Less than one per cent, but, as the league itself would point out, £10.5m more than other European leagues muster.
Richard Scudamore, the league’s chief executive, is a man whose default setting is robustly defensive. Who can blame him? On one side, 20 ultra-demanding club owners. On the other, a public blaming him for everything from rising ticket prices to England’s woeful World Cup to the dreaded 39th-game proposal.
This year, he had one more issue on the agenda. This was the first time Scudamore had discussed his recent excruciating personal scandal: his emails, leaked by a former personal assistant, Rani Abraham, in which he made sexist remarks about a Premier League employee – herself in attendance today. Scudamore survived but by a closer margin than he might have expected.
He said there is still a legal process in place – the suggestion being that Abraham accessed a private email account, an allegation she denies. Nevertheless, he did say that there was no sexist culture in existence at 30 Gloucester Place, the League’s headquarters.
The best deals of the summer...
The best deals of the summer...
1/15 Bojan Krkic (Stoke City, forward, £4.4m)
The most unlikely move of the summer looks like it could be one of the cutest. More interesting than all of the inevitable talk about “How will a former Barcelona starlet handle himself on a wet Saturday afternoon at the Britannia?” is how Mark Hughes convinced a former Barcelona starlet to leave Rome for a series of wet Saturdays in Stoke. Bojan has cut an increasingly disappointing figure in the three years since he left Catalonia – but Hughes revitalised Oussama Assaidi last season and could do the same for the nimble-footed Spanish forward.
2/15 Bafetimbi Gomis (Swansea City, striker, free)
Swansea City have reacted shrewdly to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Wilfried Bony with the signing of the equally powerful Gomis. The Frenchman was hardly prolific during his five years at Lyon, netting at the rate of just over a goal every three games – but he offers an all-round threat not present in Bony’s game. Gomis is adept at holding the ball up and will allow Swansea the option of going long more often to complement their sometimes predictable passing game – he is a pragmatic buy with the potential to transcend lowly initial expectations.
3/15 Daryl Janmaat (Newcastle, right-back, £5m)
The quiet revolution on Tyneside continues at right-back, where Daryl Janmaat is a more than adequate replacement for Mathieu Debuchy, who was lured by Arsenal. Janmaat impressed for the Netherlands under Louis van Gaal at the recent World Cup with several displays of defensive solidity coupled with attacking prowess – indeed, he looks more secure at the back than the man he is replacing. The same caveat applied to Filipe Luis is relevant to Janmaat: the effectiveness of his displays will be measured by their lack of prominence. The early signs are promising.
4/15 Filipe Luis (Chelsea, left-back, £16m)
To suggest that Luis is an Ashley Cole clone is to damn him with faint praise and speak a measure of truth at the same time – Schrödinger’s Cat updated to fit Chelsea’s left-back problem. The Brazilian is as safe in defence as a Victorian semi-detached town house, but is ever-eager to press forward on the overlap. Great full-backs follow the maxim applied to referees: you only really notice them when they are performing badly or missing in action. Luis’s value will be revealed if Atletico Madrid struggle in his absence – and if no one mentions the name A Cole.
5/15 Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal, forward, £32m)
Sanchez is perhaps the standout signing in a summer of big-money moves at the sharp end of the Premier League. The Chile international has the pace, skill and finishing ability to play anywhere across the front line – he started on the wing in Arsenal’s Community Shield defeat of Manchester City but is expected to move to a more central role before too long, possibly replacing Olivier Giroud. Sanchez should bring the type of dynamism that Arsenal’s pretty, patterned play has often lacked over the past few seasons. Given the size of his fee, he will be expected to perform.
6/15 Diego Costa (Chelsea, striker, £33.44m)
The man viewed as Chelsea’s long-term striking solution could well turn out to be not just one of the best Premier League transfers of this summer but one of the best in the league’s history. Equally, the Brazilian has the potential to make his £33m-plus transfer fee look like the biggest debacle this side of Fernando Torres. The naturalised Spaniard flourished at Atletico Madrid in Diego Simeone’s high-energy, high-pressing system – but on occasion he can appear leaden-footed and has a fiery temperament that must be curbed. A two-goal salvo against Real Sociedad on Tuesday night hinted at the good side of the man – and his reaction to a Bruno Alves horror tackle against Fenerbahce the bad.
7/15 Romelu Lukaku (Everton, striker, £28m)
Having been on loan last season, Everton’s key signing of this transfer window already feels well at home among Goodison Park’s club-embossed armchairs. Lukaku hit 15 league goals for Roberto Martinez’s side last season as they challenged for the Champions League, only to falter at the last. More will be demanded of the Belgian now the Merseysiders have almost doubled their transfer record to make his move permanent – but Lukaku has the ability to fulfil those lofty expectations. Bullishly strong and with an unerring left boot, he can flourish now he is not tagged as the next Didier Drogba.
8/15 Lazar Markovic (Liverpool, winger, £20m)
How do you go about replacing the irreplaceable? Brendan Rodgers’ seemingly impossible task of filling the void left by Luis Suarez got off to a promising start with the signing of jet-heeled Serbian winger Markovic, who starred during Benfica’s run to last season’s Europa League final. The 20-year-old will be allowed time to settle into Premier League life, with Rodgers expected to use him from the bench in the season’s early weeks. Once he is unleashed, however, Markovic could be the season’s great surprise – he has trickery enough to delight even the most Suarez-obsessed members of the Kop.
9/15 Ander Herrera (Man United, midfield, £32m)
Leaving aside the lingering memories of the farce that was United’s pursuit of Herrera last summer, the fact that Louis van Gaal finally has the man David Moyes wanted can only be a good thing for a midfield in need of both an internal and external makeover. Despite being only 24, the playmaker is a classy and experienced operator – a veteran of European football with Athletic Bilbao, for whom he impressed against United in the Europa League in March 2012. Herrera is a significant upgrade on Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick – a player of finely spun steel for a deoxygenated midfield.
10/15 Rémy Cabella (Newcastle, midfield, £12m)
The Montpellier chairman, Louis Nicollin, mocked Cabella for his decision to move to Tyneside, telling the midfielder that he would be “bored” at his new club. It will be Alan Pardew seeing the funny side of the deal if Cabella proves a hit at Newcastle, however – and the France international has the ability to be just that. Creative and versatile, he possesses the type of Gallic skill that Newcastle fans have seen twice before with Laurent Robert and the incomparable David Ginola.
11/15 Daley Blind (Manchester United, midfield, £14m)
While United stole the headlines with their dramatic swoop to bring in Radamel Falcao in what looks a drastically expensive loan move, it was the signing of Daley Blind which could help the most given United's obvious deficiencies in midfield and defence. Blind, 24, knows Louis van Gaal and his methods well, which should prove very useful given how slowly it seems the rest of United's rearguard are getting their heads around them. And at £14million, he is the cheapest of United's senior signings.
12/15 Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea, midfield, £30m)
Another expensive acquisition, the fee this time believed to be in the region of £30million - but again, it is easy to see why the cash has been splashed. The early signs are that the Spain midfielder may be an even better player than the one who left Arsenal as a true Premier League star in 2011.
13/15 Calum Chambers (Arsenal, defence, £16m)
Not the most high-profile departure among the exodus from St Mary's over the summer, but Chambers was known to be a player of great promise and has certainly made a big impression in Arsenal's defence so far following his switch for a reported £16million, earning a first call-up to the full England squad.
14/15 Hatem ben Arfa (Hull, midfield, loan)
Steve Bruce arguably had the best deadline day of any Premier League manager as he completed something of a summer overhaul with the arrivals of Abel Hernandez, Mohamed Diame and Gaston Ramirez. But it was the late, late arrival of Newcastle outcast Hatem Ben Arfa which had the fans most excited. When his mind is right, the Frenchman is one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the league and if Bruce can get him back on track after a frustrating year in the north east, he will give Hull a new dimension.
15/15 Mario Balotelli (Liverpool, striker, £16m)
The former Manchester City star is back in the Premier League after Brendan Rodgers went ahead with a £16m move for the Italian, securing his services from AC Milan. If Liverpool can contain his livewire personality and on-field temper, it could work out to be one of the best deals in the club's history.
“I think we can be absolutely sure of that,” he said. “Nearly 50 per cent of our employees are female, every single one of them – and believe you me, people were trying to goad one of them to ‘dob’ on the culture of the Premier League – will say it is a very invigorating place to work.
“There are some very aggrieved female employees who have seen the organisation characterised in the way it was. I can’t say more than that, they were private emails and you know there is a legal process that is going on which is still in train. But the ultimate test is the 40 or so females that work at the Premier League.”
Had it been difficult for a man who is not known for tolerating shortcomings in others, especially if they happen to work for the Football Association? “Of course it was difficult and I apologised straightaway. The clubs were assembled and they gave their backing unanimously to what I’ve done for how many years and hopefully in the future.”
Scudamore had heart surgery over the summer and the League’s chairman Anthony Fry has had to resign because of ill health. That, coupled with the sexism saga, would amount to a dreadful year in any other organisation, but the Premier League operates according to different rules. The Sky Sports v BT Sport war rages across the country’s billboards, pointing to yet another rise in the Premier League’s phenomenal television income when it goes to market in September for the next contract.
It is not even halfway through the current deal, worth around £1bn a year to the 20 clubs. Yet, having lost the League’s outstanding player to Spain for the second consecutive season, and endured another dismal England World Cup performance, there seems no slowing yet of the Premier League juggernaut and the fascination it attracts across the world.
The numbers remains staggering. The League is watched in 650 million homes in 175 countries. In the United States last season there was an estimated aggregate live audience of 115m on NBC, a 114 per cent increase. Domestically, even the BBC’s Match of the Day 2 saw an audience increase of 9.3 per cent. But nothing expresses the popularity of the Premier League like the cold hard cash of the broadcast deals.
Scudamore is unapologetic about rejecting limits on foreign players, which he says would reduce quality not enhance it. As for the World Cup, he argues that England underperformed. “We took a good crop of players. Those players ought to be able to compete on a world stage.” The clear inference being that it was Roy Hodgson and the FA’s fault that they did not, but he was too smart to spell that out.
On the future of the English footballer, Scudamore will point to the Elite Player Performance Plan, rolled out in 2012 after a great deal of research and investment by clubs in their academies. He regards that as youth development’s year zero; England’s Germany post-Euro 2000 moment. There will be no swerving from that strategy.
There is no chance of Scudamore changing his belief that FA chairman Greg Dyke’s B-team league is a bad idea. He supports the development of the Premier League’s Under-21s competition. “The idea that you would want to subject those players to playing somewhere between Conference and League Two football is not a place we want our players to go in a technical sense.”
On ticket prices and the Football Supporters’ Federation protest this week, Scudamore’s broad point is that the market dictates and the grounds are 95.9 per cent full. “I have a concern but it’s part of an overall concern of making sure the grounds are full. Clearly there is a linkage. If the attendances started to drop then one of the things you would look would be ‘Stop, have the clubs gone too far?’”
Yet there is no greater distraction from the issues of bad English World Cup performances and indiscreet emails than the Premier League itself. The madness starts again on Saturday lunchtime and, as usual, even the most trenchant critics will be rapt.