Don't blame Chelsea

They may have more money than their predecessors, but Jose Mourinho's team are not at fault for the Premiership's dip in popularity.
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The Independent Online

It is one of the less well-known Bill Shankly quotations and certainly does not have the charm of his proclamation about football being more important than life and death or his cantankerous promise to draw the curtains should Everton ever turn up in his garden. But it is one of his mission statements that says something, especially in our day, about the culture of our football, about the belligerence of our club traditions, about what is at stake every weekend when the teams of our towns and cities play.

"Liverpool would be untouchable," Shankly reflected once on his blueprint for Britain's most successful club. "My idea was to build Liverpool up and up and up until eventually everyone would have to submit. To give in."

Read it again and imagine it delivered in the unyielding terms of that Ayrshire pit village accent and you realise that success in English football has been a tyranny, an exercise in the oppression of rivals long before Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho arrived on the scene. This is how our game has developed and, more pertinently, this is how we like it.

Now Chelsea are trying to eviscerate the rest of their Premiership brethren, to render their efforts meaningless, to reduce their legions of support and their squads of famous players to insignificance, and in English football that kind of pathological approach counts as the continuation of an honourable tradition. Shankly, Bob Paisley, George Graham and Ferguson all achieved it to varying degrees of success. And none of them would have taken time out from their plans for world domination to agonise over whether yet another victory might affect Sunderland's chances of selling out a midweek home game against Fulham.

The dwindling crowds at certain Premiership grounds, and the anguished cry that our league is no longer competitive, is not a crime we can pin on the oligarch at Stamford Bridge - rather it is a result of the standards we have come to expect of our mid-ranking clubs. Take Middlesbrough, a well-run solvent club, who drew fewer fans to the Riverside this month to see Steve McClaren's side beat Arsenal than the 30,218 who showed up in April 1998 to watch a 4-0 victory there. Granted, on that day seven years ago there were more goals, and Marco Branca scored a hat-trick, but the opposition did not have a single international among them. Why would they? They were Bury.

Middlesbrough were in the First Division but there was plenty at stake as they finished a promotion season that would take them back to the Premiership where they have stayed ever since. Another sensible, financially cautious club Blackburn Rovers, or "Blackeye Rovers" as critics of their new uncompromising approach have suggested, are routinely condemned for not filling Ewood Park.

In April 2001 they attracted 29,246 to a home win over Huddersfield Town as they pushed for promotion back to the Premiership - almost 10,000 more than watched them at home to Newcastle on Sunday. The supporters were there to witness tangible success, advancement, not, as they are offered now, the outside chance of a Uefa Cup place.

For the past three years, in the wake of Leeds United's decline, it has been impressed upon the Premiership's mid-ranking clubs that Peter Ridsdale's Elland Road creed of "chasing the dream" has about as much credibility as a defence of Leninism would receive on the sun deck of Roman Abramovich's favourite yacht. The middle classes have been told to tailor their ambitions accordingly, to spend within their means and never to entertain any notion of trying to catch up with the two or three dominant clubs. Their success in balancing the finances - in such uncertain times, in such an uncertain business - deserves recognition.

The culture of caution is great for preserving these community institutions - try telling fans of York City, Bury and Wimbledon that sound financial management is boring - but, sadly, football has not yet established an end-of-season tradition of a lap of honour for the club's accounting department. Recapturing the imagination of supporters is built upon the cycle of success and failure but, over the past decade, failure has come to mean extinction, the death of a football club, and that is a charge that no chairman or chief executive wants against their name.

At the top end, the new stadiums of Arsenal and Liverpool, and especially the extension of Old Trafford to a 75,000 capacity, have provoked fears that even the biggest clubs may not be able to fill their grounds. At Manchester United, where the average age of a season -ticket holder rises by one year every year, and currently stands at 40, they hope that for the first time 8,000 new seats will give them the flexibility to attract a new generation of fans, both those that are younger and from the ethnic minorities.

It is through initiatives like those which have achieved success in the Football League, that clubs can hope to reignite the devotion of those people who follow them. But trying to force this country's fractious community of clubs into a democratic, transferable group of homogeneous franchises that can agree on, for example, a salary cap like American football's NFL is beyond any historian or politician, let alone a sports administrator.

Our 92 clubs have a code of animosity and financial disparity that stretches back for more than a century. It is a story of clubs whose fortunes have risen and fallen with the prosperity of the cities and regions they represent. Grudges and rivalries are as much a part of this generation's inheritance as the decrepit stadiums were for another - a tradition that makes a market capitalist of every one of us who admits to an allegiance. Shankly was a socialist who lived through the General Strike of 1926 but even his belief in equality - for the opposition at least - ended when he passed under the Anfield tunnel sign.

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