The Premier League: Frankenstein’s monster is a raging success, but not for its FA creators

The Weekend Dossier: The sharing-out of income should be far more generous to the grass roots

“The establishment of a Premier League within the Football Association’s administration has to be considered first, in relation to the achievement of our purpose – that of establishing The Football Association as the Government of the game in England: second in relation to our prime objective of establishing the England Team at the apex of the pyramid of playing excellence. These two factors outweigh all other considerations.”

p30, The Blueprint for the Future of Football (published by the FA, 1991)

As the Premier League comes of age with its 21st season, one which ends moreover in a World Cup, it seems apposite to take the Blueprint off the shelf, blow off the dust and recall the competition’s origins. Reading through the plotting and planning of a Football Association whose main motivation was to put an obstreperous Football League in its presumed place, the conclusion has to be that things did not turn out quite as intended.

Rather than regain control of the game for the benefit of the national team, the FA’s failure to insert safeguards led to the creation of a Frankenstein’s monster. With the Premier League receiving the bulk of the game’s income, largely dictating the fixture schedule and controlling youth development, the FA is left with the messy and unsexy bits (discipline and grass roots). In terms of international football these are peripheral. Meanwhile, the England team struggle to qualify for tournaments and make minimal impact when they get there, which is hardly surprising, given barely a third of the Premier League’s starting players this weekend will be English.

 The FA was warned. The working party that wrote the blueprint predicted: “A breakaway league would not be driven by a desire to elevate the England team to the apex of the pyramid of playing excellence. Such a league would be driven by commercial considerations. The purpose would be to concentrate more commercial power in fewer clubs.” How prescient.

On those terms the Premier League has been a runaway success, fully deserving of its Queen’s Award for Industry. Commercially it really is “the best league in the world”. But as Greg Dyke, who was involved in the machinations that led to its creation, said prior to his appointment as FA chairman: “I don’t think it was ever the intention the Premier League would be owned by foreign owners, managed by foreign managers and played by foreign players, yet that is where we have ended up. It is a great league, but I don’t think it is great for English football.”

That is true, but only up to a point. Football has been the most popular sport in England for over a century but rarely has it been as embedded in the national consciousness as now and much of that is down to the rise of the Premier League. Thirty years ago, football was invisible outside the sports pages (which were far less numerous); now every other advertisement seems to have a football theme and multimedia empires are built on the back of it.

Despite ever-spiralling ticket prices the fans have been seduced in huge numbers. In 1991-92 the cumulative Football League gate was 20,487,273 (an average of 9,926 per game). Last season it was 29,225,443 (average 14,354). That is an expansion in the live audience of nearly 50 per cent, despite the growth of television coverage. The increase is not just in the Premier League; every division is up significantly on 1991-92 and has been for more than a decade. There is also a greater diversity in crowds, with a significant rise in female spectators and a more modest, but still visible growth in ethnic minorities.

These spectators sit in far greater comfort and safety than they did 21 years ago. If the gentrification of football is often exaggerated (just listen to the chants), the prospect of being physically assaulted at a ground, or even near one, is now slim.

Back in 1991-92 there were barely enough foreign players to construct a select XI, but now most clubs can field an all-foreign team. While that has been to the detriment of the national side it has enabled spectators to enjoy watching such players as Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Jürgen Klinsmann, Eric Cantona, David Ginola and many others. There really have been times in the last 20 years when it has seemed a golden age. And if the likes of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi play in La Liga rather than here, that is in part due to the more equitable distribution of Premier League income among the 20 clubs, which means it is a far more competitive and economically sound league than its Spanish rival.

Is it flawed? Undoubtedly. The sharing-out of TV income should be far more generous to the Football League and, especially, to the grass roots. For the Premier League to boast it gives away £290m when more than half that goes to former members as parachute payments is disingenuous. A mere 7.5 per cent levy on broadcast income, as called for by the “Don’t let grass roots football die” campaign would make a huge impact on the nation’s park pitches as opposed to no specific levy at all.

In that respect it is a pity the FA did not act on another recommendation from 1991; to purchase land for the provision of grass-roots pitches.

As the Premier League enters its third decade one hopes it recognises the need to rein in its excesses and  reconnect with the wider game. That last year’s gates were the lowest since 2006 should prompt introspection, as should the growing alienation within and without the sport.

Do not hold out much hope. The Premier League has some well-meaning staff but is controlled by a cartel of mainly foreign owners. The players’ union, once a beacon of sanity, is myopic and self-satisfied. The FA finally has a bold, experienced executive, but past inadequacies mean the opportunity to run the game’s flagship league for the greater good is long gone.

Let the games begin.

Five Asides

1. Shampoo ad is just another clanger dropped by Hart

Charley Hull, the 17-year-old golfer currently playing in the Solheim Cup, does not have a sponsor. Being young and photogenic she is not short of offers but figures if she focuses on her sport the rewards will follow. Her stance comes to mind every time Joe Hart appears on TV advertising an anti-dandruff shampoo. His errors seem to have grown along with his commercial profile. Surely an estimated £120,000-a-week salary is enough to forgo such distractions?

2. Is it time for Sky Blues to follow Dons’ road home?

With Coventry City now, incredibly, playing in Northampton while a perfectly good stadium sits empty in Lady Godiva’s city it seems increasingly possible that the endgame of this sad saga will be for supporters to follow the AFC Wimbledon model and form a new club beginning in non-league. It is, Dons fans will tell them, a long hard road back, but as Niall Couper’s book This Is Our Time confirms, hugely rewarding.

3. Gunners stand alone in keeping their kit on

It is not just the playing staff and manager that are unchanged at Arsenal. They are the only club in the Premier League not flogging a new home shirt. Congratulations to them and to Cardiff City, the sole club to retain the same away kit.

4. For England’s women it seems there’s always Hope

With five weeks to go before England women begin their World Cup qualifying programme, it seems manager Hope Powell has somehow survived the abysmal Euro 2013 campaign, when England came 12th out of 12 nations despite being one of the best funded. Presumably, only a failure to qualify will force her out. This is a department of the FA new chairman, Greg Dyke, needs to scrutinise urgently.

5. First-day freshness soon went bad for poor Fish

There is nothing like the first day of a new season, a treat finally enjoyed by the players and fans of Premier League clubs this weekend. But it can turn sour very quickly. Spare a thought today for Matt Fish, who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament five minutes into Gillingham’s first game of the season a fortnight ago. The 24-year-old, a near ever-present as the Gills won League Two last season, is likely to miss most, possibly all, of the campaign.

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