Why the Premier League is bizarrely both highly predictable and difficult to guess

Weekend dossier: In the need to prioritise survival debutants Bournemouth are no different to Everton, embarking on their 113th top-flight campaign, or Newcastle United

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The Independent Online

Pre-season, with hands unshaken, loyalty pledges forsaken, and overhyped tours taken, is over. Now the 24th season of the Premier League begins, and welcomes its 47th participant. Bournemouth’s ascent means more teams in the 92-club league framework have now frolicked in the land of milk and honey than not. 

Some have not much enjoyed the experience, and many who enjoyed it at the time have paid for it since. The Cherries enter virgin territory with fear and joy battling for emotional supremacy. It is the estimable Eddie Howe’s job to make sure the latter holds sway, tempered by a healthy dose of realism.

The target is survival, as it is for all but half a dozen clubs in the 20-team league. In that respect debutants Bournemouth are no different to Everton, embarking on their 113th top-flight campaign, or Newcastle United, whose stadium capacity is more than four times Bournemouth’s.

The Premier League has become an odd league, both highly predictable and hard to guess. Picking the top four is easy enough. In a survey of 28 BBC TV and radio pundits, presenters and commentators (who could possibly argue the corporation is overstaffed?) 27 picked the same top four. The exception was Dion Dublin, who included Liverpool at Manchester City’s expense.

Then come the wannabes, Tottenham and Liverpool. After that it’s pin-sticking territory, though most teams will finish in a position similar to last season’s and commensurate with this year’s wage bill.

 

The issue around the top four is which order they will be placed, but whichever club come out on top they will not be a new champion. Like many I have carped at the constant mentions of “in the Premier League era” when referring to feats by individuals and clubs; league football started in 1888, not 1992. But 24 years is a decent stretch. I suspect “post-war” became a reference point well before 1969-70, which is the equivalent timeframe.   

In the 24 seasons from 1946-70 there were 13 different champions; in the 23 Premier League seasons to date there have been five and no one expects a sixth come May. Tottenham, fifth last year, are 150-1 at the bookies to come first. Watford are an astonishing 10,000-1 – the longest title odds in the Football League are 200-1 (Rotherham in the Championship, Accrington in League Two).

We may have to wait until Liverpool and Tottenham’s new stadiums are generating revenue before the pennant finds a new home. The other possibility is that a foreign tycoon finds a way round financial fair play and follows the high-spending path to glory taken by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour.

This is quite possible. For all the concentration of honours within a small band Premier League clubs remain highly attractive to overseas investors, some of whom seek glory by association as well as TV-underwritten profit. With a Chinese pursuit of West Bromwich falling through during the summer, nine of the 20 clubs remain in British hands. None finished in the top four, but several are up for sale if the price is right. It will be a surprise if at least one does not change hands this season, given the bonanza of next season’s new TV deal.

The wealth in the league is already extraordinary, and has led to a return to the days before the big clubs stockpiled talent and everyone had a quality player or two. Thirty seasons ago Ipswich Town, Birmingham City and West Bromwich went down. In their teams that season were players of the calibre of Terry Butcher, David Seaman and Derek Statham. In lower-mid-table, with Watford, Southampton and Aston Villa, were John Barnes, Peter Shilton and Andy Gray.

 These days such native players would be with a top-six club, but in their place are foreigners like Yohan Cabaye, Aleksandar Mitrovic and André Ayew, attracted this summer both by the wages on offer, and the Premier League’s big crowds and perceived glamour. They have no chance of winning the league with Palace, Newcastle and Swansea respectively, nor of playing in the Champions League, but as Christian Benteke and Morgan Schneiderlin know, perform and the top clubs will come knocking. This means that while the squad depth of the top clubs renders it impossible for smaller ones to do what West Ham did 30 years ago, and challenge for the title (they eventually finished third), in any given 90 minutes they can beat an elite team. 

This is one of the pluses of a competition that, like the Bible, can be interpreted to support almost any point of view. Is it good for football? Many of those who insist football was better pre-1992 are too young to remember what it was really like. The quality of play and facilities are far superior to 30 years ago while fans are safer. However, parts of society are being priced out of attending live matches (many cannot afford TV packages either, but live terrestrial matches were also rare 30 years ago). And yet, while football is ever more expensive, the crowds keep rising. In the mid-1980s top-flight crowds fell below 19,000. Last season the Premier League drew an average 36,176.

Is it good for society? Premier League clubs do more community work than clubs in the past, or elsewhere in Europe, and the league is a driver of tourism and soft power. Nevertheless, nowhere near enough of the funds they receive goes into grassroots football and the game’s dominance squeezes other sports. The infestation of betting sponsors and advertisers is a concern too.

The Premier League did not start football’s recovery – Lord Justice Taylor’s post-Hillsborough Report and the fascination stirred by Italia ’90 did that – but the new league accelerated the process and drove it beyond anyone’s expectations. It is flawed but spectacular and, in many ways, one of the great triumphs of the 21st-century English economy. There will certainly not be many in Bournemouth today complaining about its arrival on the Dorset coast.

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