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Champions League: Why the Premier League’s new-found dominance overlooks English football's rotting roots

Instability, insecurity, disenfranchisement, disillusionment: this is the prevailing mood music of English football – regardless of the European riches now in reach for the nation's elite clubs

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Friday 15 March 2019 15:27 GMT
Champions League 2019 quarter final draw

Congratulations, everyone: we did it! Four English teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Arsenal and Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the Europa League. English football is back, off the operating table and in outstanding health. And let’s be very clear: this is a triumph the whole game can share in.

“For English football it’s incredible,” Pep Guardiola said after Manchester City thrashed Schalke 10-2 on aggregate. “It’s a really big night, not only for Liverpool, but for England,” Gini Wijnaldum claimed after Liverpool conquered Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. And with Tottenham and Manchester United also making it into the last eight, Rio Ferdinand was just one of the many pundits and media observers predicting a new era of dominance.

“It seems like the cycle is turning in England’s favour,” Ferdinand said on BT Sport on Wednesday night, a sentiment that neatly presaged the emphatically triumphant tone of Thursday and Friday’s newspapers, which suggested that England’s Fab Four were simply completing the conquest begun by Henry V and pursued by Admiral Nelson and Mrs Thatcher. Albeit, a conquest enacted with only 18 out of 71 English players, 0 out of 4 English managers and owners from Abu Dhabi, the United States and a Bahamas-based investment vehicle. Brings a tear to your eye, it really does.

Of course, whether the humiliated Germans would trade us some of our treasured Uefa knockout-stage places – for, say, a functioning democracy? – is largely conjecture at this stage. In any case, this truly is a moment of national celebration, as evidenced by the manifold laudatory analysis pieces that followed in the subsequent days, that particular strand of journalism in which every occurrence is a pattern, every pattern a trend, one that must be explicable by ‘Reasons’: trite and banal reasons that scan well in a headline. “Random chance, cyclical variations and small sample sizes: how England found themselves on top of Europe again” doesn’t really seem to cut it for some reason.

Among the proffered suggestions: money (Tottenham haven’t signed a player since Willem Korsten in 1999), the calibre of managers the Premier League has managed to attract (United essentially hired one of its club ambassadors on a whim) and the barrelling, six-way competitiveness of the Premier League, which – conveniently – also serves as an excuse when English teams fail in Europe. But never mind. None of this can ever be proven either way, and so no contribution to this debate can ever be truly wrong. The real issue here is the presumption not only that these four wildly different clubs run by wildly different philosophies on wildly differing budgets can collectively be taken as a sign of anything at all, but that it is even a valid or relevant question to pose.

There is, perhaps, a dual nostalgia at work here. Not merely for the days when English clubs dominated Europe – the 1970s and 1980s, and again in the 2000s – but for the long-gone age when this was something we were supposed to revel in: when English (and Scottish) clubs in Europe were a cause the entire nation gleefully rallied behind. That age has surely passed, as Liverpool owner John Henry discovered the hard way when he tweeted, “Sweet! Four for England!” on Wednesday night, and was met with a fusillade of incredulous Scousers embedding GIFs, the 21st-century internet equivalent of being put in the public stocks and pelted with gooseberries.

But there’s something else going on here, and you can identify it in the words of Guardiola and Wijnaldum and all the other observers insisting that the success of English clubs in Europe this season is “great for English football”, or in some way analogous to the health of the domestic game. It is, in essence, the myth often propagated in spheres far more important than sport: that what’s good for the top is by definition good for everyone else. Yet even the most cursory of glances a little further down the pyramid exposes this as a cruel fallacy.

In the same week that English football was reasserting its pre-eminence, for example, dozens of Blackpool fans were scraping bird faeces off the seats at Bloomfield Road, the legacy of years of wilful neglect under the regime of Owen Oyston, a regime that was finally ended at the High Court last month. While the game’s authorities looked on with indifference, the only real resistance to the misrule of the Oyston family came from the supporter base and their long-standing stadium boycott. The EFL, for its part, will decide in the coming weeks whether to punish the club with a 12-point penalty for breaching insolvency regulations.

Unpopular owners are something of a vogue these days, alas. And there are echoes of Blackpool’s strife up the road in Bolton, where chairman Ken Anderson is looking to sell up after a turbulent tenure in which the club’s impending relegation to League One occasionally feels like the least of their issues. Wages have gone unpaid. Games have been threatened with cancellation in a dispute over safety costs. The club’s training ground has been forced to close owing to a lack of food and power. Anderson, meanwhile, has been busy stoking up a bizarre row with Forest Green over an aborted loan signing, threatening to print T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Yes We Ken” in an attempt to drum up support.

At Charlton Athletic, there is still no end in sight to the disastrous tenure of Roland Duchatelet, which has seen concerted protests, swingeing cost cuts, a slow regression on the pitch, and 11 different managers in five years. Still, at least Charlton fans can be reasonably confident of still having a team to watch and a stadium to visit next season. No such guarantees exist at Coventry, whose future remains in the balance as a result of a legal battle over the ownership of the Ricoh Stadium. An extraordinary general meeting of the EFL next month could yet decide to kick Coventry out of the league if they are not confident in their ability to find a suitable home.

Pep Guardiola: ‘For English football it’s incredible’ (Getty)

Where next? To Notts County, perhaps, where the world’s oldest professional football club is in danger of slipping out of the Football League under the watch of chairman Alan Hardy. Massive debts have seen a winding-up order issued by HMRC and two managers sacked already this season. Hardy’s frequent social media broadsides, meanwhile, were abruptly curtailed earlier this year when he deleted his Twitter account after accidentally posting a photo of his genitalia.

Or to Birmingham, perhaps, where the recent attack by a fan on Jack Grealish was really just part of a broader story of inadequate stewarding, slashed policing budgets and a general increase in fan unrest? Or Oldham, the Football League’s newest laughing stock after Paul Scholes’s relationship with owner Abdallah Lemsagam broke down after just 31 days? Or Port Vale, where fans are currently trying to oust their deeply unpopular owner Norman Smurthwaite?

In many ways, it is stories like these – and not the success of a very few clubs at the pinnacle – that are the prevailing mood music of English football. Instability, insecurity, disenfranchisement, disillusionment. Two-bob businessmen playing card games with people’s dreams, fans howling into the abyss for someone, anyone with any power, to do something. The Championship slowly developing into a sort of Vegas-or-bust Premier League waiting room, with teams stretching themselves to their very limits in a high-stakes gamble that has as many losers as winners.

Manchester United are joined by their England rivals in the quarter-finals of the Champions League (Getty Images)

It’s worth reading last summer’s Deloitte report on English football finances, which observes that many Championship clubs are running on Premier League budgets – with wage bills often well in excess of 100 per cent of revenues – in an attempt to crack the big time. Perhaps this explains why the Championship clubs are so keen to rewrite the reconfigure the EFL’s governance and tilt its financial distribution in its own favour.

Or look at the Premier League’s grotesquely regressive EPPP programme, which essentially codified the right of big clubs to prey on those further down the food chain, and has led to many smaller teams closing their academies. Or B-teams in the Checkatrade Trophy. Or the loan system, which rewards bigger clubs for stockpiling young players and corrals smaller clubs into a form of fealty, desperate to cultivate relationships with the elite in order to get preferred access to their cast-offs.

These are the real trends of English football, an ecosystem that used to run, however imperfectly, on the basic principle that for all the game’s inequities and injustices we were all essentially in it together. Over the course of a few decades, that orthodoxy has been entirely upended. No wonder fans of lower-league teams are feeling a little nonplussed at this week’s Euro-hoopla. For over a generation, English football has been ruthlessly funnelling growth upwards. Now, we’re all supposed to rejoice in the fact that United are back in the big time. The thing is, if you want to know how healthy an organism is, you don’t look at the foliage. You look at the roots.

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