Sunday, 22 May 2016

Irk the traditionalists

There’s a great Half Man Half Biscuit song called ‘Irk the purists’ - but when it comes to football, I prefer to irk the traditionalists.

By traditionalists, I mean those people who hold that football is all about ‘big’ clubs, and that the game is somehow poorer if those clubs aren’t competing for honours. Many of those people are, naturally, fans of those clubs, but the media is also full of traditionalists, and they can be heard every weekend on football programmes and phone-ins. Rarely an edition of 606 goes by without Robbie Savage responding sympathetically to a listener’s whinges with something along the lines of: “Yes, [name of club] are a big, big club, and you really should be in the Premier League.”

Except they shouldn’t, because (thankfully) the only way to get into the Premier League is by winning enough matches to gain promotion, and a significant number of ‘big, big’ clubs have singularly failed to do that in recent years. Starting next season in the Championship will be Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Derby, Birmingham and Wolves, not to mention new joiners Newcastle and Aston Villa. Then there are the clubs that have enjoyed recent stints in the Premier League, and whose fans doubtless believe they belong there: QPR, Blackburn, Norwich, Cardiff, Fulham, Wigan, plus Hull if they don’t win the play-off final. There are more ‘big’ clubs lower down the league: Bolton and Sheffield United in League One, Portsmouth in League Two.

Conversely, you could make a case for around a third of next season’s Premier League line-up consisting of clubs that the traditionalists would dismiss as somehow not worthy of the status. There’s Watford of course, but also Bournemouth, Swansea, Southampton, Burnley, West Brom, Palace – and not forgetting the champions, Leicester. (I’ll come back to them in a minute.)

What these two lists make clear is that, in modern football, there aren’t big and small clubs: there are just well-run and badly-run ones. The big clubs that have fallen on hard times have mostly done so because their owners have made calamitous decisions, spent their money unwisely (or too sparingly), hired bad managers and fired good ones. Ask a fan of any of the formerly big clubs for the primary cause of their downfall and the odds are that they will either name the current owner, or a former one. Conversely, the smaller clubs that are enjoying the limelight are those that have sensible owners who do what is best for the club, and I’m proud (not to mention relieved, given previous experiences) to be able to include the Pozzos in that list.

The traditionalists have mostly been magnimous on the subject of Leicester’s triumph (albeit most of those in the media were confidently predicting their fall from grace till well into 2016 – traditionalists are notable for their inability to conceive of something happening that hasn’t happened before). That’s because they’re sure it’s a one-off.

They may be in for a nasty surprise, though. Thanks to the new Sky TV deal that kicks in next season, the Premier League playing field is going to be more level than ever before. Even the smallest clubs will be able to attract game-changing players from around the world, and while the really big names will doubtless still plump for the prestige of an Arsenal or a Man United, given the choice, there’s no guarantee that the usual suspects will reassert their dominance next season, or in the foreseeable future. It may not be Leicester next season, but there’s every chance that another relatively unfancied club will be challenging for the title.

Meanwhile, the growing wealth gap will make it ever harder for clubs that haven’t been in the Premier League for a while to get back there. Big clubs are usually from big towns and cities, and their strength on the pitch was traditionally based on their ability to fill a large stadium once a fortnight, and the revenue that resulted. Not any more. Newcastle can fill St. James’s Park with baying, bare-chested Geordies as often as they like, but it’s Watford’s 20,000 fans who’ll be watching Premier League football next year. And if that irks the traditionalists, all the better. Time to start a new tradition.

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