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Five more years
By Tim Lattimer
With so many useless statistics in football, it is inevitable that there is an almost continuous stream of anniversaries, in our case often involving the phrase "last victory over Luton". Yet the fifth anniversary of the formation of the Premier League, surely an excellent chance to assess its effect on the game, seems to have passed virtually unnoticed. Perhaps this is because the consensus has already been reached that it is A Bad Thing, so the issue is no longer worth discussion. The football media may have seen a huge increase in the diversity of outlets in recent years, but virtually none in the diversity of opinions.

If, as is often said, the Premier League is all about the big clubs making money, then it undeniably has been a success. Equally, the general profile of football has increased an unbelievable amount in recent years. Nearly every time you switch on the telly, there is a new football programme. Pop stars, politicians and businessmen are all keen to proclaim their allegiances to grab some of the limelight, and Russian linesmen, Polish goalkeepers and Norwegian commentators have probably got their place in the GCSE history syllabus by now. I think most would agree that the quality is better as well : it is difficult to imagine the last champions under the old system, Leeds, finishing much above mid-table this year. The only quibble from understandably cynical football supporters is the extent to which the money is being shared out.

I'll get the first of three unpopular contentions out of the way now : the principal beneficiaries of the Premier league are not Man Utd, Liverpool or any of the big clubs. They are the mid-size clubs in the Premier league, who have seen their income rise dramatically, and can now compete on more equal terms with the rest of the division. Let us not forget that Newcastle, Blackburn and Middlesborough were not among the 22 teams that in 1992 decided to break away : Luton, Oldham, Sheffield Utd, and Notts County were. Moreover it was these smaller teams that voted for the Sky deal, rather than the less lucrative ITV deal; of the big clubs only Tottenham wanted Sky.

We have seen a more even Premiership this year than I can remember, with quality right down the table. Wimbledon no longer have to sell their best players every summer, and when they do sell, it is when players want to leave and when they get a good price. Look at the amount teams like Coventry and Southampton (around 5 million this season) can now spend on players. If Middlesbrough are not a big club, then who is? Yet, they have gone down. Okay, the big clubs still win everything, but that is partly because there are so many big clubs now. The game used to be dominated by the big five. Now there are teams like Chelsea, Middlesborough, Wolves, Blackburn, Newcastle, and Villa with huge purchasing power. Relegated clubs get a lot of pay-off money, and First Division clubs chasing promotion can borrow a lot with the prospects of immediate payback on promotion. When a team of QPR's size can resist a 6 million bid for a player for a whole season, while in the Endsleigh league with only a slim chance of promotion, things can't be too bad for the mid-size clubs.

True, Man Utd have dominated the league, but not to an unprecented degree, and the domination is more to do with the emergence of a particularly good crop of young players (due to some rather dubious tactics, admittedly) than financial domination : after all, other clubs have spent far more. The Premiership has not created a cartel of super-rich clubs - it has prevented it.

So if the benefits are not at the expense of the mid-size clubs they must be at the expense of the lower (i.e. 2nd and 3rd) divisions, right? Well, not necessarily. Although we are getting a smaller slice of the pie, the pie has become so much bigger that it is difficult to argue that we are worse off. Transfer income, sponsorship, TV money and gate receipts are all rising faster than inflation. Admittedly this started before the Premiership was formed, but particularly with regard to gates, it was expected to be a short-term effect caused by the severe drop in the 1980s. The long-term trend was (and may still be) downwards. To argue that the Premier clubs have left us destitute is a bit tenuous when we are paying an average wage of around 100,000 pounds to mediocre players.

My second point is that as a business, Watford's competitors are not Man Utd and Liverpool, or even Luton and Brentford. They are the minority sports, shopping centres, theme parks, etc. that give people things to do on Saturday afternoons that they just did not have in the 1920s and 1930s. We cannot rely on people to go to football because they always have done, or because their fathers did. We cannot even rely on football to remain Britain's number one sport indefinitely. More and more, we rely on people to come because they have taken an interest via the TV and want to watch live football. They don't live in Manchester so they come to Watford. To attract these people football must maintain its high profile. This means a successful England team, success in the European club competitions, and a high-quality Premiership with some of the best players in the world. The old structure, with the game being run by two separate institutions, was a bar to that. The vote to increase the old first division back to 22 teams in 1990(?) was the classic example. This highlighted the greed and short-termism that Premiership clubs are habitually accused of, but the culprits were the lower division clubs. It was this, rather than unwillingness to share TV money, that led to the formation of the Premier league. The old first division clubs were sick of being run by the lower clubs.

My third contention is this : there is no real reason for the league to be run as one body, given the different objectives and needs of different members. Why should we have a say in how Man Utd or Arsenal run their league, or they have a say in ours? Why should money be spread evenly? We are not a charity, after all, and we do not feel obliged to share our money with the non-league clubs. Watford are a long way from the bottom of the pyramid. Even if the Premier league means we have to go part-time or go bust, if we cannot stand on our own two feet, why should they bail us out? Why should there be 92 league clubs, rather than 40, say, or 200? Why does everything have to be run the way it has always been run?

So, are you convinced that the Premier League is a Good Thing for English Football? Thought not. Part of the problem, I think, is the question of how you measure the state of the game. I can think of 9 ways.

1. Number of people playing the game at all levels
2. Number of people watching the game live at all levels
3. Number of people watching televised football
4. Quality of football at the highest level nationally
5. Profile of football in the media
6. Success of the England team
7. Success of English clubs in Europe
8. Financial well-being of lower division clubs
9. Equality of resources between lower division clubs and top division clubs

Of these, only number 9 has indisputably got worse in the last five years. Most of the others have improved, and although it is difficult to assess how much of that has happened because of the formation of the Premiership, I think it is fair to say that it has been significant.

Here is one last statistic. In the six months before the Premier league was formed, two clubs, Aldershot and Maidstone, went bust. Since 1992, not a single league club has gone bust, despite the financial commitments made necessary by the Taylor report (which we funded thanks to transfer fees from Premiership clubs, incidentally). Teams have come close, but teams coming close to bankruptcy has been commonplace for years, especially in the dark days of the 1980s (e.g. Wolves, Tranmere, Charlton). Brighton's problems, for example, date back to before 1992.

So, probably alone among Watford supporters, I'll raise a cup of weak, lukewarm tea to the Premiership and say "good on you, here's to another five years".