When I was growing up in Watford, there were two branches of "Our Price" in the
High Street. One at either end, strategically positioned for maximum temptation.
They were record shops. They sold records. They were full of records, all space occupied
by racks of plastic-covered LP sleeves. They even smelt of records - the wonderful, enticing,
unique smell that compact discs have long since banished from the nation's shopping
And they were probably full of people with deeply pitiful lives. Like me. In
those two shops, I lost my heart. I discovered the bands that would soundtrack my
teenage years, from the Wedding Present's adolescent-friendly jangling to Big Black's
monstrous roar, as well as the bands that would forever lurk shamefully at the back of my record
collection. I spent hours, days, weeks of my life rummaging through racks that I already
knew by memory. "Our Price" was my refuge.
Now there's just Virgin. Sheen replaces soul. Exactly the same in every town, no need to spend time looking through the
racks in search of buried treasure. It's not a refuge from anything. It's not even a record shop, not at heart.
Record shops, football clubs. Lives are shaped by and built around such things.
For the romantics, this is a battle that has already been lost. The sudden fuss surrounding the Manchester United
take-over, for example, is plainly ludicrous. You can't sell your soul to the devil
twice. United have spent the last ten years operating as the most ruthless, arrogant,
hate-worthy business imaginable; Murdoch's arrival cannot make them any more ruthless, arrogant
As symbolism, however, its potency is hard to ignore. The largest football club in
the world is being used as a pawn in another, richer game. For all those who've spouted the "football is big
business" cliché in recent years, reality bites - Manchester United's profits
are simply rendered insignificant by Murdoch's vast empire.
If the truth of football's current infatuation with commercialisation is finally
dawning, then it's not before time. As I've previously argued elsewhere,
my personal affiliations, though undeniably emotional, are actually supported by
economic reality. Fans have been blinded by science for too long.
Neither the proposed European Super League nor the Manchester United takeover will
do anything to alter the course that football is taking. The trajectory, mapped
out at the births of the Premiership and the Champions League, remains the same.
UEFA seem destined to make so many concessions to those threatening a break-away that the Champions
League will become, to all intents and purposes, the Super League (the FA's utterly spineless attitude to the Premiership
provides an obvious precedent), while Blair's government has no track record of standing
up to Rupert Murdoch. We will have a Super League, in reality if not in name, and
Murdoch will probably be allowed to buy Manchester United.
This is no revolution. The European Cup has already been butchered beyond recognition,
the world's greatest club competition sacrificed to the gods of cliques and vested interest. Rupert Murdoch already
has a strangle-hold on the British game. What we have here is acceleration, not fundamental
Outside of the boardrooms, away from the self-interest of businessmen and the dividends for
shareholders (who, thanks to the wonders of stock market flotation, are now legally a higher priority than fans at
Manchester United), there is no
possible justification for any of it. Perhaps once upon a time (immediately post-Hillsborough), not
any more. Tickets and merchandise become more expensive,
grounds become quieter, kick-off times are shifted around to suit television companies,
top players earn insane wages. You've heard all this, you're as bored of hearing it as
I am. But - and here's what I'm trying to emphasise - none of the acceleration in
football's commercialisation benefits active fans, those at the very heart of the game, at all.
Nor - excuse me for explaining the obvious - does it benefit non-elite clubs. The 'trickle-down' argument, once again wheeled out
like a rusty cannon in support of the Super League, should be utterly discredited. The
current situation within British football, with certain top clubs effectively printing
money, offers proof - the effects, as ever, are a massive currency devaluation and out-of-control
inflation. That's basic economics.
Many clubs, including Watford, have greatly increased turnovers as a consequence of
the commercial growth within the game. Well, hurrah. Turnover matters little, I'm afraid,
and many clubs, including Watford, have found that income from the economically
stable outside world cannot possibly keep pace with costs within football. That is the
reality of the 'trickle-down' effect.
So why are we endorsing something that does us no good? Fans, those most harmed by current trends, continue to play along. Like addicted gamblers, we beg for some money to feed the
habit - only a million quid to buy a new striker and we'll be sure of that big pay-out. And, also
like addicted gamblers, we seem completely unaware that we cannot win.
There is no big pay-out. It is as difficult to break even in the top flight as it is anywhere else. Promotion to the Premiership results in nothing more than
increased turnover, a massive surge in income that's matched by a massive
surge in costs. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow simply doesn't exist; the vast debts and
sacrifices piled up in its pursuit certainly do.
So it seems to me that the choice becomes ever starker. As fans, we can continue to
demand that smaller clubs hang on to posh coat-tails. We can continue to demand that
they find absurd transfer fees and wages for second rate players, and we can pay ever-increasing
ticket prices to watch those players. We can loiter uncomfortably like uninvited guests at someone else's upper class
Or we can look for our own future.