Football for sale (one careful owner)

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete www.flickr.com

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete
http://www.flickr.com

The football I refer to is of course the top flight in England and the owner is the Premier League. The price? £5.136 billion paid by Sky and BT Sport for Premier League TV rights packages. For Sky it works out at £10.2 million per game. That might be decent value for Chelsea v Manchester United; with the greatest respect it seems a tad expensive for Hull v Sunderland.

Those latter sides and other smaller teams in the Premier League are arguably the big winners from this deal. Currently all 20 Premier League teams number among the 40 richest clubs in the world, Burnley are reportedly richer than Ajax. Finishing bottom of the league in the 2016/2017 season will come with compensation of almost £100 million.

There’s no question that TV money has utterly transformed football in England with considerable debate about whether that transformation has been for the better. New stadiums, an influx of foreign players and skyrocketing wages for footballers are just some of the changes that have come with the broadcasting bonanza prompted by the formation of the Premier League.

Former Arsenal striker John Hartson has suggested that it won’t be too long until we see the first £1m a week footballer (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/31427562). Some of the top players in the Premier League are currently earning around £300,000 a week. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, the average weekly wage in the Premier League was £3,393 in 1995; by 2005 it had risen to £18,367. Today it is estimated to be £43,717. That average wage is being earned by some very average players.

Mention of such figures quickly prompts complaints that they are obscene. In some senses they are, I’m sure there are even a few players who are a little embarrassed by what they earn. The fact remains though that the spectacle they provide is watched by millions of people all over the world. Broadcasters judge that £10m is a reasonable price to pay to show a single game. Corporate sponsors are also willing to pay huge sums for a piece of the action. With so much money attracted into the game, why shouldn’t players be the chief beneficiaries?

After the TV rights deal was concluded, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore observed that “in 1986 there was no one that wanted to broadcast football. There was not even a highlights programme.” Now, however, we “put on a show that people want to watch and attend – and in ever increasing numbers. There’s more interest than ever before.” That is true and living in South East Asia I have seen that it’s as true here as in the UK, as it is in just about every other part of the world.

What about the fans back in the UK who attend Premier League games? Just after the TV deal was announced Crystal Palace fans held up a banner at their home game against Arsenal protesting that supporters are ‘still exploited.’ I have some sympathy with them (apparently a ticket for the Arsenal game cost around £45) but they are protesting inside the stadium after paying for the privilege of being there. It’s not a very effective method of protest. ‘Treat us with respect or else … we’ll just keep paying and keep coming’ seems to be the message.

I’ve written before that overall I think ticket prices are too high and that clubs could and should do more to at least offer a wider tier of prices. But nobody forces fans to go to games – it is their choice. There’s not much incentive for clubs to lower ticket prices when attendances are on the increase.

I have considerable sympathy for fans when it comes to the scheduling of games. This is now almost entirely driven by the demands of TV audiences. Thus we now have super Sundays (many of which only justify the latter half of their billing), Monday night football and, with the new TV deal, the advent of Friday night football in the Premier League. It’s good news for the ‘remote’ supporters on the sofa, less so for those making their way out the door and to the grounds.

It can all get a little too much even for those watching at home. In this week’s NewStatesman magazine, Hunter Davies finds himself surprised to ask, ‘can you have too much football?’ (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/02/i-never-thought-it-was-possible-have-too-much-football). This question occurred to him after spending 11 hours in a single day watching football on TV. We’ve all been there, at least I have. It’s probably not the healthiest place to be.

The latest Premier League TV deal will likely provoke comment and controversy for some time yet. The sums involved are gigantic and it’s understandable to wonder if the Premier League represents a bubble on the verge of bursting. It’s possible but I don’t think it’s likely any time soon. Football is phenomenally popular and the big English sides are among the most popular on the planet.

Compared to today’s Premier League, the old English First Division looks a bit like an old banger: loveable for sure, full of character certainly, and by no means lacking in quality. The 2015 version is more premium though, it’s faster, and it has become a huge export. You can have it in almost any colour and pick it up almost any day of the week. And it doesn’t come cheap.

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Long ball Louis

Louis van Gaal - Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey www.flickr.com

Louis van Gaal – Vanchester poster. Photo by: Mikey
http://www.flickr.com

Paul Scholes said this week that watching Manchester United has been “miserable” at times this season, and he gets paid to do it as a pundit. Pity the poor punters who are paying for the privilege.

Manchester United’s style of play has come under increased scrutiny since Sam Allardyce labelled them a “long-ball” side after their late equaliser against West Ham. Louis van Gaal’s reaction was as surprising as it was revealing: he turned up at a press conference clutching a dossier of stats from the game in a bid to prove big Sam mistaken. The Louis doth protest too much, methinks.

For a man who always appears so supremely self-confident it was a gesture of remarkable insecurity and weakness. Could you ever imagine Sir Alex responding in such a way? He never did because he never felt the need to publicly justify himself.

Manchester United’s players still don’t seem very comfortable with the manager’s tactics. For the first three months or so that could be understood and forgiven, not least because the Dutchman was implementing quite significant changes in playing style, including moving away from the reliance on 4-4-2. By now, with the quality of players he has at his disposal, there should be much more fluency and coherence in his side’s play.

I wonder if Van Gaal’s slightly hysterical reaction to Allardyce’s claims is a sign that he has begun to doubt himself just a little. There’s no doubt that he’s frustrated with the way his side is performing. The midweek win over Burnley didn’t provide much comfort.

Chris Smalling revealed that Van Gaal had been “shocked” at half-time by how poor the first half display was. I’m not sure that too many others were though, including the Old Trafford faithful who have got used to generous helpings of mediocrity to accompany their prawn sandwiches this season.

The Van Gaal stat attack had a touch of the Rafa Benitez ‘facts’ fiasco about it. It is not a flattering comparison for the Dutchman. Instead of handing out tactical diagrams to the media, the Manchester United boss would find his time better served going over them for longer with his players. His players frequently look as bemused as the journalists that attended the educational press conference.

Despite United’s dodgy defence most of the recent questions have focused on the misfiring strike force. Falcao’s loan is looking decidedly subprime while Van Persie’s prime looks to be some way behind him. Rooney has been shunted to midfield in order for Falcao and Van Persie to be paired together up front but it doesn’t seem to be working.

The Colombian and the Dutchman are too similar. Either would benefit from playing alongside Rooney but neither appears to enjoy the current set-up. Both are penalty box predators; they don’t get too involved in build up play. In the absence of Rooney dropping off the front to link with the midfield it is inevitable that the ball will hit the strikers from deeper. Whether most of those constitute long balls or long passes (the statisticians make a clear distinction) is not really the point.

Is Rooney wasted in midfield? By and large I think he is although it’s certainly not his fault. He’s shown himself to be willing to play there and has more than enough quality to do so. Some of Rooney’s natural dynamism is curtailed in midfield though and he’s not experienced enough in the position to control games in the way that you would expect a player of his quality to.

Every time that Rooney lines up in midfield it’s a reminder that Manchester United have never replaced Scholes. They should have signed someone such as Modric when he left Spurs. Fabregas would also have fitted the bill perfectly. Fellaini, alas, does not.

The summer spending spree did bring the creativity of Di Maria to Manchester and after a spectacular start his recent struggles have been a bit of a surprise. He was one of the best players at the World Cup in Brazil and he’s most suited to roaming quite freely in a role similar to the one that Bale plays now at Real Madrid and used to play at Tottenham. Di Maria’s stuttering form seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the side.

For all the dark clouds supposedly gathering over Old Trafford, Van Gaal can still point to the fact that his team are in third place in the table and on course for a return to the Champions League. The fact that they are tells you a lot about inadequacies elsewhere.

West Ham probably won’t be playing in Europe next season but that hasn’t stopped Allardyce claiming that there is no coach in the Premier League as sophisticated as him these days. It’s a bold claim but it’s perhaps not as outlandish as it first sounds. He has been around at the top level for a long time and has always been known as a keen student of the game not least on the sports science side of it.

With his tie loosened, his extensive frame, and his furious gum chewing, Big Sam doesn’t look quite as sophisticated as Mourinho, Wenger or even Van Gaal and that may be one reason he’s not credited with the level of sophistication that he feels he’s due.

When Van Gaal used more direct tactics at certain stages of games at the World Cup, he was hailed for his tactical flexibility. When Big Sam does the same, it tends to be dismissed as unreconstructed directness of the old school. Let’s not forget that Manchester United’s directness at Upton Park brought an equaliser.

Van Gaal’s team remains a work in progress with more emphasis so far on work than progress. Under Moyes, Old Trafford lost its fear factor for visiting sides; Van Gaal’s tactical tinkering hasn’t yet brought it back. That’s the long and the short of it.

The return of the Old Firm

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith www.flickr.com

Rangers and Celtic fans. Photo by: Gregor Smith
http://www.flickr.com

‘Was that it?’ seems to sum up much of the reaction to the first Old Firm game in almost three years. Scottish football’s showpiece fixture returned with more of a whimper than a bang as Celtic brushed Rangers aside 2-0 in the semi final of the League Cup.

I didn’t see the game. On the day I checked the schedules of the sports channels here in Malaysia to see if it was being shown but it wasn’t. The game understandably generated lots of hype and coverage back in Scotland but perhaps the rest of the world has ceased to care very much, if it ever really did.

I didn’t miss much of a game by all accounts. Rangers apparently failed to muster a single shot on target and goals from Griffiths and Commons secured a very comfortable victory for Celtic. Scott Brown rather cheekily suggested afterwards that goalkeeper Craig Gordon “came out and caught a few crosses just because he was getting bored.”

The Hampden pitch came in for scathing criticism from all sides. Perhaps Ally McCoist should have been called in to tend to it since he’s on gardening leave. His successor, Kenny McDowall, resigned less than a month after stepping up from being McCoist’s assistant and is now serving his 12-month notice period. I suspect another Scottish garden will be receiving more attention soon.

I’ll be honest that from overseas it’s been rather difficult to keep track of the sorry saga of Rangers in recent years although I’m not sure it’s that much easier in Scotland. The revolving cast of characters battling for control of the club resembles some sort of tawdry reality TV show which occasionally features someone you might once have heard of.

Until this week, I was only confused about who was in charge in the boardroom but since McDowall suggested that he is expected to select the players recently loaned from Newcastle, it’s rather muddied the waters of who’s in charge in the dugout.

Rangers these days are a bit like a nervous bride the night before the wedding, checking off the list: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Many fans of other clubs have revelled in Rangers plight but I’m not one of them. The Glasgow giants have fallen a long way and they have been shockingly mismanaged at board level. Staff have been made redundant and supporters have seen their side demoted to the lowest tier of Scottish football, from which they are currently scrambling their way back up.

Of course Scottish football hasn’t collapsed in the absence of Rangers and Old Firm derbies in the top flight as some of the most pessimistic doom mongers were predicting. The New Firm – Aberdeen and my team Dundee United – have enjoyed something of a revival, putting themselves in a healthier financial position than they’ve been in for a long time and developing a string of very promising youngsters.

These two sides contested the other semi final and United will provide the opponents for Celtic in next month’s final (many congratulations to Jackie McNamara and the boys).

There’s no question though that Celtic and Rangers are the biggest clubs in Scotland and overall, the stronger they are, the stronger the game in Scotland is. It’s great to have a more competitive top flight and to have a genuine title challenge emerge from somewhere outside Glasgow (well, from Partick Thistle is ok) would be hugely invigorating for Scottish football. I’d love to say that Dundee United will do so this season but I doubt it and while I think Aberdeen have a bit more of a chance I’ll still be surprised if they remain on the tails of Celtic at Easter.

We don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next Old Firm game. Both sides are still in the Scottish Cup so another cup tie this season could happen. Rangers are unlikely to gain automatic promotion to the Premiership but I do fancy them to scrape back in via the play-off. If they do make it, the evidence of last weekend suggests that they still have a long way to go before they can consider themselves as firm as old.