Evening Standard

Manchester city owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan (centre) looks on during the Premier League football match against Liverpool at The City of Manchester stadium (picture: Andrew Yates/AFP). Image courtesy of Evening Standard

In an age of austerity, the Premier League is one English institution that should have little to fear. Even in the teeth of the worst recession for 70 years, it attracts money that would make bankers feel envious.

However, as the League celebrates its 20th birthday, it would do well to heed the warning a slave would give to a victorious Roman general returning from foreign conquests. During the ceremonial ride, holding the golden wreath above the general’s head, he constantly murmured in his ear: “Respice te, hominem te memento” (Remember you are only a man).

The reason why the League should heed the warning is that its success has skewed the entire world of English football and created massive problems for the national game. Before the League emerged, English football had an equality of sorts with richer clubs making sure money that trickled down to the lower leagues through the transfer market.

In constructing football’s equivalent of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the most glamorous world players perform in England every week, the League has inflicted immense collateral damage on football’s provincial theatres. Players from the lower leagues struggle to make it to the top flight as Premier League clubs prefer to shop around the world. In the 2010-11 season, a net £364 million flew out of English football to overseas clubs.

In addition, the League sustains its position as the biggest in the world by paying its mainly foreign stars colossal salaries. The 2010-11 season, the latest for which figures are available, shows a wage bill of €1,777 million (£1.6 billion), a third more than the next league.

In contrast to the Premier League, the old Football League has struggled to find broadcasters. This season’s £195 million television deal from Sky is a 26 per cent drop on the previous contract. The BBC did not even bid. In the 2010-11 season the 72 English professional clubs made less than £700 million (in contrast the 20 Premier League clubs made £2.3 billion). Two of the 72, Portsmouth and Port Vale, are in administration. A further 13 are classified by financial experts as “in distress”.

The Premier League argues that it looks after the Football League clubs through both solidarity and parachute payments. But what this amounts to is that, two decades after it broke away, the Premier League has parked the oldest league in the world in a granny flat and said: “Get on with it.”

The Premier League has grown because the Government imposes no restrictions on who can own football clubs. This can cause absurdities. Manchester City is effectively owned by the Abu Dhabi state. But the club pays a relatively modest rent for a state-of-the-art stadium which was built with British taxpayers’ money for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Can you imagine how voters would have reacted had they being asked in a referendum to approve funding in order to help a foreign government?

The Premier League has failed to develop a sustainable model with proper safeguards on ownership for the whole of English football. Basking in success, it sees no reason to change. But, as the slave warned the Roman general, the moment of triumph may carry the seeds of future doom.

Mihir Bose: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World is published by Marshall Cavendish, £14.99


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