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Extra Time: the not-so-super Super League

Lord Triesman

4 min read

In a new occasional series, Lord Triesman tackles the important matters facing sport – both on and off the field. First up, the not-so-super European Super League

On the afternoon of 3 May, several hundred Manchester United fans broke into Old Trafford Stadium. It was a violent affair. Missiles were thrown, disgracefully, at the police and one fan karate-kicked down a door by the Munich Tunnel. Ultimately the marque game with Liverpool FC had to be cancelled.

Talking to fans, they are surprised it hadn’t happened years ago. The Glazers’ ownership of their club, the debt burden introduced and massive “dividends” extracted from the club were just the prelude to joining the European Super League with five other English clubs. The American owners were seen as the Sheriff of Nottingham, not Robin Hood.

This wasn’t an isolated angry demonstration. On 19 April, the day after the ESL announcement, fans charged the Liverpool team coach at Leeds United. The next day, around a thousand fans held furious demonstrations at Chelsea. And three days later thousands of Arsenal fans demonstrated, hanging an effigy of American owner Stan Kroenke. The same fury is evident at Spurs and Manchester City.

Even the biggest clubs are struggling financially as a result of Covid

The anger reflects a deep understanding among supporters and many others, from much of the media to the Prime Minister and Prince William, that this was a naked grab for the largest pool of wealth in the sport across Europe. Some huge clubs were not tempted: Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. But 12 were, half English.

Along American franchise lines, they would guarantee themselves a massively lucrative competition without relegation. The rest of the European football world could struggle. The drip-down income currently coming in very modest quantities from the top to the base would no longer be their concern. The rationale for and against were plain enough.

Even the biggest clubs are struggling financially as a result of Covid. Spurs have a gross debt last reported in February of £1.177b, the biggest in Europe, a glorious new stadium and an utterly inconsistent team to play in it. The business is essentially now a real estate developer. Neighbours Arsenal last year had a net debt on players alone of £120m.

Manchester United’s net debt is about £455.5m. Chelsea have reported growing debts, shrinking income and face major stadium refurbishment. Manchester City’s finances have often been difficult to pin down, but owner, Sheik Mansour, with his significant interests in oil and gas, may not care so long as we all consume fossil fuels. A scheme in which investments flow in and relegation for sporting failure is a thing of the past is attractive to owners.

For fans, often described as “customers” at Old Trafford, it is nothing less than the destruction of football culture. Harry Redknapp described the owners as caring little for football and a great deal for their business investment. They are “only half-interested” in matches and 100 per cent invested in profits. If the ethos of football as a whole was destroyed by financial starvation, it’s doubtful they’d care.

Football can not regulate itself and won’t, nor will it involve supporters

There have been mealy-mouthed apologies from owners, rejected offers of meetings to “repair bridges” which have in reality long-since been rubble. The Premier League has offered yet another unconvincing system where clubs sign up to a Charter which confirms they promise to be better behaved in future – the sort of promise easily made and often broken. Football can not regulate itself and won’t, nor will it involve supporters. Roll-on the Crouch Review!

There have been European fines but no punitive suspensions. In any normal walk of business life, having made such catastrophic mistakes, chairmen would have had the decency and sense to resign. The seven chairmen (Man United has two) should take the right step now, their clubs signalling a lesson permanently learned. It’s a difficult step for the owners - but right for football.

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