Time to grow up or pay up
The more we see madness, megalomania, and shady-goings-on from club chairmen, the more we begin to hype up the sort of behaviour that we should expect as minimum. Running a club “like a business” is one phrase that is cropping up more often, and it’s meaning is shifting away from rampant profiteering towards “we have a debt-free plan that doesn’t involve the manager having to chip in for petrol money in League Two in a few years, like those madmen down the road.”
Owners will always seek to run their clubs exactly like the other businesses where they initially made their fortunes. The problem is that football is not an ordinary business. Even if we ignore the romanticism surrounding clubs – which, though naive, are still dearly held by the vast majority of fans – there are immediate differences. The whole ethos of private enterprise is about choice – anyone providing an inferior service will soon go out of business because people will stop buying it. Competition ensures a better product. This is not the case in football, where supporters of Blackburn outraged at Venky’s ownership are unlikely to vent their frustration by all deciding to watch Burnley instead, abandoning family ties as if they were switching to a different brand of washing powder. The end result is that everybody can only get ripped off. Financial doping? Emotional blackmail, more like.
Listen to most commentators on the matter and all you’ll hear is that one type of owner is becoming extinct – that of the local-born shoe magnate/slaughterhouse mogul/asian babes tycoon/insert-your-own-Capitalist-Dream-here who pumps money into his boyhood idols. This is not in fact true – from Dave Whelan to Peter Coates, they do exist, and they are generally popular and successful at what they do. The difference is that what used to be expected of chairmen has now become a feat worthy of canonisation.
The hypocrisy is obvious, but worth stating – there’s essentially no difference between these men and Sheikh Mansour. The media will crow about ‘understanding the club’, but bar any bonkers designs by Venky’s or Thaksin ‘Frank’ Shinawatra, the end result is the same. Local lads turned entrepreneurs can know the club better than they know themselves – it won’t stop them fleecing their captive consumer base and continuing the relentless march of football away from that ideal of local representation.
Owners that save or exalt clubs to new statuses are also worshipped, and forgiven of many future transgressions for which other owners would be crucified – witness Mohamed Al-Fayed’s deranged Michael Jackson fetish, as he tries to fleece Fulham fans for commemorative mugs and DVDs. Many were forgiving of the Egyptian, reasoning that at least they’d be watching Manchester United and Arsenal at the Cottage this year, instead of Barnet and Macclesfield. Such priveleges were not reserved for Q.P.R.’s owners, about whom one fan’s statement commented: “I saved a cat once, I don’t walk around kicking it, pissing on it and blowing in it’s ears before reminding it that it wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for me. I leave the cat alone with owners who care about it.”
The difference here is obvious: Q.P.R. got the ‘billionaire owners’ part down to perfection – billionaires, check. Owners, check – they just forgot to actually put any money in. And for some fans, there is no worse crime than that. The longer a very rich man sat at the helm of a football club goes without bankrolling a push for a higher tier of achievement than the club naturally has any right to expect, the more likely he is to incur the wrath of the fans. It’s not just Q.P.R. – Randy Lerner, formerly a well-liked figure at Villa Park, is starting to attract criticism from the fans who have been disappointed by the results of his austerity drive.
And this is the problem for fans – you can’t have it both ways. It’s illogical and hypocritical to criticise your club for failing to pay the £40,000-a-week wages demanded by that midfield dynamo if you’re also going to swell with righteous indignation when asked to pay £1.50 for a cup of tea or when this season’s third away goalkeeper strip comes out.
The predicament is also made worse by the hyperpartisan antics of many supporters who would rather see their rivals burn. When Manchester United and Liverpool were both out in force protesting against their owners, we saw relatively little flow of ideas between the two, and a lot of cheap sniping back and forth from the two sets of fans. It was a wasted opportunity, and encourages more bad owners, who won’t be worried about protests if they know it will only come from their own limited catchment area.
Now, every football fan, from battle-hardened veteran of rainy days in nondescript towns experiencing ‘real football’, to the most fickle flitter between teams symbolic of ‘all that’s wrong with football nowadays’, will still agree on one thing. Hatred, for the most part, is a good thing for the sport. We’ve all felt it, for a variety of reasons, and it’s intoxicating thrill is part of the package of psychotherapist-fuel that keeps us returning to the game, no matter what. We’re all for blood, gore, and genuine black-hearted nastiness on the pitch, and even for the occasional bout of gentleman’s fisticuffs off it – but by and large, we never seem to feel that we enjoy the common ground of all being in the same boat.
Alright, well, maybe not *exactly* the same boat. Entirely different boats, in fact. The point is, we’re both in the bowels doing the oar-work and being whipped by men in fancier hats. More and more football clubs are run by men who deserve our disgust, contempt, and bodily-fluids-as-projectiles. ‘Venemous hatred’ is becoming the standard emotion towards club chairmen, with increasing numbers pantomime villains like Mike Ashley and The Glazers cropping up. And then you have owners for whom the loathing reaches beyond their own fans, whether through their unfair injections of money, or just generally being mouthy and obnoxious.
We can’t, however, effectively criticise such behaviour whilst simultaneously wishing our own clubs push on to the next level. All campaigns require a war chest, and it’s size is largely determined by the number of us willing to succumb to the allures of the brand of consumerism that our megastores advocate. Clubs may not compete against each other much for customers, but they do on the pitch and the transfer market, and that means that any club who decides to bleed their fans dry will force all of their rivals to follow suit. In short, if the march towards inaccessibly-priced football is to be halted, it will require a little bit of growing up – putting our lofty ambitions to one side, and supporting each other as well as our clubs. By all means, we should hurl abuse at each other until we bleed whenever football is being played, but look at the bigger picture too – we need clubs that inspire bitter hatred just as much as we need the ones we’re devoted to.