This article by Maz Plechinger on the mind-numbing predictability of the English Premier League, and which includes an interview with me and Express and Star blogger Jarrod Hill, appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Here's the English translation:
WHERE HAS ALL THE FUN GONE?
by Maz Plechinger
Excitement and watchable matches are history in the Premier League. The title is a struggle for four teams only, the rest fight, in a panic race, to avoid relegation. So if you want to see enjoyable football, turn your eyes towards the second best league instead.
"I’m sorry to sound so pessimistic, but the future does really look bleak. The dream is no more." With your expectable English sense of politeness, it is obvious that Neil Clark hesitates to disappoint his Danish audience.
He’s a journalist with papers such as The Guardian and Daily Express in his roster. But in this roster is as well a packet of bad news on one of his great loves: English football.
The hopelessness regards the Premier League, a league which, in Neil Clark’s view, delivers as much excitement as an episode of Teletubbies. Where the equality between the top four teams and the rest of the table is like a boxing match between Mikkel Kessler and a bag of salted peanuts. And where the playing itself keeps standards with a nice yawn.
"The quality in the top flight is the lowest in the many years, I’ve been a follower. I watch matches from the 70’s and 80’s, and the quality then was just so much better."
But what in the world is this man babbling about? The Premier League is in the shape of its life. There’s more people on the stands than any other league, the best players in the world fight to get to play there, and for the second year in a row, there’s four Premier League teams represented in the Champions League’s play-offs. It has indeed become the best league in the world, and it’s glowing of solid gold.
The only problem is, that Neil Clark isn’t a marginalized maniac. In recent years the same yell has rung out loud, that money is destroying everything. Money has transformed Arsenal, Man. Utd., Chelsea and Liverpool into an eternal quartet in the top, and has left Premier League ridden of excitement and fought out like with trench warfare.
"The Premier League has become so predictable that we now always can tell who the top four’s going to be every year, which was unthinkable before the league was formed in 1992. You’d always have a couple of unfashionable teams that would surprise, either by winning or being close to winning the league. In the early stages of the PL, Blackburn managed to become champions, but since then the top four haven’t had any challenge at all, and it’s getting harder and harder to imagine this change", Neil Clark estimates.
The downwind spiral began when the best league in England in 1992 broke loose from the Football League and became its own institution called the Premier League, primarily to avoid sharing the tv-fundings with the lower divisions. In the first couple of seasons a few different teams managed to end in top four, but since 1997, at least three of the big four have ended in the top.
"The same four teams then qualify for the Champions League, which is where the real money is. This means that they in the following season can use the money they’ve earned in the Champions League to wind up in the top four. It’s impossible for the other teams to break through the glass ceiling. Man. City may be fourth at the moment, but it’s not very likely to end that way," Neil Clark sighs.
"We Englishmen used to look at Scotland to say, there’s really a one-sided league. We don’t anymore. The big four only lose to each other, and on rare occasions when playing away. Previously the champions used to loose at least seven or eight matches in a season."
Better than other
The English journalist admits to being both a romantic and somewhat a nostalgic. Frankly, there’s nothing directly incriminating in some teams being better than other. If in doubt, you could have a chat with alot of fans from one of the dominant teams concerning this issue. But he is also an aesthetic, and it does bother him to see the other teams becoming weaker. Partly because their best players are shipped to the top four’s benches, partly because they don’t dare to play football against the top four. And finally due to as well that they don’t dare to play against each other, panic-stricken with the ghost of relegation and a long goodbye to the moneyship.
"All teams – even the ones near the bottom of the table – used to have good players, but now only the top four have them. When a bottom team like for instance Derby played a top flight like Liverpool in the 80’s, it wasn’t a question of stopping your oppenent’s game, but about joining in yourself. Now it’s safety first, because everybody suffers from economical angst, and the idea of an flamboyant approach is far-fatched. As soon as fear takes control, your thoughts become negative: You play to avoid loosing, and that leads to negative football," Clark estimates.
"It’s sad, but the death of romance is final. Even in the FA Cup, which used to be the magical tournament, where everybody could win. It’s quite symbolic that when West Ham and Liverpool faced each other in the final of last year’s cup, a lot of Liverpool-fans told me, that they sincerely hoped, that West Ham could win. Then it would be like in the good old days, when Liverpool were a dominant force in the league, but still could stumble in the cups. Now Liverpool scored in the dying seconds. It was like it couldn’t be any other way."
Just for the record, since Everton’s triumph in 1995, there’s been no other FA Cup-winners but the big four.
"I spoke to a Birmingham fan earlier today, and he was really demoralized, because what have Birmingham to play for this year? What can they amount to? To avoid relegation, and that’s that. It’s their ambition. They cannot win the league, they cannot reach the final of any cup, success for them is nothing else than finishing above the cruzial line. The dream is dead for many fans, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel," Neil Clark tells, and despite the hopelessness amongst the fans, change must come from the same followers.
It’s not easy, and he’s honestly not convinced it’s going to happen, but it’s the only way. At some point in time, he hopes that the qualms of predictableness and sad football becomes too intense. On the 16th of December the four top teams played each other, in what was dubbed Super Sunday. A massive event that had quite a big fuzz about itself in England – to put it mildly. But to matches meant two goals, and football made in heaven. Unfortunately a rather boring version of heaven.
"The media encourages this worshipping of the big four. It’s up to the fans to say, that they don’t want this anymore. Super Sunday showed miserable football, and hopefully things like that helps in this regard. I haven’t heard anyone say other than it was horrible, overhyped. Hopefully there’s fans of the big four as well, who are getting bored with their playing styles. The danger is though, that young people cannot remember the time, where other sides could win, so they don’t know that it could be different."
The day before Super Sunday another and much less hyped game were played. It was between West Bromwich Albion and Charlton in the second best division, the Championship.
Not only did it with a 4-2 scoreline have three times as many goals in it than the top four put together, but the match itself was of a much better quality altogether. Admittedly: It was a match between two of more beautifully playing sides of the table, but a lot of praises these years do go to the Championship for being the nest of real English Football. Here the equality flourishes, the teams dare to play football and nothing is spared during the matches.
So far this season the newly promoted Bristol City has been the league’s positive surprise, currently ranked as nr. 3, whilst a team like Queens Park Rangers surprises in equal amounts by facing relegation. Here you’ve got 20 point dividing the top from the bottom, in Premier League there’s 36. Despite the fact that there’s four more teams in the Championship.
Jarrod Hill’s blogging for the largest regional newspaper in England, the Express and Star. He writes about his big love, West Bromwich Albion, and he’s quite satisfied with life. Despite the fact that his team got relegated two seasons ago.
»The Quality in the Championship is really high, and you’ll see bottom teams beating top teams every other week. Everybody can beat everybody. In Premier League it happens very, very seldom. Even as an Albion, you’d be facing surprises every weekend. We could face a team like Scunthorpe, and still we cannot be sure of a win. That’s what is really satisfying about this league,« the entusiastic blogger tells.
»And when people talk about the big gulf in quality between Premier Leauge and the Championship; There aren’t any. The truth is that the major gulf is around nr. 7-8 in the Premier League table. Below that invisible line, the teams aren’t any better than the top 5 in the Championship. The real gulf is solely that they’ve got more money.«
Which is where he joins the same theme as Neil Clark, and by the way pretty much everybody else mentions first, when talking about English football. The voluminous amounts of money.
»Get any English football supporter to mention three good things about Premier League, and he’ll mention money. In all three sentences. Nobody would mention entertainment and well played matches. It’s all about that you could earn a lot more money than in Championship,« Jarrod Hill claims, and mentions Sky, the owners of the tv-rights, as the culprit.
The middle finger
»They’re the one, who has the money, and literally they’re the ones who have taken over English football. They give fortunes to the Premier League-teams and the relegators recieve as much as £23 mio., so they can get back in right away. What do they give the teams in the Championship? The middle finger Because they doesn’t show the matches anyway. All their focus are directed at Premier League’s top.«
Despite the media’s one sided focus he do feel some kind of opposition. Fans who doesn’t want to play along anymore. Which is visible on many Championship fan-forums as well – as well as some forums for the bottom clubs in the Premier League. Fans arguing that the second best league is actually to be preferred. He himself would still prefer to get promoted, but not at the hands of being forced to play destructive football.
»I hear a lot of Albion-fans who honestly say, that if we doesn’t get promoted, then good riddance. Rather play great in Championship and win matches. You hear this in all clubs. The dominating big four destroys hope for a lot of people.