Friday, January 25, 2008

Boring, Boring Premiership

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:


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.

Massive event

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.


Anonymous said...

"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" Both Newcastle and Leeds have come close to winning the title since then and both played in the champtions league.

Also the Premiership didn't break away from the FA, but rather the Football League.

Anonymous said...

Läser du Jyllands posten?

Same Jyllands posten where the ukrainian born jew Flemming Rose & his gang of zionist muslim-bashers started their campaign against muslims....

Indeed, Danes are friendly people except for some corrupted NWO politicians of course, people mentioned above are not.

Comment edited by moderator

Neil Clark said...

phildav: Hi there. Newcastle's close call was back in 1996 and Leeds put in a title bid in 1999/2000, but since then? Can you seriously see the domination of the Big Four being broken under the current structure?

the mistake was in the translation, I'll change it.

anonymous: for the record, I did not support the publication by Jyllands of the cartoons I think you're referring to, in the same way I would not support the publication of cartoons deliberately designed to provoke or outrage Jews, Christians, Hindus or people of other faiths. Freedom of speech does not mean we should go around deliberately trying to be shocking and to provoke people.
But this piece has nothing to do with that: it's a sports piece, and please don't take the fact that I granted an interview with the paper as a sign that I endorse it's editorial stance on every position.

Anonymous said...

Neil, I think the above statement may apply to the Express too!
As for the Premiership you are of course right, although there have been a couple of challenges (Blackburn, Newcastle and Leeds) the fact is that the league is dominated by 3 teams. In all honesty Liverpool are even struggling to keep up. The Champions league of course being Liverpools' greatest recent triumph. Yet it came at the expense of the Premiership.
I think Abramovich proved the point that you can buy success, and unfortunately the team with the most passion and heart is probably now a non-league side.
Thus in conclusion,
Haway Blyth!

Anonymous said...

There needs to be cross-national govt or privately agreed regulation, maximum player buying budgets and so on. That'd be best for all.

Douglas said...

I'm pretty football-illiterate, but baseball in America has had this issue with the New York Yankees, who have spent massive amounts of money to attain excellent players, most notably Alex Rodriguez. On the other hand, the Yankees haven't won a World Series in five years.

Baseball in America has a "luxury tax" arrangement where teams which spend above a certain threshold on players have to pay a certain amount, which is distributed to lower-spending teams.

Some baseball teams in smaller markets have decided on a strategy of optimizing performance per dollar spent, as opposed to maximizing performance. The book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis is an analysis of this strategy.

Neil Clark said...

fairleft/belaruski: agreed.

Douglas: good point. I wrote a piece back in '06 on how British football could learn from the way US sports are organised.

"The US is regarded as a bastion of capitalism, yet it operates the most socialistic organisation of sports anywhere in the world."

I hope you find it interesting and that you will agree with the conclusion. I think things will eventually change here as watching the same three/four teams winning everything, year after year, is incredibly boring.

Anonymous said...

i totally agree with the general point of this article - the so-called 'big four' are the best and worst things that have happened to football.....they have given us some good moments down the years - i mean who didnt find the arsenal-united battles a few years ago entertaining, united's treble, and so many other amazing moments the prem has provided...there has to be a good reason why so many millions watch it around the world.......but it has become blase and predictable, no doubt...for years we craved the players to dominate europe and welcomed the foreign investment - now this has arrived and the quest is over, things are becoming stale - the fact is making a level playing field would require a complete rethink over the structure of the league and would probably ultimately have to result in some sort of wage cap, something that everyone is so scared of because they believe it would ulimately diminsh the success and credibility of our league..i mean alot of players arent over here for the weather or good food are they - its ultimately question of money and the prestige belonging to the big four club brings - enforce the wage cap get rid of these characters i say - i dare u to try say that idea to roman abramovich with a straight face!

Anonymous said...

I agree. I am soo sick of the premiership and have been for years. The fact that I live in manchester makes it even worse as some of the people think football started in 1992.

I follow championship and below (Scunthorpe Utd), and have done so for years. Its as the WBA fan said one minute you beat sheff utd, the next lose to rochdale in the johnstone paints cup.

Come fans, protest against the death of football at the hands of sky.

Martin S. said...

A great article, but there's one slight error.
I think you've overlooked Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in the 07/08 season !