Why Does Football Reward Mediocrity?

Johnny can understand why some players earn huge wages but, after watching Newcastle v Villa, he's astonished by the practice of rewarding mediocrity...

Last Updated: 24/02/14 at 09:34 Post Comment

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Newcastle United v Aston Villa was a great advert for the Premier League; a great advert for the Premier League because this is what a lot of the league is like at the moment.

A wholly dreadful game of football played with little skill, not much commitment and a dwindling level of passion. Even the players seemed bored by their own efforts. It silenced a 52,000 strong crowd and it was hard to believe this really was the elite level of English football. Shots were limp and wide, tackles half-hearted, passing wayward and unimaginative. The basic skill level seemed low; the ability of the players unexceptional. Inevitably, it makes you wonder just why these men are so handsomely rewarded for playing football. With the average Premier League wage being £30,000 a week (a phenomenal wage itself), clearly many on display at St James' Park were picking up over 70 or 80k for this awfulness. It seems like madness. How has this happened?

This season I have seen a hell of a lot of football played by people who don't seem that good at delivering entertainment. The club's wage bills are anything from 50% to 90% of their turnover - they don't make a profit because they pay so much to players, so by almost any regular definition, they are unaffordable at the current rates of pay. You don't have to be a socialist firebrand to think it's utterly insane. I can get with paying big for magnificence. Whatever Zlatan is on, I'm happy to pay because in every way he is entertaining, exciting brilliant and inspiring. No-one feels like that about Vurnon Anita.

A well worn argument - in this week of all weeks which saw Wayne Rooney paid 12-and-a-half pence for every quarter of a second of his existence - is that football is the entertainment business and like other branches of the entertainment business, the top stars are box office and thus handsomely rewarded. There are obvious instances of this, like Zlatan, but no-one could say that about most of these footballers. Let's take a random player, say, Fabian Delph. If Delph hadn't played on Sunday, no-one would have cared. No-one went there to see him play, specifically.

He's probably a long way from being Villa's worst player but, as he tried a shot from 30 yards and shanked it so badly it trickled over the goal line about 10 yards wide, it did seem absurd to think we're being asked to believe somehow market forces are dictating that this player is one of the elite footballers in the country and thus must be disproportionately rewarded.

Those who defend the culture of high wages often like to do so as advocates of free market capitalism, which, as we know, has an unblemished history of efficiently delivering great value and fairness. But this neglects to understand that football and football clubs are not like any other business. In fact, they're not businesses in any normal sense at all. There is no demand to see Fabian Delph (sorry Fab) play football, per se. It's one thing to argue that people will pay big bucks to watch Cristiano Ronaldo do his thing, quite another to apply the same argument to Mr Delph and his mis-firing colleagues. Most footballers are not box office stars, and in a relentless churn, never have so many been anonymous to their own fans.

It's not as if clubs are so profit-laden that they can afford to waste money on players who are playing poorly. Most clubs, unlike most businesses that survive, don't make any profit. Some of them are propped up by sugar daddies for whom the costs involved are chump change. Again, this is not normal business, not normal market forces. So quite why market forces are said to be behind wage inflation, I'm not sure. It couldn't be a self-serving lie by those who benefit most could it?

We accept that not all games of football will be thrilling or even entertaining. I grew up going to Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park where that was a given for many years, decades even, but that wasn't the point. It had a greater social function and, crucially, it hardly cost any money to get in, so we never felt cheated by the club or the players. There was a degree of contentment about the relationship. On top of that the players earned no more than double a regular weekly wage, often not even that.

You'd see players in my local chippy after the game, and these were top flight players. So when it was an awful game, it didn't seem part of an unfair relationship. Now, when you see a game like Newcastle v Villa, it does seem unfair. It rankles. Not out of mere jealously, as some would like to think, but because it just feels inappropriate and immoral, even. It doesn't seem right, somehow, especially at a time when at least half the working population are on wages so low they barely amount to a living wage.

But this isn't a wallow in nostalgia. Those were different days. Things change. That's fine and I wholly accept it as the nature of life but the trouble is football as a game hasn't really changed from those days. It's not better now, neither is it worse. It's not more or less exciting. It's still occasionally great, sometimes good, often awful, same as it ever was. Yet the finances of the game are now out of all proportion to the quality of what the sport can offer.

While those who start their complaints about modern football with the old mantra 'he gets paid £xyz' get tedious, few of us can witness something like that Newcastle game and not feel like something is wrong with the world when people are being paid upwards of 100k a week in order to be this poor. It really is indefensible and I suspect even the men involved would agree. They're understandably just taking the money because it's there. Most of them would take any money to play football. It just so happens it's a huge amount. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if the money makes players worse; that they feel guilty and over-rewarded and that this puts pressure on them psychologically, pressure which inhibits their performance. It's probably a fanciful notion.

There's no obvious solution to this other than a wage cap, and that's not without its problems, but I wanted to give the issue an airing because it seems as though paying ludicrously huge money to footballers regardless of their ability to entertain us, has become so endemic that it is rarely even questioned now. It's almost as though we're not allowed to mention it. But that doesn't make it right. Being paid a king's ransom to be poor, is, really, a bloody scandal.

You can follow Johnny on Twitter.

And check out his new series of crime novels about a football fan, set in Middlesbrough, here.

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