I’m not a car dude and while I can appreciate driving down Pacific Coast Highway in a 64 Mustang with Van Halen on the radio as much as the next rocker, the whole car thing, by and large, passes me by except for one thing – those big, high performance 4-wheel drives. Aesthetically they’re bulbous, big, ugly and vulgar, and I assume that’s what people like about them. The nearest any of them get to being off-road is parking at Waitrose and the driver sits high, looking like a ludicrous mobile emperor. No, I don’t like them.
So given this antipathy, I especially enjoy seeing these massive cars stuck in a traffic jam. The other day we were sitting alongside a huge high performance, white Range Rover, the size of a small country, driven by a haughty-looking blonde woman. Women who drive expensive white cars are often blonde, for some reason. Dunno why. Same reason a certain sort of posh bloke wears red trousers, I suppose. He often drives a Range Rover, as well. Yeah, see.
She was doing that pointless thing in a traffic jam of straining your neck to one side to try and see what the hold-up was, getting ever more furious with the situation.
But the traffic jam is one of the few examples in life when having a lot of money is useless; when the power and privilege it usually brings, is neutered. No matter what you spent on your car, you’re no further forward. Your money will not change this situation. Richest is the same as poorest in any traffic jam, at least briefly.
As we were sitting there on London Road, in Edinburgh, I realised this massive but impotent wealth statement was rather like the Premier League this year. In football there’s only one thing the richest clubs in the world fear more than anything else, and that’s their money losing its power. Imagine if they could no longer wholly rely on their buying prowess to win trophies?
But that is what’s happening this season. Perhaps it’s logical. There has to be a limit to what money can buy you in football. So you can pay £40million for a player – is that player so much better than the one a much poorer club buys for £20million? Maybe he is at his peak, but maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe the vicissitudes of form and fitness levels the playing field. Or maybe he’s over-priced because the seller knows you’re so rich that money is worthless to you.
This season, the league is littered with players who didn’t cost huge fees, or who were brought through from youth development, competing with and beating far more expensive, well-paid players. From Leicester to Watford, to Crystal Palace and even Stoke City and beyond.
This is the worst nightmare for the likes of Roman Abramovich or any other billionaire corporate owner because if your money can’t guarantee you success anymore, then you might have to start relying on other things, such as high quality scouting, good youth training and simply spotting a player in a lower league who will work in the position you’re short in. But the biggest, richest clubs are no good at that stuff, really, and they’ve never had to be since being rich. Like a lot of wealthy people, they mostly use price tags to define quality, not knowledge.
Until now, their infinite money has meant their philosophy has been that if you want the best, you go and buy the best – and that’s really the only philosophy they know. But what if that’s run its course? What if very big money has stopped working? Just watch as they try and buy all the players doing well for someone else this January, in a pathetic display of their own lack of vision, just hoping their money will work again.
But it goes further than what you can buy; what if paying high wages is now actually de-motivating players? Are we seeing that playing out before our eyes? The money has never been this big or stupid before, even though there’s no proof higher wages make ever better players. In fact, when you’re made for life on the back of 24 months of top wages, why wouldn’t it de-motivate you? If increasingly true, it means big money is going to have to change it’s way of doing things. Spending more on wages will achieve less and less difference.
Imagine, for a moment, that we’ve actually reached the point where being one of the richest clubs and paying top dollar for players doesn’t gain you any significant extra quality over and above most other sides in the league. If that’s the case, football is in the grips of the early stages of a revolution.
It’s a very nice thought: football’s wealthiest being undermined by their very wealth. Maybe it’s just the right time of year to realise that the thing was makes you rich, makes you poor.
Until now, the relationship between the wage bill and league position has been a depressingly close one. But now, all clubs in the top flight are richer than ever and set to get richer still, next year. You still need to get a lot of other things right, but it means that when a top club’s best players are injured or off-form, the poorer clubs’ best players are good enough to beat the richer club.
In other words, the league is compressing in terms of quality of players and spending big money on a player, be it on transfer fees or wages, is looking less necessary. If one team can pluck a player from the second division of French football for comparatively next to nothing, it makes another look like total mugs for paying £300,000 a week to someone who, at times, can barely trap a ball. And this shouldn’t go unnoticed at board level.
When you have a player who picks up a million pounds a month, and yet can’t seem to motivate himself to play for a full 90 minutes most games, you’ve got to ask if actually being so wealthy is becoming a problem. When you can pay any price, how do you know what is the right price? Just paying more may not help; in fact, it may make things worse, but paying more is their only modus operandi.
This year we seem to be seeing the law of diminishing returns in action. Put simply, when everyone can afford to buy pretty good players, and more clubs than ever before can afford very good players, those who can afford the elite players only need those elite players to be injured or off form by 10% to make the playing field even. Hence we have a properly competitive league and Big Money is losing.
If it were to be the case that Leicester, Watford, Crystal Palace and to a lesser extent, Spurs were to form four of the top six or seven, it would send a financial earthquake through the Premier League. The richest would, no doubt, throw more money at it to try and be superior, because it’s all they know but really that’d just be like buying a bigger and more expensive car in order to beat a traffic jam. Manchester United have already rather brilliantly proven how £250 million can be spent to almost no effect.
Money certainly can’t buy you love, but also, in the football future, it may buy you less and less success. We can only hope.