I was in Tesco this weekend and picked up a bag of carrots. It was £1.00. Turning to my missus I said, “You know what? You could buy 75 million bags of these for the price of one Romelu Lukaku.”
As usual, she was barely paying attention and only half-heard me.
“A romelu? Is that one of those blue cheeses that they keep in caves for years?” she asked.
“No, he’s a footballer. He’s not cheese. You’re thinking of Roquefort.”
She looked puzzled. “A footballer called Roquefort? Is that his nickname because he has blue veins in his legs?”
“No. He’s not called Roquefort.”
“Well, 75 million bags of carrots would feed a lot people.
“I know. Football is mad. He cost Manchester United £75 million, y’see.”
She picked up a bottle of discounted washing-up liquid. “This is 50p, that means you could buy 150 million of them for one of your cheese footballer fellas.”
I told you, he’s not cheese,” I said, sensing this was only going to get worse before it got better.
“But Roquefort IS a cheese.”
I know Roquefort is a cheese, but Lukaku isn’t.”
“Lou Who? What are you on about now?”
My head felt like it was going to explode. “Lukaku. He’s called Lukaku!”
“Alright, alright. There’s no need to shout.”
We walked on to the deli counter. She picked up a pack of square Lorne sausage, a big favourite up here in Scotland, tapped at the calculator on her phone, then held it up to me. “I’ve worked out that Manchester United could buy over 11 million kilos of Lorne sausage for one of your Roquefort Lukakus.”
“No, no, no. It’s Romelu, luv. His name is Romelu,” I said, head back, eyes closed, weary.
“Oh yeah, Romelu Roquefort. Makes you think though, doesn’t it? I wonder what 11 million kilos of Lorne sausage looks like.”
“You could give a packet of it to about 37 million people and have change from 75 million quid.”
She looked at me with the sort of withering stare only a Geordie woman possesses.
“So you can have eleven million kilos of Lorne, or one footballer? That’s a no-brainer. Sausage is better than any footballer on any day. Think about it, sausage always delivers. It doesn’t have off days. Sausage doesn’t have an agent who needs paying. Sausage doesn’t get injured. Sausage feeds you, football just milks you.”
She paused and grinned at me. “That was a good line, that. And now you’re going to use it and pass it off as your own cleverness aren’t you? All your best ideas are really mine.”
By now I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so I just agreed, the way you do when you feel the will to live leaking out of you on a supermarket trip with the missus.
But actually it’s hard to argue with her. To the non-football aficionado, the sums of money to merely transfer a player from one club to another seem not just high but ludicrous, when you compare what you could buy in real life. You might think that’s not the proper comparison, but try telling that to a football outsider and they won’t believe you. To them, it’s real money. It can be spent on a footballer, or on food, and the idea that so much would be spent on the former is insanity to anyone not blinded by football’s white light.
For fans, there are two basic attitudes taken to the spiralling of transfers in the Premier League. One is to see it as all part of the modern game and not worry about it. They talk about supply and demand, or assess the fee as a percentage of the club’s turnover. The other is anything from vague uneasiness, to feeling your soul is being stained with outright moral disgust.
As the fees get higher and higher, it is noticeable that the number of people defending them seems smaller and quieter, with the “WTF is the game coming to?” brigade being ever more vocal. When Everton are effectively paying 10 million for Wayne Rooney instead of buying a wheelbarrow, filling it with pork mince, and putting it in the middle of the pitch, you know things have gone too far.
But in the vacuum of football culture, the rising numbers have little meaning, as though it’s just toy money to make the game go around. The annual turnover of players is all part of the fun, all part of the excitement. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how Manchester United’s new cave-aged cheese centre-forward gets on. Once the season starts, the fees paid for most players fade away in the general consciousness, and the game actively encourages that to be the case.
The last thing the industry wants is for the bright sunlight of reality shining in on its weird, fetid dark world of eight-figure agent’s fees and £200,000-per-week wage bills. The industry is lathering itself up in seemingly limitless cash and knows it could easily alienate and disgust a lot of the public so that we walk away from the terraces and more worryingly from our subscriptions, feeling uncomfortable with the fact that we could feed breakfast to half the population of the country for the cost of one big transfer fee.
But even so, there has to be a breaking point. There is plenty of football to watch where the money paid to and for players is still grounded on earth. We don’t have to watch the Premier League and viewing figures suggest we have pretty much reached that capacity on non-terrestrial broadcasters. There is little or no growth in the market now, which means prices will have to rise or profits fall, or it will be have to be paid for by some other arm of the company.
The football public isn’t the amoral mass of drooling mind-wipes that football’s most venal would like to believe it is. Even though we all feel like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field in the world of Big Money, we also know that we can only be pushed so far before we turn our backs more frequently and in greater numbers. Not in one big act of defiance, football is too addictive and culturally deep for that, but in a gradual yet inevitable ignoring of more and more games, or the favouring of others that feel more real.
For 20 years there’s been talk of the bubble bursting and the absolutely opposite has been the reality. But seeds of such a decline have certainly been planted and merely await enough water to bloom. The ties that bind us to top-flight football are loosening, as one player after another arrives and leaves for the price of a whole housing estate.
Football was never just a part of the entertainment business like film or music. We accepted the outlandish wages of film stars or a musician’s huge income from huge sales, but football is part of our civic life in a wholly different manner. It is communal and is played by clubs at least notionally representing a town or city or area. No movie can say or do that. As a result the bond between fan and club is a dynamic that has supported the game and must be nurtured even now.
As we carried the shopping home, Dawn – still musing on the cost of footballers – said something perhaps only someone who cares nothing about football would say: “Don’t you resent the expensive players for not being worth the money? Because nobody’s services are worth £75 million. I’d resent the club for spending all that cash, I mean, he’s just a footballer.
“Think how much you could buy with that 75 million quid. It would buy about 15,000 cheap cars, 500 cheap-ish houses and don’t forget that 11 million kilos of Lorne. They would have made people happier and satisfied them for longer than that Lukaku Roquefort fella ever will.”
I stopped. “You’re taking the p**s now, aren’t you?”
She gave me her withering look again. “No luv, I think you’ll find football is taking the p**s out of you.”