Small tweaks make SL palatable – so we must act now

Date published: Monday 26th April 2021 6:48 - John Nicholson

Liverpool fans protest

The Super League failed not necessarily due to fan backlash, but because it was so amateurish. It’ll return – we must cut it off at the legs.


Last week’s Super League coup was amateurish. They bottled it almost immediately. But was this more a failure of marketing and politicking than it was of anything else? Much opposition to the proposals could’ve been predicted, accommodated and diffused. Here’s how.

What if the proposed league actually did have relegation and promotion? The first and main point of criticism was about lack of competition and jeopardy in a ‘sealed league’ and that would pour balm on those troubled waters. It would be a concession, but not a fatal one given almost certainly one of the big 12 would never go down and if they did, would be straight back up with their resources. Introduce a bit of jeopardy in the short to medium term, get the door open and you’d immediately shave off quite a lot of opposition.

Secondly, people still think the Super League was a breakaway and it’s still described in the media as such. It wasn’t. That got lost in the narrative. It was a midweek league and they’d all planned to keep playing domestically. The sappy six never made this argument and were engulfed before it could get off the ground, but a better prepared PR team would’ve pushed this from the start as the best of both worlds: big European games, plus the old domestic football and a promotion to a Super League on offer too. Who doesn’t want that?

It’s been estimated that since the Premier League was formed in 1992 they have passed just 7% of the money they’ve received for being in the league down the pyramid. If a Super League upped that to 20% it would see off arguments that they don’t care about the rest of the football pyramid and establish it as a positive force for the greater good. Given the huge investment to be made by JP Morgan and the potentially lucrative TV rights, that’d be a good chunk of money but no real financial skin off their noses. And another objection dealt with. This stuff is easy.

The ‘Earn It’ t-shirts suggested it was fine as a concept, as long as you’d qualified for it and had not been merely parachuted in. OK, so let’s do that for a couple of seasons. It’ll soon enough become the same thing once Mikel Arteta is sacked and Spurs appoint a decent coach. If it means Leicester City are in it at the start, fine. Don’t forget, this isn’t the end, this is just the start.

On top of all this, liaise with UEFA about the tournament so it doesn’t bruise their ego to be excluded and bounced into something. Wine and dine them, give them money for… well… anything. They love money. And that’d be them boxed off.

Jordan Henderson and Aleksander Ceferin with the Champions League trophy

None of this will be enough for every fan, nor for me, but it would, I suspect, buy off most of the opposition. It’d allow the tournament to happen and from there, the clubs could use it as a stepping stone to more draconian future changes in five or ten years’ time when everyone is used to the new format.

After all, have we taken to the streets to protest the revamp of the Champions League which, sad to say, has been reorganised to financially benefit the dirty dozen and take them further away from everyone else in terms of resources? No, we haven’t and yet it is every bit as awful as the Super League in so many ways, with similar objectives behind it.

It’s also worth noting that while fans did a great job in taking to the streets to protest the league, many of those interviewed were not fully informed. As I say, it wasn’t a ‘breakaway’ but almost everyone said it was.

“We’ve saved the Premier League,” one jubilant Chelsea fan declared, as though that was a good thing. That they had saved the very thing which had led to this Super League idea was a confused standpoint. Another, more wildly still, said they’d “saved football”. I’m sure football would’ve gone on with or without a Super League. You can’t kill football. It’s immortal.

All of this got massive media coverage but we shouldn’t automatically think that means huge or universal interest among the public, despite street protests. The viewing figures on Sky for the Nev & Carra Insurgency Show before the Leeds v Liverpool game made interesting reading. We all knew that two of the most articulate critics would be giving it the full gun. So how many watched from 7pm to 8pm?

Somewhere between half a million and 700,000 people.

In other words, pretty much about the same as watch any pre-show whose game attracts between a low of 1.5 million to a peak of 2.6 million. It seems few who don’t normally watch a pre-show bothered to watch them.

So what does this tell us? That Sky’s viewers were not especially excited by any of this? Possibly. It’s hard to tell, but we should not discount weariness of some of the public of the evil doings of the rich and powerful, nor of our ability to just shrug and say “yeah, whatever,” especially to the estimated 370,000 people who go to non-Premier League games every season and who care much less about the top flight.

Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville

That Chelsea fan who thought they’d saved the Premier League thought this was a good thing, which in essence means financial dominance for their side. The status quo is hugely in Chelsea’s favour, so of course they like it. That doesn’t make it good, desirable or wanted by everyone else.

Do any fans of those six clubs and others really want to face being financially downsized by the introduction of a raft of fiscal measures? Or do they just want the status quo to continue in perpetuity, ensuring their dominance grows and grows, which in turn leads to the Super League in some form?

You don’t hear a lot of fans saying their club is too rich or that they’d like to compete on a far more fair basis with everyone else. But without a fiscal fix, all that’ll happen is the richest will, over time, get richer and richer and ever more dominant.

Complaints that the Super League was “all about money” were 100% correct, but we should not fall into thinking the Premier League isn’t. It is. And so, as a result, is the Championship with over 100% of turnover spent on wages. So we saved a league that’s all about money from another league that’s all about money. If we’re serious about reform, this has got to change profoundly.

We are wedded to the ‘sugar daddy’ model in the UK. The rich local industrialist who buys a club and funds it is as old as football itself. Where once it was the local pork butcher or factory owner, now it’s someone from somewhere far away who did something bad and got rich, or possibly even worse it is a faceless cabal of venture capitalists with sports brand portfolios, hedge fund managers and other people who don’t know anything about football pretending that they care.

It all keeps us at arm’s length, allows us to complain as much as we like, while having to do very little ourselves. Perfect. Like any opposition party, it allows us to feel we’re inviolate and uncompromised, morals intact; the one true voice.

Arsenal fans protest

We say “get out of our club” but then a new owner comes in and after initially being welcomed, proves to be cut from the same greedy, ignorant, selfish, blood-stained corporate cloth and the cycle goes on. This will always be the case until there is profound reform at every level of the game to restrict super rich people, companies or countries from coming into the game, from using money to lever success and to protect the less well-off from reckless owners. Do we really want that?

This means the capping not just of wages and transfer fees, but a restriction of club income and what it can be used for.  Anything and everything must be done to even the playing field. This essentially means making the bigger clubs smaller financially, while preventing surplus income being snaffled by owners and executives.

The most obvious way to change is for the government to enforce a more fan-led ownership model which, while not perfect, at least offers a bulwark to the more greedy, blinkered dictatorship model.

Last week was a great and important moment in football’s history, in England at least. But it will all have been for absolutely nothing if we just quietly slip back into the old ways. It is perfectly possible to see a Super League re-proposed in the near future under a different title and with organisational tweaks to make it acceptable. I’ve already laid out exactly how to diffuse opposition and how to sell the concept of a midweek competition.

But can we be bothered? Do we want change, but change to someone else’s club, not our own? Do we rather like complaining and finger pointing more than we like actually doing something? Do we love the big transfers too much to want them ended? The coming months may give us an answer to this and many other questions and it may show us a side of ourselves that we don’t like.

Posters attached to fencing by Leeds fans

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