The Premier League: Behind the glitzy facade
As the 2014/15 Premier season kicks off, an alternative preview. The medium and the massage...
TO MARK two decades of the Premier League back in 2012, I wrote a book entitled There's A Golden Sky: How 20 Years Of The Premier League Have Changed English Football Forever.
The idea was to return to clubs I had first visited in the season before the Premier League began for my first book, Season In The Cold: A Journey Through English Football, to take stock of the game, to see how it had changed, how the clubs had changed, how life had changed, for better or worse.
I hobnobbed with the big boys, spending a day with the Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck behind the scenes and taking the Manchester United museum tour to get inside Old Trafford - as the club secretary was unable to help me with an interview (unlike his readily available predecessor 20 years previously) because this was not an official club book.
At the grassroots of the game, I revisited Wembley FC, who now have an arch to look out on but where little else had changed, the owner and chairman Brian Gumm still in situ, and I returned to the phoenix club of Aldershot exactly 20 years after they had gone bust.
There was the inside story of then Conference club Luton Town, who voted for the Premier League as members of the old First Division but made the mistake that would haunt them over and over when they were relegated the season before it began. There was life with the women of Doncaster Belles and a Saturday morning inside the Crewe Alexandra academy.
I ended on an interview with Paul Gascoigne in Bournemouth, where he was living after going through his latest rehab for his alcoholism and depression. He had been the catalyst for the game taking off with his talent and tears at Italia '90 to the point where every professional footballer at the top levels owed him a debt for their modern riches. He had also become a metaphor for how success and the excess of the boom times could extract its vengeful fee.
The book did pretty well and won some critical acclaim, made the shortlist for Best Football Book in the British Sports Book Awards. The former Sports Minister Richard Caborn, an old friend, told me over dinner that he had enjoyed the book but with one caveat: he had been unable to discern what I really felt about the modern Premier League.
I had hoped, I replied, that it would have emerged through the book in certain passages and comments. I reckoned I had addressed all the issues, including the politics and economics of the game, the TV effect, and the rescheduling of matches, along with ever increasing ticket prices. I wanted readers to make up their own minds, I said.
Besides, I added, it depended on whom you talked to. For such as Manchester United and Chelsea, it had clearly been a boon, United's global reputation now a TV, advertising and sponsorship money-spinner and Chelsea having been the market leader in attracting overseas investment, that of Roman Abramovich, which had changed the landscape of the English game.
For Wembley, Luton and Aldershot, however, the benefits had been little or non-existent and the rich getting richer, might even have been detrimental to the lower levels where the poor, it seemed, had got poorer.
Yes, fair enough, he said, but I just wanted something from you. Something to leave me thinking.
One reviewer also suggested that I might not have been critical enough of some of the senior figures in the game, as if mindful of my day job as, then, a football columnist and match reporter for The Mail on Sunday and reluctant to incur wrath or sanctions.
I hadn't thought so and in fact, Bruce Buck would soon after publication of the book be emailing to say he would no longer be speaking to me as a result of something I had written about his club in a column that had been drawn to his attention.
(It was probably Dolly Parton's nice self-deprecating line that it cost a lot of money to look this cheap, which I was fond of using about Chelsea after their latest sacking of a manager who had done well but offended the owner in some way).
But both Caborn and the reviewer got me thinking. As did a series of events surrounding my subsequent book, with the Premier League referee Mark Halsey, Added Time: Surviving Cancer, Death Threats And The Premier League.
There is no need here to repeat the minutiae of what happened when it emerged that I was ghost-writing Mark's autobiography, which had twin aims: to inspire cancer sufferers by showing that it was possible to survive gruelling treatment, then prosper anew, and to give those who spent fortunes following the game an inside look at what really happens between managers, players and referees - and the powers that be running the game.
The way the Premier League sought to suppress the book and the stress they inflicted on Mark, his wife Michelle and daughter Lucy are detailed here in a piece that I wrote for the Daily Telegraph a year ago: http://www.floodlitdreams.com/page.php?art=9, under the heading on this website: 'The Book The Premier League Tried To Stop.'
I do wish to share, though, what has happened since then as it reveals much about the internal machinations of the Premier League and how it secretly views and treats its employees and its public.
Much of it revolves around Richard Scudamore but as the most powerful man in English football as chief executive of the Premier League, that is inevitable. Indeed the League is close to a dictatorship. Its board consists of just two people: the chairman - and is currently between chairmen - and Scudamore. Google "Premier League board" and then check the relevant page on the League's website. It is currently down.
What follows then, is probably the guts of a potential conclusion to Golden Sky but which I could not have written at the time, not then having experienced the forces and artfulness of the Premier League used first to put pressure on the publishers not to proceed, then to discredit Mark when they grew angry that we had managed to self-publish without them getting wind of it. After all, they knew everything, liked to be in control of everything. They reckoned.
The day the first installment of a serialisation appeared in The Sun, I understand that Scudamore was furious. So too Chelsea, as the extract told the inside story of their player John Obi Mikel having to be held off the the referee Mark Clattenburg in his dressing room in a notorious incident from the 2012/13 season. Chelsea apparently sought legal advice but could do little as the account in the book was true.
Within a few days of publication, Scudamore was using his scheduled lunch briefing with national newspaper sports journalists to decry Mark as a loose cannon, a showbiz ref who loved all the glamour, a Walter Mitty character who overstated his relationships with managers and players.
A couple of days later, columns began to appear about how it was time to put a stop to these refs who considered themselves pally with people they should be in charge of and impartial towards.
His relationship with Jose Mourinho, a man who had shown him and his wife, Michelle, who also had cancer, a kindness in paying for a holiday hotel for them in Portugal (they paid their own flights), came under particular scrutiny. Mourinho, by the way, had since left Chelsea and was plying his trade in Milan with Internazionale.
It was also noted by some writers that Mark had subsequently travelled to Madrid for Real games as Mourinho's guest when the Portuguese took over at the Bernabeu. Mark's ethics and impartiality were suddenly questioned, though anyone who has ever met him - including his colleagues, with whom he was popular, and all those in the game - will know how incorruptible he is.
Thus was it curious that the Premier League, and the governing body of referees they oversee - the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd - had not had any cause to question his integrity in the record 14 years he had been a Select Group official before his retirement at the end of the 2012/13 season.
And curious that Scudamore and the PGMOL press office did not point out that the visits were sanctioned. One PGMOL official had even asked for Mark to get a book signed by Mourinho while he was in Madrid. Neither was it mentioned that one press officer had touted Mark around the newspapers for an interview about his friendship with Jose two years earlier. At that time the mood was different with the game's authorities seeking to show how managers and officials could get on together.
It was to get worse. And very, very nasty.
When, in desperation, Michelle Halsey phoned Scudamore during her husband's last season of refereeing to ask why he was being treated so badly and being denied the year's salary that referees are generally accorded when they retire, she received the reply: "Well he shouldn't have been a silly boy in doing his autobiography with Ian Ridley, should he?"
After his retirement, Mark took up two new jobs as a refereeing pundit, with The Sun and BT Sport, who had just acquired rights to one of the Premier League's TV packages of live games.
Soon into the season, on the back of refereeing controversies that always beset a new season in one form or another as players fly out of the traps and referees struggle to cope, he wrote a trenchant column about how certain inexperienced referees were not being assigned to the right matches and were not getting the right backing and mentoring from the ineffectual head of the PGMOL, Mike Riley. It came from inside knowledge and expertise.
The Premier League were incensed and there were exchanges of phone calls at very high levels between the League and BT. At first BT stood by their man but after persistent pressure by the Premier League, Mark was taken off the air, never to return all season to the bafflement of colleagues.
To their credit, The Sun did back their columnist and Mark continued to give his opinions to them for the whole season in the outspoken way they expected and which BT had also indicated to Mark they wanted from him. Before they arrived in the real world. Or at least the Premier League's version of it.
The episode was an example of the might of the Premier League and how far and deep its tentacles now extend. After all, it controls its TV rights and it knows their price. BT are now in competition with Sky in the race for the subscriptions and broadband sales that sustain them.
The relationship between organisation and broadcaster is delicate, the balance of power apparently equal, though one might have thought that if anyone did hold the whip hand it would be the money. And the British broadcasting rights totalled more than £3 billion in the last deal.
It is Scudamore and Co who dictate, however, because to offend them could be to jeopardise chances of deals in the next round of rights negotiations. When they began broadcasting, BT Sport had high hopes of such initiatives as putting cameras in dressing rooms, as with Rugby League. The Premier League swiftly dismissed that.
Figures issued by the Premier League illustrate just how important is the business to the TV companies. BT's audiences improved by 30 per cent as last season went on and even well established Sky saw their numbers grow by 5 per cent. Those viewers are potential, lucrative broadband customers providing monthly direct debits too. Even Match of the Day saw its audience grow by almost 10 per cent. TV is, after all, the cheaper alternative to being there.
Scudamore's influence with the broadcasters was seen anew some six months later, after the Sunday Mirror carried what might have been seen as an explosive story about him exchanging sexist emails with male colleagues about women, including one working at the Premier League, the whistle having been blown by a former personal assistant.
In the emails, he referred to women as "gash" and warned a lawyer working for the Premier League to keep a woman colleague they nicknamed Edna "off your shaft." He also derided "female irrationality." This from a man who claimed that the Premier League was at "the leading edge" of the "whole equality agenda."
Within hours of the story appearing, Sky Sports News were running a news bar that the Premier League chief was at the centre of a sexist email storm. By lunchtime it had disappeared. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that a League media man, if not someone higher, had had a word with Sky.
The Premier League's media department attempted to defuse and divert by saying that Scudamore's "commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large." He had just been joshing in a "Frankie Howerd way." 'Ere, no, missus, as the comic might have said. Women certainly weren't buying that.
Naturally appalled, they began to speak out, led by the increasingly influential Women In Football organisation, and even MPs weighed in. One worried that Scudamore's comments could put women off football. WIF were concerned that he had damaged progress made by women who had had for so long to endure sexism and discrimination, as shown by a detailed survey that they had undertaken across the industry.
Kick It Out, the sport’s equality and inclusion campaign sponsored by the Premier League, said that Scudamore’s behaviour was unacceptable and suggested that he should face disciplinary action.
The Shadow Equalities Minister Gloria de Piero said: “No one should use deeply offensive language like this. Football is a family game, with many women supporters, players and referees. It’s time to kick sexism out of football.”
They were finding it difficult to get their voices heard in sections of the media, however.
It was not unexpected that the TV stations with Premier League rights and their websites were ignoring the story but it was remarkable that many newspapers gave it so little space. A few brave sports news reporters kept the story going, as did Women in Football members, but senior correspondents and columnists (no women among them) - those who had been all over the Mark Halsey tale six months earlier when briefed by the Premier League - were muted.
It was all the more bizarre given that newspapers would have given the issue in-depth coverage had it involved, for example, a senior BBC executive saying such things. Even the Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that had the comments come from one of his ministers, he had would have had to sack them.
I was disappointed with sports writing colleagues. "Is it really a story?" one said to me when I asked him about his silence when he had been so vociferous following the briefing with Scudamore about Halsey.
"I don't see the two as linked," he insisted. I told him that I did, that it was not just about sexism, as objectionable as that was, but also about bullying and reflected attitudes within a Premier League stoked by its own potency.
Even he and others silent, however, were prompted into writing as the story refused to go away, even after the normal eight-day news cycle that the media-savvy reckon is the cut-off point for surviving scandal.
The Premier League were forced finally to respond seriously and encouraged women in their organisation, including a senior executive, Peta Bistany, who worked closely with Scudamore on the ill-fated 39th game - the extra overseas game that he still wants to implement - to go public in saying what a fine boss he was and what a splendid outfit was the Premier League to work for.
I wondered how difficult it must have been for a woman to be asked to endorse the Premier League when uncertain of the consequences of not doing so.
Meanwhile the Football Association bluffed its way through reasons not to call Scudamore to account - not an employee, for example - even though they were often ready to punish others in football not in their employ. In the end, the FA chairman Greg Dyke said little more than that Scudamore had been daft. Boys will be boys.
The Premier League also put out the line that they did a huge amount for the women's game, thereby confusing the issue. This was about women, not women's football.
In the end, the Premier League clubs held a whitewash enquiry of their own and Scudamore survived. They even blamed the whistleblower, the PA who had leaked the emails, claiming they had been private when in fact they were from a Premier League email address.
A supposedly contrite Scudamore announced that he would be meeting with women's groups to assure them of his committment to their cause, but four months on, he has yet to arrange appointments with at least one of the most significant ones.
He had been aided by a surprisingly tame written press, perhaps battered by the Leveson Report, and whose football writers can these days find themselves ostracised from certain accreditations, functions and information graciously pumped out should they not play the game.
I found myself wondering whether there might be any truth in Humbert Wolfe's epigram that I have often laughed at but always dismissed:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.
Ultimately, the episode ended as all wanted, those with vested interests, that is. And Scudamore surviving spoke volumes about the commercial giant that the English game and his role in it had become.
Season 2014/15 represents the second year of a three-year TV deal and later this year or early next, negotiations for a new one are likely to begin in earnest. All want it sorted as soon as possible, the clubs so that they can then budget for the medium term. And those clubs want Scudamore in place as the man who has done so well for them over the last decade with the money they receive having escalated so.
The next deal, indeed, could at least double to £10 billion to include overseas rights and some suggest it might even treble. Scudamore has been at pains to point out that TV audiences have gone up by 114 per cent in the United States, by 40 per cent in some African countries and almost 25 per cent in some Asian territories. The TV companies will also want him in situ given his experience and expertise in negotiations. Better the devil you know...
Once it is done, I suspect Scudamore will decide it is mission accomplished, and not to push his luck further. He would surely not survive another faux pas or scandal should somebody seek to focus on his personal rather than professional life, and once he has trousered the huge bonus due to him for the next TV deal, he can depart with reputation - he and his acolytes will insist - pretty much intact, perhaps even enhanced. He has a house on America's East Coast at Cape Cod. Perhaps huge consultancy fees for advising on TV deals and running a major sports organisation beckon in the United States.
Now the Premier League, and their media mates, will probably say that all this - the Halsey episode, the sexism affair - is all just housekeeping, that it has little to do with the quality of the "product" and the "experience" of Premier League football. I beg to differ. Such attitudes of power-fuelled contempt are reflected in how they view the little people - those who continue to finance the game through ticket sales, merchandise revenue and TV subscriptions - as trench fodder, cash cows who do not get a say in big decisions.
Consider this season's prices. To be fair, Manchester United, Chelsea, Sunderland, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham and West Ham have frozen the cost of their season tickets while Newcastle marginally reduced theirs. Which means price hikes at 12 clubs. The average lowest-price adult season ticket is now £526 - an increase of 6.5 per cent - and the average highest-price is now £870, up seven per cent).
London is naturally the most expensive, with Arsenal's lowest priced season tickets now £1,014 and the highest £2,013. And for opening weekend, the minimum price for the West Ham v Tottenham game was £55. Last season, Manchester City fans were expected to pay £62 for their game at Arsenal. "Where will it all stop?" read a banner.
It led to supporters groups marching in London two days before the season to protest. "Football is Nothing without Fans" said one banner but while the League agreed to meet with representatives of the Football Supporters Federation, it smacked of tokenism with the League saying that ticket pricing was nothing to do with them as clubs set their own.
"Nine out of 10 fans think football's too expensive," said Kevin Miles, chief executive of the FSF. "Football is swimming in money, with clubs pocketing record amounts from broadcasting deals while squeezing supporters with high prices. Something has to give. Supporters have to speak up about this."
And a statement on the FSF website said: ‘The increase in Premier League media rights alone could have led to all 20 clubs letting in every supporter for all 38 games for free last season without being any worse off than they had been the season before."
It means that hopes that ticket prices will fall even if the next TV deal should reach £10 billion and more might just be a little fanciful.
A different era, I know, but compare and contrast with the the 1970's when, as a student in London I could afford to go to two or three First and Second Division games a week on a limited grant. Now a student would be lucky to afford two or three a season.
But that's how football gets you, and the Premier League have become like drug dealers. Your Dad takes you, you get hooked. You go on your own, then want to take your own sons and daughters. They get hooked. What once appeared free, or paid for you, now gets expensive and the price gets ramped up.
Undoubtedly we will see tales of derring do, stirring feats and wonderful athleticism by some of the game's best players, as the World Cup revealed them to be, England's apart. (Once England expected, incidentally; now England are excepted.)
We may pine for those 1970s, 80s as well, and a seemingly more innocent time when football was more accessible and affordable but let's not kid ourselves. On and off the pitch it was often brutal. Bad tackling on talented players was rampant, hooliganism in grounds and surrounding streets fearsome. Pitches could be quagmires.
Now the experience is clean and safe and amen to that after Hillsborough and Bradford. That can also mean sanitised, however. Clubs even have their own banners draped from their tiers now. "The Chosen One" proclaimed one at Old Trafford of David Moyes. Disappeared without trace, of course. Critical banners are now likely to be removed by stewards acting under orders. Along with Ipads at United this season, apparently.
But it cannot be denied that play is quicker, sharper, more entertaining and attacking. It is played by the honed, tuned athletes that Graham Taylor warned at the end of Euro 92' had arrived and that England needed to beware and catch up. Not that they ever have.
But while we may be thrilled to have new stars from the World Cup such as Alexis Sanchez, it should be tinged with realism, not the hype of TV companies who need it to be the best in the world (most competitive, is Scudamore's new selling point) for their balance sheets. It is patently not, even if its high tempo midwinter thrills and spills appeal to those lucrative markets of Asia and, increasingly, Africa and America.
Big players are here because of the money and because they haven't yet got on to the books of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. Luis Suarez anyone? He was biding time, developing career. Having made some dosh, they prefer Spain, now that Italy is a league in the doldrums.
Scudamore may have said, during a Premier League launch, that Suarez was an accident waiting to happen and that the competition would not miss him but the Uruguayan was box office, one of the few of what the foreign coaches refer to as "top, top" quality.
It was also Scudamore's way of grabbing headlines - so artful these days the media manipulation that he and his press people might even have discussed in advance throwing it out there - to deflect attention from the real issues of the English game.
He and the Premier League grow weary of answering for the decline of the national team as shown at the World Cup and the paucity of Englishmen, for example but should be not absolved so readily. And those ticket prices... hundreds of per cent higher than in Germany, which produces World Cup winners? The League also throw in a titbit about lobbing a £10 million bone to schools football. That should show our commitment to good causes. Laudable but miniscule.
Oh, that little problem about the sexist emails? It took the BBC's Natalie Pirks at the launch to ask Scudamore about them. The organisation had work to do to convince people what it was really about, he agreed. Unfortunately for him, too many already know what it is about now.
Not so, sadly, with some in the modern media who seem to have mislaid their courage and critical faculties, often against a backdrop of good journalists being culled and replaced by eager young replacements paid pittances for knee-jerk website opinions without background and knowledge. The rest of us who have seen enough to know we have seen enough should not, however. Increasingly, for example, discerning followers of the game are learning, via the World Cup, to question descriptions of some promising young English talents as world class geniuses.
It is not that I am disillusioned with football. Last season, I spent an enjoyable nine months reporting the Football League for the Daily Telegraph. It made a nice change from the Premier League's lack of access for journalists to anything other than anodyne, stage-managed interviews and increasingly lavish lunches in press rooms that can blunt and dull criticism.
It is not even that I am disillusioned with the Premier League; on the pitch. There remains much to admire in the ethos and ethics of some of its managers, like Arsene Wenger, and players, such as the honest Steven Gerrard and the entertaining new Liverpool. (Though where are the dribblers now? How long before Raheem Sterling joins Gareth Bale in Spain?) Kids will still wonder at it all and it remains touching to see them enjoying it. To be hooked, though, then hit in the pocket like us.
It is just that Premier League football has become remote, introverted, uncaring of the football family. It entertains changing names of clubs, it sanctions the changing of club colours. It battles the FA, treats it with the disdain of the moneyed, and repeats that the England team it was set up to improve is now none of its responsibility. In its greed and dash for cash (the Greed Is Good League, as Brian Glanville has always dubbed it), it throws crumbs at the Football and non-League, tells of its charity work in glossy season's reviews, giving up fractions of the sums that its clubs will hurl at ordinary players from overseas because English coaching is sub-standard and can't produce them, and - worse still - pays huge commissions to the agents of the mediocre.
The Premier League has become all powerful, muscle-flexingly arrogant, and all controlling. Take the issue of refereeing, seen in the new appointment of the World Cup referee Howard Webb as the technical director for the PGMOL.
Those who know him say that Webb had become increasingly weary of the pressure on him these past few seasons. He went back to working part-time last season for South Yorkshire police in anticipation of retirement and writing his own autobiography that has been put on hold.
But suddenly the Premier League, which controls the PGMOL, saw an opportunity. As well as being involved in the development of referees - few have been coming through under the current head Mike Riley as the Select Group has dwindled to a new low of 17 top-flight referees - Webb could appear on TV as their representative. That way they satisfy the companies' desire to have decisions explained without running the risk of the heart-on-sleeve honesty of a Halsey.
They also have a natural successor to Riley should Scudamore no longer be able to fend off criticism by club managers of a man he keeps in place for his malleability. Webb indeed now looks like the Glenn Hoddle figure; there at Queens Park Rangers for his coaching but in situ should a managerial change be needed if Harry Redknapp's side start badly.
The Webb role is another example of Premier League control freakery and there is a bad odour to it. It hums almost as much as the fact - which nobody seems willing to question - that the League controls refereeing itself, with the facility that gives to determine how games are refereed, which is all part of the package that television discerns its audiences desire.
In all other major footballing nations, it is the federation that controls officials. In England, the FA cannot afford to. Only the Premier League can fund a full-time Select Group. It is close to an incestuous scandal.
When it comes to the Premier League, I feel now like Forrest Gump: That's all I have to say about that. For me it will be back now to Non-League, to my roots of nostalgia, where you can park the car, get in at 2.55pm to see games that still kick off at 3 on a Saturday, see honest if limited players and get change out of £20 except at the odd club who are losing touch with their supporter base and their own culture.
And I would urge supporters priced out of the Premier League to take their kids there too. As the slogan of the Northern Premier League Club Prescot Cables has it: Don't let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV programme.