SOMETIMES football knocks your socks off and I don’t mean astounds you with brilliance – rather, when the game appears to be out of control and seems unrecognisable from the one you started watching.
When that happens, it’s a good idea to dig out Busby, Stein and Shankly.
I have Hugh McIlvanney’s stately documentary on VHS but no means of playing the tape anymore and so must rev up YouTube to locate a moment at dramatic odds with the monster TV deal just won by England’s Premier League. You might call this the £5.1 billion question – that’s the value of this contract – and it comes in McIlvanney’s very first interview, when he asks Matt Busby’s half-brother, Jimmy Mathie, how the First World War impacted on the future legend.
“Right away, Hugh,” says Jimmy. “He lost his father, and our mother her two brothers, within the first few weeks of fighting.” Busby became a breadwinner before his time, disappointing his schoolteachers by leaving a highly promising education early to go to work. The school was in Motherwell; the Busby cottage in the village of Old Orbiston. “Matt knew Mum couldn’t afford the bus fare, even fourpence, so he walked those miles for three solid years, there and back.”
Busby was shaped by that place, those hardships, those responsibilities, his morals, just as Jock Stein and Bill Shankly were by theirs. Football in England for the foreseeable will be shaped by that £5.1bn and what morals can be found in the deliverance of this incredible bounty and you have to say: good luck to it.
The new dawn of the 70 per cent increase in TV rights didn’t get off to the sunniest of starts. Right away the architect of the deal, Premier League chief executive Peter Scudamore, was asked whether he would be uncomfortable with the prospect of English football now being able to unveil the first £500,000-a-week player while club ground-staff earned below the living wage. “No, it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” he declared with quite astonishing bluster.
The sport doesn’t have a great public image at the moment. The wider world groans at the wall-to-wall football on the box with too many plugs for gambling, where bad role-models earn fortunes and cheat their way through games, talk in cliches post-match, live garishly, occasionally behave appallingly at night, represent their country badly – then queue up to bag the punditry chairs to feed the beast some more. Of course the wider world tars everyone with the same brush; Everton and Scotland’s Steven Naismith is one who displays a social conscience, passes expensive match tickets to hard-up fans. But Scudamore could do more at this moment than blithely state that football is no different to other sectors of the entertainment industry, where “the absolute talent gets paid a disproportionately high amount”.
Other leagues around the world have been shouting into the wind about the size of the deal. Here, Ronny Deila, who’s been diligently learning the art of a crowd-pleasing Friday-morning back-page headline, dubbed the Premier League “boring”. You know what he means. “Did you stay up for Portillo?” was the morning-after question following Labour’s 1997 election landslide, Michael Portillo’s routing being the most enjoyable if you voted for the victors. But “Did you stay up for Stoke v West Brom?” means something entirely different. Even though we’re talking Match of the Day and highlights are free, the inference is: “You sad loser.”
Not all the games are as great as Michael Owen, gurgling about BT Sport’s share of the contract in commentary last week, would have us believe. Even Chelsea-Manchester City, the big showdown, was an overhyped bore. Meanwhile, as the male of the species contemplates this Valentine’s weekend how to keep those football widows sweet, it might well be thinking of cancelling the pay-per-view in anticipation of higher charges and trying to get away with a jumbo bag of Revels as a declaration of love.
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The 70 per cent increase on the last TV deal looms over the whole debate. It prompts fans to demand a simultaneous 70 per cent increase in investment in grassroots development, a 70 per cent increase in the number of 3G pitches – or how about a decrease in the cost of tickets? Not as much as 70 per cent – supporters know that would be impossible – but just a respectable gesture, to say sorry for all those occasions when the broadcasters mucked around with kick-off times, making it impossible to get a train from London back up to Liverpool or Newcastle.
A 70 per cent reduction in pundit prattle would be welcome, along with a 70 per cent drop in the dread moments when “the Prem” is described as “the best league in the world”. But this will be beyond the willpower of most commentators as the deal lures more foreign players and managers to England, making it impossible for there to be a 70 per cent increase in the proportion of outstanding players who can represent the national team. This, for the English, is surely the greatest concern regarding the gargantuan money-splurge, and you’ve got to feel sorry for Harry Kane, who has a chant dedicated to him for being “one of our own”, because in England now, home-grown lads are pretty rare. He can’t win the next World Cup all by himself. And he may turn out to be this season’s Rickie Lambert.
In Scotland we get by with our modest contributions from TV and even less in the way of corporate investment. A fine and thoughtful football man, Paul Lambert, loses his job at a club wetting its knickers over the prospect of missing out on a share of the £5.1bn, as if it were an entitlement, and now there are no Scottish managers left in the best league in the world to feature Stoke, West Brom and a long-ball Manchester United. And Ronny Deila – it’s him again – urges us to talk up our football, stop knocking it. The next Lionel Messi could be out there, he says, though obviously if he turns up at Dundee United, Celtic will nick him.
Meanwhile three absolute greats – when the cost of a single Premier League live match rises to £10m, what would the triumvirate be worth now? – continue to sleep soundly through it all.