By Tony Attwood
It seems such an innocuous question: who runs football in England? And yet the more I think about it, the more confused I get. (OK I know I am often confused, but on this one I am even more confused.)
The list below of the institutions, bodies, groups, and collections of organisations, is put in order of the power level exerted. But I have to say, since I started trying to write this piece, I’ve changed the list over and over both in terms of what I have included and more often in terms of the order herein.
There’s 20 items all told on my list, and here I’m just dealing with the top five. I hope to come back to the rest in the next few days, in between matches, transfers and other events.
And I’m sure you’ll disagree. Hell, having done it, I disagree, but I have to stop making changes somewhere.
1: TV stations
There’s no doubt they choose when the fixtures are played, and in their arrogance, which clubs are seen and which sets of fans have impossible journeys based on these decisions.
But there is more, because they choose what we see – cutting away from time wasting, failing to look in detail of awful refereeing decisions, giving equal weight to moronic comments (“The jury’s still out…”) as they do to interesting insights (as with Thierry Henry’s early analysis of Coquelin).
Likewise their insistence of using the same “pundits” over and over, who have biased viewpoints, and their creation of and the repetition of what they consider to be key points (Arsenal have an injury crisis, Arsenal must sign players, signing players is a sign of determination, sacking managers is inevitable…) defines the issues, and then controls the discussion around them. They tell us how to construct our thoughts on football and this is indeed supreme power.
Worse, because the PL is now dependent on TV money, there is no way out of this. Power is control, and if TV companies get together and say, “we want more games on Sundays or else no deal” they would get it. (Of course TV companies banding together to fix the market is illegal under EU rules, but I doubt this would stop them, and anyway it is possible that the UK will pull out of the EU, at which point we’d be back to the utter freeforall in which large corporations run everything without anything to hold them back).
2: The newspapers and radio stations
Newspaper circulations have decreased, but they still have big on-line readerships. Newspapers could stand up against the way in which TV interprets the world of football, but instead they play the game, desperate to be seen as relevant in football.
So because TV decides that grossly incompetent or bent refereeing is not a matter for debate, they don’t debate it, don’t mention it, and don’t say anything about it, because it is not part of the accepted agenda.
Occasionally they even sink so low as to take handouts from dubious organisations like PGMO or Barcelona and reprint these handouts as news. When you are not following a story closely it is hard to tell news from a press release, so the power increases.
Radio stations have discussions with “experts” who repeat the standard mantra devised by TV and republished in the press. Phone in shows are manipulated so that fans with views that are outside of the norm are laughed at. Manage to get onto a phone in to complain about the referee and you’ll be laughed at or squeezed out.
I suspect that a huge percentage of people driving away from grounds after a match have a sports programme and then a phone in on – which makes radio a major part controlling factor in how people think about the game.
There’s no doubt that PGMO are out of control, with the League seemingly powerless to stop them or move them away from their bent vision of football. A vision in which it is ok to have most referees from the north, in which referees who put in disastrous performances get rewarded by yet more fixtures, a vision which says it is vital to have a tiny number of referees, so that if any do get looked at carefully as match fixers or incompetent, nothing can be done because there isn’t anyone else.
A vision that says that if you criticise the ref you are just looking for excuses for your club’s bad performance. A vision that has learned nothing from Spain and Italy.
As a result PGMO quite often decides the results of games, either deliberately or through their decision making of having a small clique of referees from the north.
Goodness knows how many matches would have different results if it were not for PGMO, but it would be a lot, in my view. In fact a case can be made for PGMO being the most important element in football in the Premier League, for they directly affect results. The media only affect how we think.
Sponsors of competitions and clubs pay big money for the privilege and demand things in return. And to some degree we can fight back – we don’t have to call it the Emirates Stadium, or the Emirates Cup (I tend to call them the Ems and the FA Cup).
But they do have real power, and the worrying thing is that much of it is behind the scenes, and only on parade on rare occasions. Does anyone really think that Fifa might have continued untouched until last year if Coca-Cola, Adidas and Visa hadn’t been deadly silent, pumping billions into the corrupt organisation?
We might also think of Ched Evans who was convicted of rape and whose case is now in the court of appeal. When Sheffield Utd considered re-hiring him after he had served his time inside, two major sponsors of the club threatened to pull out, and the matter was dropped. As a result of the publicity he is without a club, while awaiting the outcome of the appeal. The sponsors had control, not the club management, not the fans, not the owners of the club.
(I’m not trying to debate the right or wrong on this; I recall Blacksheep and I having a very long debate in the pub on the merits of the employers right to choose who to employ against the “he’s served his time as the state requires, and now deserves the right to take up employment”. It is complex of course, but my point is simply that it was the sponsors who took the decision.
Sponsors can decide where the club plays (such as on overseas tours), when club plays (working with TV to maximise the number of matches that can be shown), and can ignore fans’ wishes in terms of kick off times etc as they seek maximum publicity.
They can demand exclusivity, leading to a small group of young women in South Africa being arrested in the world cup, and thrown in an appalling prison for appearing at a game wearing T shirts with the “wrong” beer shown on the front. They have power.
The fact that sponsors have no long term interest in football or the club they sponsor is the worrying factor here. TV, radio, and the media do have a long term vision – they want to keep the game “clean” by not discussing certain matters, so they can keep their audience – which means they want the game to continue to be popular. Sponsors’ prime consideration is themselves, not the well-being of the club.
Players, of course, help decide if the team wins, along with PGMO. And players can decide where to go and who to play for. Alexis famously decided on London, not Liverpool because fairly obviously most people wouldn’t want to go and live in Liverpool if they could afford to live in London and had the choice.
Although some do love their club, and have the highest regard for their manager, many are just contracted individuals. We don’t expect a team of builders who tip up in Hartlepool to build 100 new houses to have an affection to Hartlepool, but we expect a player who signs for our club to be positive about it. And they play the game, and then go.
Players can be motivated or de-motivated, injured or fit, trying or not trying, dissolute in their everyday lives, or wholesome creatures who look after their bodies, insightful into what the manager wants, or not. And their abilities affect results. When PGMO allows.
Conclusion on the first five
What surprised me as I played this little game of trying to arrange these and 15 other factors into an order is that I ended up with only one in the top five that is actually, centrally involved in football as we know it on a daily basis. I didn’t start out to do this, but as I played the game, that’s how it seemed to come out.
Four of the five factors that have the most power are not directly associated with the clubs and their supporters.
Makes you think (or at least, makes me ponder).
Two more anniversaries
12 January 2011: John Jensen who was implicated in the downfall of George Graham signed a 6 month contract with Blackburn as assistant manager.
12 January 2012: Philippa Dawson, a direct descendant of Jack Humble (Woolwich Arsenal’s first chairman, and a director into the 1920s) addressed an AISA meeting in the House of Commons. She was the first member of the family to do so for four generations. The meeting was addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, who in 2015 became the Leader of the Labour Party.
Insult of the day: Here is a silly stately style indeed! (Henry VI part 1)
Coming soon: One of the most famous players in the history of Arsenal, has written an article exclusively for Untold. More details anon.