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A Look Back at the Decline of English Soccer. Spring, 2057

The early 2000s was a time of great sporting innocence around the globe: the NFL still claimed to have an active drugs policy, Tiger Woods’ alien DNA was still undiagnosed, and it was three years before the revelations about Barry Bonds and Dick Cheney’s clandestine relationship would shock America.

In his keynote speech to Harvard University’s International Sports History Majors, graduating class of 2057, Professor Wayne Rooney, PhD, looks back to the early years of the century and points out that the seeds of English Soccer’s destruction had already been sewn.

Looking back now, it seems hard to conceive that many Englishmen, as late as 2007, still believed that soccer, or football in the vernacular, was the game of the people. One could easily understand this misapprehension. After all, this was a time of great sporting innocence around the globe. The NFL still claimed to have an active drugs policy, Tiger Woods’ alien DNA was still undiagnosed, and it was three years before the revelations about Barry Bonds and Dick Cheney’s clandestine relationship would shock America.

Back in England, football had been at the heart of working class culture for 130 years. For most of that time, communities rallied around their local team, the weekly trip to the ground providing two hours of inexpensive, honest entertainment after the grind of the working week. Unlike their equivalents in America, these teams were not franchises of a monolithic, autonomous private league owned by powerful, wealthy families, but genuine clubs; organizations that one could join, and have an active participation in the running of.

Dutch football fans, circa 2005

Being part of an exclusive club, literally and metaphorically, was an essential part of the experience. As was the hope that accompanied it. There was always the possibility, with a sequence of good years, that your team could be challenging for the game’s highest honors. As late as the 1970s, Wimbledon FC, an amateur non-league team, rose through the leagues to reach the highest echelons of the First Division which, as you all know, was later named The FA Premier League during the renegotiations of rights during the so-called football boom of the early 1990s.

It seems remarkable that these Premiership Years were when English Football reached its apex of popularity. Even in the United States, that once-mighty nation primarily known for its hatred of homosexuals and soccer, early-bird anglophiles would gather around cable TV broadcasts eagerly lapping up so-called EPL action beamed live from the motherland, convinced they were watching something that was somehow purer than the dramas enveloping the cash-saturated NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball.

How were they to know that all was uneasy in the league that unashamedly boasted to its followers that it was the best and most exciting in the world? After all, closer to home, a nation that had had soccer obsession foisted upon them was ignoring all the signs.

With Rupert Murdoch dominating the broadcast rights and the print media’s coverage of the Premier League (although it’s important to remember that this was before he was elected prime minister of Australia or the UK) keeping the public’s hunger for soccer stories at a ravenous state was never a problem. Murdoch’s Sun newspaper (Britain’s best-selling daily until 2013, when David Sullivan’s Daily Pornographer finally overtook it) would splash garish football headlines over its back pages, relegating every other sport to secondary status, in a deliberate attempt to propagate the myth of soccer’s innate superiority. Not surprisingly, the endless politicking between the four clubs that mattered – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – became hot talking points. Few in the UK even thought to complain when at least one game per weekend would only be available on a pay-per-view basis, on top of the already expensive subscription fee to Murdoch’s Sky Sports cable channels.

But more pertinent problems were closer at hand. Because where football had been a game for the people for over 100 years, the rebalance of power that had accompanied the Premier League’s birth was gnawing away at the sport below its four-team elite level. More TV money for the Premier League teams had already widened the gap between them and the other 72 professional clubs in the football league. The added cash bonanza that came with the annual Champions League – where Europe’s top teams would meet each other in front of continent-wide TV audiences – tipped the balance beyond breaking point. The four aforementioned teams from England would qualify for the Champions League every year, replenishing their bank accounts, enabling them to pillage lesser teams’ squads for any players whose talent might challenge their unquestioned dominance of the domestic game. The English Premier League, while supporters and TV viewers sat and watched, had become totally uncompetitive.

Used to little else, English football fans kept quiet. Winning became everything. Not in the quest for success, but because the financial ramifications of failure, in particular the dreaded relegation from the Premier League, was too horrific a fate to contemplate. Glory was forgotten. Survival became everything. The sport that cliché had promised was ‘the beautiful game’ (here Professor Rooney pauses for laughter) had more often than not become a dour struggle. On-field flair became a liability. Tactical conservatism was the order of the day.

Photo from SUNY-ESF.edu

On the pitch, English football was failing to deliver its promise of excitement, but there was worse to come. Off the pitch, the country that had given the world its most popular sport was losing control of its own game. As the 2000s moved on, the Premier League became a playground for the world’s financial elite. And as the fear of losing outweighed all other issues, supporters welcomed foreign "sugar daddies" with open arms. Manchester United was bought by American sports investor and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, Liverpool by American sports magnates Tom Hicks and George Gillett. West Ham United was taken over by Icelandic cookie multi-millionaire Eggert Magnússon. Fulham was owned by the often-investigated, never convicted Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Al-Fayed. Aston Villa was bought by Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner. And, as I’m sure you know from your lectures on the collapse of the international oil industry, Chelsea was the plaything of Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.

Able to run the club at a financial loss of £200million a year (which, before the hyper-inflation that hit the USA in the 2020s under President Jenna Bush, translated as approximately $400million), considering many Premier League’s teams’ entire annual budget was closer to £30 million, every week became a battle between David and the Chelsea Goliath. Unlike the bible, David really pulled off the upset. Football, far from being the sport of the people, had become a rich man’s game. Players’ salaries, fuelled by their owners’ inexhaustible bank accounts became huge: £120,000 a week – a huge sum at the time -- barely raised eyebrows.

Naturally, it was the fans that paid for this extravagance. A middle-tier club like London’s Tottenham Hotspur could charge adults £39 for a big game for the worst seat in the house. The best seats went for £71 ($142). No creature comforts. No halftime entertainment. Just 90 minutes of dour soccer, played by foreign mercenaries looking to advance their careers and an eventual transfer to a bigger club.

In 2007 the first seeds of dissent were sown. Supporters of teams like Wigan, Middlesborough and Blackburn Rovers voted with their wallets and their feet, leaving huge swathes of empty seating staring back at the TV cameras. To a generation used to heaving stadiums and the promise that this was a magical league, it was shocking. To those in the know, it came as little surprise. The three lower divisions of professional English football, long since deprived of media coverage, were used to half-empty stadiums. The so-called football boom of the '90s had created a generation of fans used to cheering their teams through the television.

For a child looking for a club to support there was little choice other than Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester United. They were the TV stars. They were competing. Everyone else simply made up the numbers. The days of supporting the local team were over. And with player wages spiraling in a vain attempt to keep up with the competition, ticket prices rose with them. Too short-sighted to realize that the game had changed, smaller clubs simply crossed their fingers and hoped that their loyal supporters, blighted by a lack of entertainment and their teams’ prospects, would continue to turn up. They didn’t.

Throughout 2008 and 2009, the malaise spread through English football like wildfire. Music executive Simon Cowell purchased Bolton Wanderers before the 2008, seemingly for the rights to the stadium, one of the finest in northern England. When American TV presenter Oprah Winfrey started snapping up shares in Portsmouth FC a year later, it came as a surprise to no one.

By now the problems in the game had reached critical mass. Seats for certain games were topping £100. After seven consecutive years with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal qualifying for the Champions League, UEFA, European football’s governing body, was shocked when their offer to British TV was declined, forcing them to be renegotiated at 60% of their predicted value. From that moment it was clear that the domestic TV rights had also been hugely overvalued. When the Premier League expected its normal huge payout from the Murdoch coffers, they were sorely disappointed. With the top clubs (with the exception of the oil-funded Chelsea) unable to pay its players the massive wages they had come to expect, the exodus was rapid and ruthless. Agents and lawyers dominated the back pages, as contracts proved to be worth less than the gold trimmed paper they were written on.

By 2015 the English Premiership was a pale shadow of its former self. Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool were playing in Spain’s La Liga, favoring regular fixtures with giant clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid over rainy Saturday’s in Blackburn and Barnsley. Arsenal had been purchased by Italy’s Berlusconi family and, combined with their existing team AC Milan, Arsenal Milan won the first of their three consecutive Champions Leagues.

When Bolton Wanderers won the 2015 Premier League title, becoming the first team that wasn’t Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United to lift the trophy in over 30 years, the cheers rang hollow. Greed had destroyed English football. Although even then, few would have expected the lure Indoor Golf was about to exert on the British Public. Although sadly, that’s best left for another lecture.

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