D3D4 Walsall Correspondent looks back at 25 years of the Premier League in his latest column…

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Happy Birthday Premier League

The Premier League has just celebrated a rather significant birthday. It is 25 years old. A little younger than Bart Simpson; a touch older than Harry Styles.

 

Ever since, financially at least, it’s been heading in one direction. And it should be commended for the way it has done so, on the way helping to take post-Italia 90 football in England – lest we forget, one still recovering from the tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough, to name two amongst the debris of hooliganism and stadia decay – to the ‘best league in the world’ even if it is sometimes a little self-proclaimed.

 

But accompanying the quarter century cake and candles was a BBC article that told of the growing cash gap between the haves and have nots (aka those teams not in the Premier League).

 

Hardly new news. Even prior to the latest TV deal, the gap had reached three figure millions, said the article. It went onto focus on that gap between the FAPL clubs and even the financially healthier ones at the top of the Championship money tree, only briefly touching on the impact on Leagues One and Two.

 

And I’m not going to start making that point either because it’s there for all to see. And in a way it’s always been thus and the way it should be except it’s now showing worrying signs of going too far or at least becoming a much bigger issue down the line. Like a melting ice cap that’s broken off into the sea, the problem is possibly one that shouldn’t continue to be ignored.

 

Of course television and the growing deals is the catalyst that has caused the gap to escalate as it has. Pre-Sky (who began screening live football in 1992) the rights to football games in England were held by either ITV or BBC at various times. All divisions got some coverage but football wasn’t widely available although, of course, that was about to change. In 1991, the incumbent (ITV) bid £262m for the new rights package (to give some perspective, in the previous deal it had increased its offer £18m to £34m to retain control). However, BskyB countered and won the rights, paying in excess of £300m.

 

The most recent TV deal was for £5.136bn, which was itself 71% above the previous deal. Has the glass ceiling been reached? Who can tell, although pirate streaming and never-ending subscription increases point towards a tipping point at some stage. But either way, in a world of telephone numbers (including the dialling code) for TV deals, there is little wonder that the gap between those at the top and those in the lower leagues has become an almighty chasm.

 

Take one of the latest recruits to League One, Blackburn Rovers, champions in the third season of the Premier League after it was formed. They now find themselves in a division where the average turnover for a club is £5m, compared to more than £20m in The Championship; itself dwarfed by the £120m+ in the top tier by the time the 2016 figures were calculated. Of course, these figures will increase – as will the size of the divide – during this current TV deal period.

 

In winning that league twenty-odd years ago, Blackburn’s most expensive acquisition was to pay Norwich City £5,000,000 for Chris Sutton, who formed the SAS partnership with a certain Alan Shearer that delivered the title winning goals. And that was seen as a lot of money at the time but now would struggle to get you an under-23 league player who’d started a dozen games or spent all his time out on loan.

Before and during that same season that Blackburn topped the tree, Arsenal paid a sizable fee to Luton (lower half of Division 1 as it was) for John Harston. Aston Villa purchased several players from the leagues below; as did the likes of Chelsea, Ipswich, Leicester, Manchester City, Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon.

 

Those transfers on occasions helped the selling clubs to prosper, or even in some cases survive. The likes of Crewe could develop a young player and sell for in excess of £1.5m to a Liverpool, as they did with Danny Murphy in 1997. In footballing inflation terms, that would be at least £15m today but how many lower league clubs are selling players to top tier clubs for anywhere like that? Deli Alli aside, how many lower league clubs are getting even close to a third of it?

 

And with more and more money at the top, so comes more ludicrous spending and a tendency to pay more for not-always-top-top-players from overseas. It’s not just the England national team that feels this but the lower leagues too, stripped of a valuable source of income (or much of it) in a market that was already a nonsense and post-Neymar to PSG and the coming of the super-agent, will only get sillier.

 

How much longer before the first billion pound/euro transfer fee? And what will the financial gap be when it happens?

 

So forget now. It’s bad enough but what will happen to the lower leagues if this trend continues for the next twenty five years? To a time when the only legal way to watch the Premier League will be to have a chip inserted into the wrist by Amazon. Or to live outside of the UK.

 

That’s assuming the lower league exists. The powers that be might have switched off promotion and relegation by then. In twenty years’ time, they might have to because we might have ‘lucky’ new entrants to the Premier League who find that they are unable to win even a single point. As I write, Huddersfield Town have won three-nil at Crystal Palace to begin life as a PL club in style. But how will new clubs fare when the money gap reaches £200m? Or goes well beyond it?

 

There’s a counter argument of course. That the solidarity payments keep clubs afloat and the FAPL will say that the more money that comes into the English game, the more those payments will rise too and there will be a bigger cut for all. They will also claim that the high profile of the top league will reflect brilliantly on everyone else. Both arguments with some merit.

 

But it’s that gap that bothers me, and it’s widening every year.

 

The Championship might be the ‘toughest – Saturday/Tuesday – league in the world’ at the moment but what if, eventually, clubs entering it from the league below can’t compete either because the financial contrast? What if what Burton did in the last few seasons, reaching the second tier from non-league and then, incredibly with their comparative budget and resources, staying up, becomes a thing you only find by searching through old YouTube videos?

 

And what does it eventually do to the stuff on the field? In Spain, where the very rich keep getting richer and the discrepancy is greater has been in place for longer than England, the league is only winnable by two clubs bar an occasional freak season (there’s been one in the last thirteen). Even closer to home, Celtic, whose increasing wealth in relation to those around them and especially those in the lower leagues, means their league has become more a procession than a contest.

 

But hey, maybe this is just an OTT reaction and it will all be OK. Maybe it won’t all end in disaster in twenty five years’ time. But haven’t they said the same about the polar ice caps too?

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