Monday 23 April 2018

Last of old working-class soldiers missed the gold rush

Roy Keane early in the career
Roy Keane early in the career

Tommy Conlon

It was the first game of the new era, televised live and exclusive by the upstart satellite broadcaster that was about to profoundly change the game in Britain and beyond.

The hallowed first division championship had been rebranded as the Barclays English Premier League and a ravenous BSkyB had brazenly seized the broadcast rights from the old, complacent terrestrial channels.

They'd paid what was then considered an astronomical £191m for five seasons. Last Tuesday Sky paid £4.18bn for three more seasons, beginning in 2016/'17. The telecommunications giant BT, an emerging rival to Sky, paid £960m for its portion.

Sky will broadcast 126 matches per season under the new deal at an estimated cost of £11m per game, a 70 per cent increase on its previous contract.

When Nottingham Forest and Liverpool FC kicked off the new era on August 16, 1992, the cost to BSkyB per game was £0.6m.

It was a Sunday afternoon, the first of the self-styled 'Super Sundays' that would soon become a familiar slogan from Sky's relentless marketing crusade. "Good afternoon everyone," greeted match commentator Martin Tyler to a sceptical TV audience as the teams walked out at the City Ground. "A new league, alterations and amendments to the very laws of the game, even a different button to push on your television set."

Roy Keane started for Forest that day, Ronnie Whelan for Liverpool. Keane was at the beginning of his career, Whelan nearing the end of his. Two footballers who would become part of the lineage of great post-war Irish midfielders in consecutive succession to John Giles and Liam Brady.

Despite his talent and achievements, Whelan's wages had been modest for most of his career. Keane would go on to earn enormous sums from the tidal wave of money that was about to flood the game. The tidal wave last week officially became a tsunami.

Whelan recalls that first match of the Premier League era in his 2011 autobiography. "Already you could see the change," he writes. "There was a lot of razzmatazz and bells and whistles that day." The financial deluge brought with it changes great and small. "You were starting to hear a new line when it came to the verbal exchanges between players. In the old days it was show me your medals, now it was show me your money."

When Whelan won the European Cup with Liverpool in 1984 he was on £600 a week plus bonuses; and that was before tax. His salary doubled every two years for the rest of the 1980s. It was good money compared to the average industrial wage of the time, but "chicken feed" compared to what the Premier League generation would earn. He never had an agent. No players on the all-conquering Liverpool team of that decade had an agent.

The biggest contract he ever signed was his last. It coincided with the arrival of BSkyB in 1992. It was a two-year deal worth about £300,000 a year. Now the likes of Yaya Toure and Wayne Rooney are earning about £300,000 a week.

For the most of a hundred years professional footballers were knitted into the working life of industrial Britain. They could have been categorised as artisans, highly-skilled tradesmen whose earnings placed them at the comfortable end of the blue collar spectrum.

The great majority of professionals in Britain and Ireland still have their roots in the working class, if that social stratum still exists. But for those who make it to the Premier League, the process of separation, physical and psychic, begins. Even the average player in this sporting Klondike is said to be paid around £31,000 a week. More than enough to buy a house in a gated community, or on its own grounds surrounded by high walls and patrolled by private security.

At the other end of society, the game of the masses has become less accessible to those same masses. Ticket prices have increased by 1,000 per cent since 1992. A Premier League game has become a day out for the middle-aged middle classes. The young and the poor have steadily been marginalised. They cannot afford to go to the games, and increasingly they cannot afford to even watch them in their own homes either.

Nowadays the Premier League allocates three per cent of its television revenue to the three divisions beneath it in the Football League. When it was simply known as Division One, 50 per cent of the television income was distributed among the three lower divisions.

Of the 20 Premier League clubs only one - Chelsea FC - pays the official UK living wage to their domestic staff, those who work in retail, catering, cleaning etc. The living wage is £7.85 per hour, £9.15 in London. "No, it doesn't make me uncomfortable," replied Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, when asked about it last week.

David Conn of the Guardian specialises in the financial side of the game. "Football," he wrote last week, "reflects the dominant social phenomenon of these times: inequality."

By the time Whelan left Liverpool in the summer of 1994, the revolution was fully under way. "The game was losing touch with its working-class roots and so were the players. (It) was still the same one I had played, but it wasn't really my world any more. We'd missed the gold rush, our generation; we were the last of the old soldiers, I suppose."

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