Friday 23 March 2018

Spending its way into an ivory tower

Romelu Lukaku’s £75m transfer fee is a sign of the times in the English Premier League. Photo: PA
Romelu Lukaku’s £75m transfer fee is a sign of the times in the English Premier League. Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

Liverpool and Everton were first, Arsenal have just joined them, and Huddersfield Town managed it twice in the same week. The transfer window still has the best part of two months to run and the real horse-trading is yet to start, but this looks like it could be the summer when almost every Premier League club sets a transfer record.

Perhaps such a development is a logical and inevitable corollary of the new television deal, the one responsible for making English clubs richer than ever.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of inflation, not just prices going up all the time but the follow-on effects from, say, the benchmark set by Romelu Lukaku changing clubs for around £75m.

Huddersfield are cited above as an example of the way even newly-arrived members of the Premier League are raising their financial game (the Terriers have just added the £11m Steve Mounié from Montpellier between completing the £8m captures of Aaron Mooy and Tom Ince and spending lesser amounts on Scott Malone and Mathias Jorgensen), though really, what choice do smaller clubs have when the more established sides in the league are already nudging their spending to around the £100m mark?

Even a thrifty outfit such as Burnley - current transfer record £13m for Robbie Brady - will have to join the action soon or risk missing out. They have £25m of Everton's money banked from the Michael Keane transfer, and the centre-back will need replacing.

Maybe, to the excitement of Sky Sports News, clubs spending more than ever before is simply going to be an annual feature of the English summer, like queues at Wimbledon.

Real Madrid will usually end up topping the list for buying individuals - they still look more likely than Arsenal to go past £100m for Kylian Mbappé - though the Premier League's badge of honour continues to be a peculiar willingness to spend more money in total than anyone else. In terms of transfer fees and wages, the English league pays all the way down, even though only two or three clubs can win anything and the top teams struggle to keep up in the Champions League.

As an economic model the Premier League ought to be unsustainable, yet the excitement and unpredictability it produces is enjoyed around the world and the television income keeps going up. People were talking about the bubble bursting two decades ago, though it never did. It just became bigger and harder to ignore.

The decline of England as a force in world football suggests that, at a sporting level, the model is unsustainable, though no one seems to care.

International football is exciting for only a couple of weeks every two years anyway. Once the season starts the Premier League enthrals every weekend. Or so the theory goes. The trouble with existing in a bubble is that it is too easy to overestimate one's popularity with those outside it.

Football might be useful as a form of escapism from the greyness of everyday living; it has performed that function for well over a century, though for most of that time it managed to remain close to its community roots. Something that used to be tangible and readily accessible is now becoming exclusive and remote. Is there really an appetite at the moment for all the top teams to spend more than ever on players who are already so fantastically well rewarded they find it difficult to intersect with real life?

"They're a bunch of overpaid tossers," one respondent stated to a new survey of how much our major sports are admired and trusted. "I grew up watching a bunch of local lads who had come from nothing. Now they are not local any more, they don't care."

Another football fan said he probably would not go again. "When I used to go as a kid the atmosphere was electric. Now there's so much money in it, it doesn't feel real any more."

Those may not be typical views, and in some respects they are overly harsh. Footballers might be overpaid by any sort of metric that takes in normal jobs or levels of remuneration, but they do not start out as 'tossers'. How they might behave once they are insulated from the rest of society by wealth and celebrity status is a subtly different consideration. Most did not ask to live in gated mansions, they simply ended up there as a result of a natural desire to make the most of their talent.

This is where football is at the moment. It doesn't seem real any more. Players probably feel it just as much as frustrated or envious spectators. Or perhaps it is the case that after a decade of austerity it is life that seems real, or difficult, or poorly-paid, and football a frivolous exercise in money-squandering.

The bottom line is that a dangerous disconnect has built up between football clubs and their communities. Clubs know this, and many have started neighbourhood initiatives or community charities to try to represent themselves as something other than mere visitors from planet wealth.

It is far too simplistic to complain there is too much money in the sport, just as it would be foolhardy to predict an imminent crash, but for most of its existence professional football has been proud to call itself the people's game. The Premier League can hardly make that claim any longer - more clubs will break their transfer records this summer than will use their money to make admission prices more affordable - and it will not be immune if the people begin to decide it is time to get real.


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