Sport Soccer

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'If the game still has a soul, there's a Middlesbrough fan who will find it'

'The people’s game has been hijacked and repackaged as a consumer product in order to be sold back to them at a price that is exploitative and avaricious.' Stock photo
'The people’s game has been hijacked and repackaged as a consumer product in order to be sold back to them at a price that is exploitative and avaricious.' Stock photo

Tommy Conlon

There's a lunatic at large in England and if he's not careful he might end up being mistaken for a prophet.

He wants to drive the money- changers from the temple of football. He wants the Premier League abolished and Sky Sports boycotted and an end to transfer fees and massive salaries for players. And that's just before breakfast.

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His name is John Nicholson, he supports Middlesbrough FC, he is in his late 50s and he writes mystery novels. He also writes about sport and rock music and he has just finished a book that is a call to arms for the game he has followed man and boy.

Can We Have Our Football Back? is his act of heresy, his manifesto for revolution, his gauntlet to the Vatican of fat cats who run the show. (It can be ordered online at

"Put simply," he writes in the preface, "I want to see an end to the Premier League, an end to the financial model upon which it is founded, an end to paywall TV, and an end to astronomical wages, transfer fees and agents fees. Replacing the current, fetid, bloated corpse of top-flight football will be a more sane, less abusive, more competitive, more fun and less venal competition which puts fans at the centre of everything and works for the advantage of everyone, not just a tiny elite."

The people's game has been hijacked and repackaged as a consumer product in order to be sold back to them at a price that is exploitative and avaricious.

Its capture by television has alienated the legions of people for whom is should be a birthright, as natural and free (almost) as the air they breathe.

He argues that only a tiny percentage of the population is actually paying to watch it on subscription TV - far fewer than Sky or BT Sport actually admit - and therefore that the entire model is financially unsustainable.

He speaks to television insiders and cites numerous statistics to show there is a chasm between the hype and the actual numbers involved. The game itself remains enormously popular but the amount of people willing or able to pay for it is paltry. "There are 66 million people living in this country. Almost no-one is watching. The stone-cold truth of this is a majority of the football public simply reject the very concept of paying to watch football on TV."

The chronically lopsided distribution of wealth within the game is a societal issue for Nicholson because it helps legitimise the grotesquely uneven distribution of wealth across the board. The Premier League has become a market leader in inequality. Rebalancing the scales here would not just be a good thing in itself, it would act as a symbolic inspiration for a more general economic fairness.

In March 2018, for example, it was reported that only four of the 20 PL clubs were committed to paying the officially-sanctioned living wage of £8.75 per hour to their employees. Meanwhile the average pay to PL players was £200,000 per month.

"You can't amputate football from society and pretend that a footballer's wage is not part of it and that no ripples flow from that particular stone in the waters of life." It is a prevailing reason why there is so much anger among supporters, so much "existential angst" and "restless worry".

Nicholson describes it among many things as "a feeling that we are living in a house that is not ours". The money goes to the heart of the alienation.

"I can't divorce football's wealth from the deprivation and poverty so many endure. I find it morally objectionable to the point of outrage that such disparity of wealth exists and still more that its existence is celebrated, vaunted and encouraged as a positive thing, as if there's a human right to earn whatever the hell you want to earn no matter how vast, or what the consequences might be."

In the final chapter he quotes verbatim the thoughts and observations of people working in the industry whom he has interviewed, including various journalists and commentators.

There is eye-popping feedback from a couple of insiders who needed to remain anonymous. One is a player earning £50,000 a week. His is the voice of authentic cynicism. He sees the absurdity of it all on a daily basis, including the money he's making . . .

"It is fucking insane, isn't it? And I'm quite low paid at this level. In the last five years I've earned at least 10 million. Across my whole career by the time I retire it'll end up around 18 or even 20 million.

"And c'mon, you and I both know, I'm a decent player, I'm a hard grafter, I do a job and I don't give managers any shit, but I am not worth £20 million of anyone's money. I don't think anybody is. But there are boys on 10 and 15 mill per year now. It's mental." Like a lot of players, he's not quite sure what to do with it all. So he often hands over wads of notes to homeless people on the streets. Many of his colleagues do the same, he says. "But it can't be right that I can drop £500 like it's litter and not notice it."

One of Nicholson's proposals is to relieve the players of this burden by paying them a maximum wage of 220 grand a year, give or take.

But in order to achieve this, a radical deflationary measure is needed. Basically he wants everyone paying Sky or BT Sport to cancel their direct debits immediately. A nationwide boycott, in other words.

And that would just be the start of the revolution.

He knows he's a dreamer but he reckons he's not the only one. Football has a Martin Luther on its hands; the excommunication process is bound to begin shortly.

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