30th May 1999 I’d just stepped off a cricket pitch to escape a heavy shower. All 22 players retreated to the clubhouse and to see the play offs on Sky. We looked on as the Man City torture of playing in the English 3rd tier looked like continuing for another year: two minutes to go and Gillingham were leading 2-0. Remarkably City got to 2-2 and after goalless extra time they won on penalties. Based at the old Maine Road, the thing that struck everyone about the club as they spiraled down the leagues was how their fans stuck by them and when Nicky Weaver saved the final penalty, he jumped over the hoardings at Wembley and ran towards those fans. Through thick and thin the bond between fans, club and players was obvious.
I was therefore struck by the contrast when, on Sunday morning this week I got up put on the TV and Man City were playing on Match of The Day. The first thing I noticed were the empty seats. I knew City had troubles selling Champions League fixtures, doing 2 for 1 deals etc, but thought EPL games were different. Apparently not.
City for me epitomizes where the EPL is. This is a club where the bond between players and fans was strong but now I see highly paid players celebrating goals in what I would refer to as a narcissistic fashion – the glory of ME. Across all EPL clubs, but especially the elite group, you rarely feel that the players are celebrating their joy for the team or the fans. The goal celebrations seem too often to be about THEIR self-enjoyment. The optics of that moment makes you feel that they could be doing this for any team. The colour of the jersey, the history of the club, the passion of the fans all pale to the size of the pay packet.
I understand that this is a professional game; this is their livelihood and despite our rose-tinted spectacles since professionalism this has been forever thus, especially in the last 20 – 30 years but surely once you’re earning in excess of £1m a year other factors must come into consideration?
The EPL is filled with foreign players. Understandably they have no emotional attachment to any particular club. They have been attracted by the generous remuneration on offer and to be part of the world’s most famous league. The top stars go to the clubs that offer the highest wages with the rest of the league populated by technically capable 6ft, strong and fast players. The quality of regular fixtures does not reflect the cost of the talent.
For all my life, but especially since the EPL started people have discussed the merits and possibilities of Celtic playing in England. Celtic are finding themselves drifting further from the European elite with EPL clubs funded by their incredible TV deals and unheard of clubs funded by dubious oligarchs popping up from nowhere to get to Champions League last 16 places. With even the bottom club getting £100m next season, obtaining a slice of that EPL pie seems infinitely more appealing than relying on a quarterly bigotfest with New Rangers for commercial viability. However over the last period I have come around to the view that we should be careful what we wish for.
Watching the EPL and those empty seats at City re-enforced why I couldn’t name more than 2 or 3 players in any EPL side. I have no interest in it. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters without the flare. Highly paid stars, strutting around pitches, picking up their pay cheques and going home. Like Jon Stark in Scoop, this season they play for City, next it’s Chelsea and perhaps, in an age when it’s TV money that covers the costs of these stars, running to the camera to celebrate a goal IS more relevant than running to the stands. Our club was formed by the community for the community and whilst the club and the world of football are very different from those late 19th century times I want to believe and feel like there is still some connection between the players and those of us who pay their wages.
As interest in the Champions League from many fans starts to wane, bridging the gap between the haves and the have not’s is perhaps European football’s biggest challenge. Cross border leagues and changes to the midweek European competitions will be necessary very soon to prevent this gap becoming an unbridgeable chasm. One solution mooted but never serious has been Celtic playing in England. Whatever the solution is (and I believe change is needed urgently) in its current state that soulless EPL is not for me.