Earlier this week, while driving home from work, I tuned into a radio talk show and caught the backend of a conversation about what it takes to compete in the Championship although, to be fair, the caller and the hosts concerned could have been talking about any division in English football.
It was an interesting enough discussion. I sympathised with some of the issues raised and disagreed vehemently with others. But, overall, just felt very, very sad. Because at no point during the conversation were subjects like skill, developing players or intelligent managers and coaches raised. Instead, the entire segment focused on money.
And, when Sheffield United face Middlesbrough tomorrow, whose chairman Steve Gibson vowed would “smash the league” after being relegated from the top flight last term, the subject is bound to rear its ugly head again. No matter what the result at the Riverside. Either Chris Wilder’s side will be credited with upsetting the financial odds or losing, quite understandably, to a team which lavished £15m on a centre-forward nearly one month ago. (A figure which equates to roughly 21 times United’s highest spend since being promoted).
Now, don’t get be wrong, this column is not designed to be a sly dig at Middlesbrough. I’m accusing them of no wrong-doing. Nor do I have any axe to grind with the North-East club.
But, as ridiculous as this might sound, I do think it is worth remembering exactly what constitutes a sport. The dictionary definition is: an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment. Call me old fashioned, or maybe even naive, but I see no mention of balance sheets, bank accounts or an owner’s wallet.
A little while ago, I wrote a piece complaining how parachute payments are polluting the race for the Premier League because they are being used to boost transfer budgets rather than prevent folk from losing their livelihoods. They also dissuade coaching staff from investing time in bringing through the next generation and force them to reach for the chequebook or demand one instead. We revel in a team’s ability to spend rather than its raw talent. The first thing folk talk about before, during or after a promotion or play-off game is how much it is worth. And that is not sport.
The game’s financial strength comes from television. Or satellite and cable subscriptions to be precise. In a world of open-source media boxes and pirate internet sites, it is not an especially strong model. Especially as wages in western and many Asian economies stagnate.
“While conditions like these may be good for companies’ payroll costs, they also give less spending power to consumers who play an increasingly crucial role in generating economic growth,” a recent report in the South China Morning Post, analysing low wage growth in the country’s economy, said.
So self-interest appears to be the biggest barrier to clear and sensible thinking on football’s relationship with pounds, shillings and pence. It suits the likes of Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and others to retain the present model. It suited United once too and may do so again in the future. But that does not make it rational or right.
If one of the most rabidly capitalist nations on earth can embrace the idea, and implement it properly, I see no reason why we can not do it here. Surely it is time, for everyone’s sake, to consider introducing a United States, NFL style, salary cap? Or, perhaps more pertinently, the type imposed on Welsh regions operating in the Pro12? Neither are perfect but, essentially, both are good ideas.
Please don’t tell me it isn’t feasible or can’t be done. After all, nearly 50 years ago, a man walked on the moon.
But, if you disagree and profess to enjoy sport in its purest form, do accept that the status-quo is borne-out of selfishness and greed.