In the immortal words of Lionel Bart (there’s one for the kids) fings ain’t what they used to be. For the purposes of this blog, I am talking about football.
I admit to being biased on the subject, having been ground into submission by the tin pot generals who own Bristol Rovers and have taken the club into non league football for the first time in its history. My disdain for the chairman, Nick Higgs, has appeared elsewhere on this site. I have only met him twice – once outside of Sainsburys in Filton (ironically) – and he seemed a personable enough chap, but I have seen another side of him since. In our litigious society – I can write litigious, even though Mr Higgs himself can’t say it when interviewed on the radio – I am denied the right of free speech so I will content myself by saying Mr Higgs appears to be a man who listens to no one but himself and doesn’t bother to reply to correspondence. And he is a man who bears a grudge.
But it is not just his grudge-bearing, poor decision making that has driven me away from the club I once loved – I won’t flatter him by saying that – because I am becoming more and more disenchanted with The Beautiful Game full stop.
It has been well documented that since Mr Higgs joined the board of directors, we have seen unrivalled failure. But before Higgs, I could cope with failure. Even when Rovers were knocking on the door of the Conference a decade ago, I was enjoying being a supporter more than ever. I felt like I was a genuine stakeholder, that I was valued. No more.
I would be astonished if Rovers did not make the play offs this season at the very least. They are, far and away, the biggest club in the Conference this season and even the tired and ramshackle Memorial Stadium looks state of the art compared with most of the other grounds. With gates of between 6000 and 7000, backed by a very wealthy board of directors who are collectively worth many tens of millions, they have resources that most other clubs can only dream about, including those with generous benefactors. So no excuse for not gaining promotion or at the very least going close in the play offs.
But I am afraid even a day out at Wembley next May in the play off final holds not even the remotest level of interest for me.
It’s not just Rovers, though. I feel increasingly distant from the Premier League, where the clubs are largely owned by wealthy foreigners and the players are largely wealthy foreigners. I could never afford to attend more than the odd match, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. Sky TV costs a lot of money and whilst they do a good job dressing up the product, a pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. I have no connection with the players, some of whom ‘earn’ in a week what the average working man earns in 10 years. And many of these massively wealthy clubs – clubs? How can you call them clubs? – pay their workers, the ones cleaning the stadia, selling the merchandise, staffing the bars, the minimum wage.
The lower leagues survive by virtue of loans and gifts from benefactors and large numbers of them are technically insolvent. They are not run as businesses. God knows what they are run as. Mr Higgs at the Rovers admits as much with his parrot-like repetition of “without the board there would be no Bristol Rovers.” Putting aside the obvious reply that without this current board the club might not be in such a mess, he does have a point, probably more by accident than design. Bristol Rovers remains a financial basket case until such time as the club builds a new stadium and then gets someone to run it properly. Bristol City are an even bigger example of a football basket case but they have a billionaire owner who still makes more money than he throws into the black hole of Ashton Gate. Perhaps there is a curious example of sustainability within this barking mad template for running a professional sport but it’s lost on me.
I have no wish to watch any football ‘live’, other than non league football where below Conference level. I am not interested in paying the ludicrous sums charged by the Premier League (Villa charged Southampton fans £41 a ticket on Monday night and that’s still cheap compared to some) and Conference football is by and large dearer than watching Bayern Munich. Clubs charging a fortune to help offset losses in a busted market run by boom and bust.
I could see myself occasionally watching clubs like Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Exeter where supporters are genuine stakeholders and the German model of fan owned clubs is something beyond our wildest dreams, literally.
The genie is out of the bottle in our football and it’s leaving me behind. I was so pleased for my friends who still attend Rovers games that they got their late winner against table-topping Barnet last night but I didn’t wish I was there.
My view is that football increasingly looks upon supporters as customers rather than stakeholders. The old adage that the directors are merely temporary custodians of the people’s club is no longer true.
Whether it’s Scudamore, Dyke, the Glazers, Abramaovich, Higgs or any of the rich and infamous who have taken ownership of the people’s game, we don’t have the same football as we used to have.
The next Sky/BT deal with the Premier League may be a very large nail in the coffin of football and no amount of spin by the victors in the auction will change that.