Say goodbye to my little friend

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Leicester made football remember its underdogs, but they were just in time as from next season there’s no such this as a Premier League underdog, writes Ewan MacKenna

By the time the box was ready for ticking, most had crossed it out as irrelevant. Back on 1 March, a 2-2 draw earned Leicester City their top-flight safety, the problem was that given their virgin ambition not beating West Brom suddenly seemed like two points lost. But others will have viewed that night differently, like Dublin-born CEO Susan Whelan who followed the Aer Rianta expansion east on the way to working for Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha long before he bought the club in 2010.

For people like her who must see the game as a business, as remarkable as topping the table was then and is now, even more remarkable is that of greater value than Champions League football or the title itself is just staying up this year. Indeed for someone like Whelan, who has helped make Leicester blue almost as popular in the far-east as the red of the traditional giants, she’ll have realised that the biggest financial winners this week were in fact Burnley who gained promotion to the first tier.

All that’s because Leicester’s triumph comes in the shadow another seismic moment in the history of football, whose ripples could travel even further. From next season, the Premier League’s new three-year television deal comes into being. Initially domestic rights were sold for around €6.4bn with 95 per cent going directly to the clubs – a 71 per cent increase on the deal about to expire – but that surged to a massive €10.5bn when adding in international rights. Consider it this way, last year as champions Chelsea earned €125.54m, next year the team in 20th will likely get €125.55m. Far beyond accountancy, it raises the question of how we’ll look back on these Premier League champions for, while most expect a reversion to normality, this may be the new normality.

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Before the start of this season a change could be felt with numerous clubs anticipating their new-found wealth and banking on what they hadn’t yet received in order to make sure they didn’t lose out on it. Sure enough the Manchester duo had the biggest net spend of the summer but Newcastle invested more in players than Chelsea; Watford and West Brom more than Liverpool; Bournemouth and Sunderland more than Tottenham and Arsenal. At a press conference, Jose Mourinho even seemed hugely frustrated he couldn’t pluck John Stones from Everton as in the modern game money was always enough to tempt both lower-lying clubs and their players.

But his words surmised a seismic shift. “I’ve watched some matches in other leagues, even as a manager, where I was bored because the difference is huge,” he said. “Here, when Crystal Palace buy [Yohan] Cabaye, and Stoke buy [Xherdan] Shaqiri and Leicester City, [Gokhan] Inler and Watford, [Valeron] Behrami, they have good players and the competition becomes fantastic. I’m happy with that.” He wasn’t for long though as they weren’t the only examples that would help guide him to his dismissal. West Brom turned away Tottenham when it came to Saido Berahino, Dimitri Payet went to West Ham, Andre Ayew ended up in Swansea. At what other time in the petro-pound era could this have happened? And, crucially, how in future can it not happen?

Look at those who took a cautious approach this time with Sunderland and Aston Villa refusing to invest money not yet received. They are examples of why Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish was determined never to experience a relegation concern again (he was willing to pay Cabaye £100,000 a week, as well as incentivise a top-10 finish in contracts) while in the January transfer window the newly promoted clubs, Norwich, Bournemouth and Watford, spent more than the whole of La Liga.

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All in all, what we have now is the beginnings of a greedy and arrogant middle class and the revolution has left the nobility worried. Speaking off the record recently, one Premier League executive from a ‘big-four’ club mentioned a shrinking market, meaning a need to be more creative. But the richest have never been good at that, instead just spending to solve problems. It’s why the likes of Leicester, Tottenham and West Ham are getting to the best young players first as those rich clubs haven’t been looking at them, rather going for obvious signings. It’s an attitude that points to presumption and laziness and it also points to a more exciting future.

The irony in all this is that the major stars the television networks hoped their money would attract haven’t come. Sky’s investment has not brought Messi and Neymar nor kept Ronaldo or Suarez, it has instead allowed those who were traditionally mid-table to gain ground and that’s happened for a couple of reasons. Firstly there’s no need for them to offload players for transfer fees and there’s no need for those players to look for big wages they are already getting along with game-time at a team with a chance.

But secondly, not only are they not being bullied, they can bully on the continent. With hiked transfer fees pushing the biggest stars out of the range of all, the next best can be afforded by all, and it’s led to a greater concentration of talent equally spread out. Just ask yourself, is there a big difference between a €15m and €25m player? Results say no. Of course, the super-rich will always have the best chance even if all have big problems right now but the difference is that well-run lesser clubs suddenly won’t be just plucky.

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Back in February, Deloitte published their annual list of the biggest earning clubs. This time around, 17 of the 30 richest on the planet came from the Premier League, with Tottenham more valuable than AC Milan, Newcastle and Everton more valuable than Inter, and Sunderland, Swansea, Stoke and West Brom all worth more than Napoli. Even before this title Leicester, a team only promoted in 2014, were already in that top 30. In the near future it would be surprising if all 20 Premier League clubs were not only on the list but bundling giants out of the higher places with every team in the competition next term expected to earn more than every continental club bar Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Just as in real-world terms there’s very little difference between what a billionaire and multi-millionaire can afford, in the football world there’s very little difference between what old money and new money can achieve. The era of the underdog may have just begun with Leicester, but it may have just ended with them too.

Sunday Business Post
8 May, 2016

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