Saturday 16 May 2009

Why the football season fizzled out

Good luck to Manchester United as they seek the point today which will clinch them their eleventh Premiership title in seventeen years. Not that they will need it. (As an Evertonian, my official position remains 'Anybody but United - except Chelsea' having shifted from 'anybody but Liverpool' when United first looked like breaking their quarter-century league title drought. But I do applaud the way Ferguson's team play the game, even if I will be wearing my Barcelona shirt when watching the Champions League final).

United’s Premiership triumph will set the seal on the least competitive decade in English football history, as the Fabian Society today publishes online the first detailed study of 'football mobility' - how social mobility collapsed in football - by myself and Tom Stratton, who has managed to cheer himself up from Arsenal's collapsing season by discovering some fascinating patterns in recent football history.

The research helps to explain why the domestic football season has rather fizzled out, with Liverpool unable to sustain a title challenge and Arsenal outclassed by both Manchester United and Chelsea as the season ended. The excitement at the prospect of Aston Villa finishing fourth or even third fizzled out - with Paul Wilson prematurely suggesting 'the monopoly is over' in The Observer in February. Similarly, the plaudits for Hull City confounding expectations were premature with a strong gravitational pull since Christmas now taking them into the relegation zone. There may be some drama left in the Shearer great escape attempt, and there are many great players in the Premiership and there have been some exciting games - even four-all draws - and yet, a few details aside, just about everything has ended up pretty much as we all knew it would last August.

The Fabian research shows conclusively that the dominance of the big teams today is completely different from great teams of the past like Matt Busby’s Manchester United or the Liverpool of Shankly and Paisley. The old football class system was open, fluid and meritocratic. Who would now believe that there eleven league champions in 14 seasons from 1959-72, the peak years of football meritocracy, when clubs like Burnley, Ipswich Town and Derby County won football’s glittering prizes, and even mighty Man Utd were relegated in 1974 just six years after winning the European Cup. England had the most competitive league in Europe. That’s what we’ve lost. The big four today form not so much a class system as a caste system – in a league of their own.

If the broad outcome of collapsed mobility is not a surprise, I would not have guessed that promoted clubs had more chance of finishing in the top six in their first season than going back down across the post-war period until the 1990s changed their chances profoundly. Brian Clough was a genius, but his achievement with Derby County and Nottingham Forest were not unthinkable in the way they would be today.

I was also surprised to find League and Cup mobility much less different than we expected: the League was just as open in the Cup in the 1950s and 1960s, and the collapse of mobility has been as stark in the knock-out competitition.

But this is not a 'modern football is rubbish' argument. There are many good things about the much less insular football we have today, and many of the changes after Hillsborough were needed. Nor is money the problem in itself: it is a question of governance and distribution, as is well understood in the United States. Indeed, in a Foreign Policy Centre pamphlet on sporting governance a decade ago, I argued that part of the problem was that we get stuck debating modern sport versus some Corinthian golden age of amateurism, so that the issue of the proper governance and accountability of modern commercial sport gets crowded out.

You know something has gone wrong when English football is now more predictable than Formula One racing.

Michel Platini and Andy Burnham want to do something about it. They deserve support, as Patrick Barclay of The Times cogently argues.

If nothing changes off the field, nothing is going to change on it.

And we may just be sneaking in a little bit of politics here too. Over on Liberal Conspiracy, I ask why the Football Association seem to be following FA Hayek on equality of opportunity, and show how the collapse of football mobility closely mirrors the decline in social mobility found by the LSE in British society as a whole.

1 comment:

Exit pursued by a bear said...

It will be interestesting to see if Manchester City with their squillions can break into the top three or four. I doubt it.

Arsenal are a case of a team that have remained near the top without spending anything like as much as much as most of their neighbours.

Do you think the caste system is based on money or the legacy of managers?

Perhaps when Ferguson and Wenger go it will become more fluid, or at least the key players will change.