20 January 2017

Why English football has never had it better

By Elliott Fudge

English football suffers from what might be called Fusstalgie. Deriving from the German word Östalgie, the nagging sense some feel that life was better in East Germany, it refers to a condition in which English football fans feel either that things were better in the old days – or that things are better in Germany itself right now.

Commonly found in the lower leagues, the symptoms of this condition include vociferous demands for lower ticket prices; the introduction of safe standing; British player quotas for the largest clubs and wage caps. And, of course, maintaining an unwavering belief that broadcasting companies, and in particular Sky, have rigged the game in favour of the biggest and most successful clubs.

As an ongoing and long-suffering fan of Swindon Town, Fusstalgie is something I have become an expert at diagnosing. Despite a brief flirtation with the Premier League in the early and mid-Nineties, as well as a short stint playing with Europe’s elite through an unlikely Cup success, hard times have fallen on my West Country club. Attendances are in freefall and the trapdoor to Britain’s lowest professional league yawns open beneath us. All while local rivals such as Bristol Rovers are purchased by foreign billionaires with vast sums of money.

For some, there is a belief that football has been rigged against the likes of us, the “real” clubs. Fans complain that the financial deficit between the top and lower levels is too great without a multi-millionaire owner, and that small clubs don’t stand a chance – while simultaneously accusing the small clubs that receive investment of “buying success”.

Yet it’s an inconvenient truth that English football has never been more competitive, exciting or innovative. It’s not just about Leicester City’s victory last year. Since 2010, the Premier League has seen five different winners. In that same time, Germany has seen only two, with Bayern Munich well on course for a fifth consecutive title. France has seen three, with PSG having won the league four years on the bounce. The same in Italy, with five titles for Juventus.

Not only is the English league competitive every year, but so too are the domestic cups. Of the last four German competitions, Bayern have won three. Yet while a single team tends to dominate the Cup competitions in Europe, British tournaments will often see minnows such as Wigan score stunning upsets. Only twice since 2003 has a team won the Cup back-to-back.

It is not just about the fact that Britain has more exciting competition. Thanks to large investment from owners, clubs such as Southampton, Bournemouth and Swansea have risen from lower-league mediocrity to establish themselves as Premier League clubs. (Although possibly not for much longer, in the latter case.)

The 2010/11 season was Southampton’s second spent in the third tier of English football. In 2003, Swansea were on the verge of dropping out of the fourth tier; Bournemouth have come back from the brink of extinction all together.

Elsewhere, the likes of Burton Albion and Fleetwood have risen through the ranks of the football league; Salford City, now backed by a host of ex-Man Utd stars, is another name to watch out for.

The success of these clubs has come largely through the development and then selling on of high quality players. The profits clubs like Southampton have made through the selling of their most talented players has led them from playing away in miserable Swindon, to playing away in glamorous Milan.

A willingness to invest, and the oft-complained-about wages and transfer fees mean that such clubs, with ambitious owners, can build from the ground up and establish them as competitive forces – a feat far less regularly replicated elsewhere in Europe. Had the often demanded wage caps been put in place, those same players bought and sold for profit – to be re-invested back into the club – may have gone elsewhere, to enrich other clubs.

Dele Alli, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are now regular England players. All were purchased from smaller British clubs. Without this profit, those clubs would never stand a chance against those who will always be larger and richer.

But what about the top level? Surely there is a case for wage caps there, given the obscene amounts these players earn?

Well, no. The caps called for by Jeremy Corbyn among others would merely drive the biggest and best players abroad. With no world-class players on display, attendances would fall at the top level, as would TV revenues. That would further impoverish lower league clubs. The domestic game would be hollowed out and the decline of the lower leagues would continue unheeded.

There is a perception among many that with fewer financial incentives, the game will be more competitive. But this is a delusion. It is the promise of profits that attracts investment, which brings wealth and jobs to local communities all over the country. New training facilities help young players achieve their dream of reaching the top levels of football, while the club makes a profit and strengthens as a result. This allows the construction of new stadia: Saint Mary’s, the Amex and the Emirates to name a few. This is turn attracts new fans, jobs and investment.

The English football leagues, in other words, continue to draw vast investment, allowing any ambitious club owner with enough money to make something of a club. This makes English football more prosperous, and more competitive. That’s something we should celebrate, not punish.

Are there ways in which the modern game can be improved? Of course. Clubs should certainly interact better with their fans, and policing of games could definitely be improved. According to a recent paper by the Adam Smith Institute, the introduction of safe standing could reduce the pricing of tickets by up to 57 per cent in some cases. Oh, and we could definitely ditch those opera singers singing the National Anthem at the Cup finals.

But while ticket prices may indeed be lower in Germany, with its community-owned clubs, the truth is that there has never been a better time to be a football fan right here in England. Large broadcasting companies can beam football around the world instantly, generating revenue and drawing wealthy audiences from the world’s richest countries to come and watch our teams play football.

Some fans may think they prefer the old days – but Fusstalgie, like all nostalgias, only remembers the good bits. This was also the age where few international stars ventured near these shores while football violence was so rampant that English clubs were banned from the Continent. Some utopia.

While the money involved is resented by some, English football has never been more prosperous, exciting or competitive –  from the Premier League down. Long may it continue.

Elliott Fudge is an English student studying in Southampton