Football’s back, I’m afraid, and, in the imperishable words of David Mitchell, every kick in every game matters to someone, somewhere. Still, it’s the Premier League’s 25th anniversary, so a good time to take stock. There’s no doubt that with Sky’s help the PL has sexed up the English game and moved it once and for all from being the preserve of the working man. When I started going to matches half a century or so ago, the stadiums were awful, the food terrible, and the football not that great. A game could be intimidating; not for the fainthearted, or women, or people who weren’t white. Now that has changed out of all recognition, almost entirely for the better.
I spent the opening Saturday at Watford, where I hadn’t been since the days of Johnny Barnes. Then, the ground was ramshackle and wooden. Now it is trim, compact, bright, friendly, intimate (you are close to the play wherever you sit) and bang in the heart of the town. The club has done a great job. Thanks to the Premier League. And not forgetting Sir Elton.
And yet … when Danny Rose of Spurs, a goodish player, can try to back his club into a corner because his £65,000 a week isn’t enough, something might be out of kilter. Admittedly, his chairman Daniel Levy is no pushover: Alex Ferguson gave every impression he would rather catch the plague than do a deal with Levy.
Chelsea’s Costa is sulking in Brazil (he says he’s not wanted). Liverpool’s brilliant Brazilian Philippe Coutinho wants out despite signing a long contract for more than £140,000 a week earlier this year. And Gareth Bale at Real Madrid earns in a week what his old schoolmate Sam Warburton, the British Lions captain, earns in a year (about £300,000). It makes you think.
The money in football is now extraordinary. The original TV deal in 1992 was just south of £61 million a year, an amount that Rick Parry, the first PL chief executive, hailed at the time as ‘this staggering sum’. The current deal is worth around £1.7 billion a year, which is inflation with knobs on. On the first day of the Premier League back in 1992 there were 13 foreign players; now 67 per cent are from overseas (as well as 69 per cent of coaches). Quite how much good this has done the English game is questionable. In 25 years, Spain (ten times) and Italy (five) have won Europe’s major club prize more often than England (four wins with three clubs). And the PL has been disastrous for the English national team. This will carry on if clubs continue to ignore young English players.
The end of the World Athletics Championships brings an old joke to mind: ‘And the Lord said unto Britain’s athletes, “Come forth.” And they came fourth.’ Five times. The one who excited me most was Kyle Langford in the 800 metres. He reminded me of Steve Ovett at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In the 800-metre final he was 20 coming up for 21, and finished fifth in 1 min 45.44 sec. Langford, 21 in February, came fourth in 1 min 45.25 sec. He could be the middle-distance golden boy we have been waiting for since Coe, Ovett and Steve Cram.
Britons do deserve medals for following sport: thousands crossed the globe with the Lions to New Zealand; tens of thousands went to Lord’s for the women’s cricket; hundreds of thousands turned up to the world athletics and cheered the bloke who ran the 200 metres on his own, Isaac Makwala of Botswana, as if he came from down the road in East Ham. Above all what we really love in athletics is fierce competition: Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and the British media, and perhaps the most vicious of all, Gabby Logan and Denise Lewis on the BBC sofa. At least they had Michael Johnson to keep the peace.