It is a sign of the times that the best football journalist of our times concentrates on the game's finances. Yesterday David Conn produced two excellent articles about the fortunes of the two top flight Manchester clubs, United and City. I am old enough to remember the 1968 season when they formed the top two in the First Division (though in the wrong order) and in subsequent years neither club fared particularly well until United finally found a manager able to transform potential into achievement, to reconstruct the club, deliver its first title in twenty-five years and then move on to dominate the era of the Premiership. It won't last. It never does. Players and managers age and move on, mistakes are made and even a club as big as United was relegated in the 70s. City's history has been more chequered still.
Now the two clubs stand as contrasting models of what has become of football. City supporters may be delighted at the moment, but I would argue that both models are disastrous for the game as a whole. City are certainly winners. They are now owned by an oil-rich Middle East elite who are pouring money in with little regard to losses. Despite the talk of long-term sustainability, it is hard to see it happening even in the medium term, not least because the flood of money has inflated the already ludicrously high level of transfer fees, agent payments and player salaries. In the meantime, United too have fallen into foreign ownership, though of a very different kind.
Manchester United were actually sustainable, successful and debt free. Then they were taken over by American owners. Now their debt has reached £700 million and they are liable for interest payments of £263 million over the past three years. Where has the debt come from? It was a leveraged buyout. This is the money borrowed by the owners to buy the club. United are in colossal debt in order to buy themselves.
United's owners are now trying to refinance and continually looking to raise money to service the debt. Supporters are one source. Top price season tickets have risen from £550 to £931. The other day there were spare seats available and I thought about going until I saw the price of £53. Forget it. I can't afford to go.
These figures are mind-boggling. Media and fashion have fuelled a gentrification of the sport at the expense of the fans who are becoming cash cows for a plutocratic elite. The game itself is still compelling, the players capable of great skill, the passion in the community for the game is intense. Everything is alive and well ... except the nagging doubts about both the ethics and economics of a game which, not least by me, is being watched more on the television.
Let's not get misty eyed about the past. It was great queueing up to pay 2/6d to watch Best, Charlton and Law. But the view was bad, the grounds uncomfortable and unsafe, crowd violence was rampant and the clubs themselves were the playthings of local businessmen with feudal attitudes and monstrous egos. The response to hooliganism was to fence the crowd in, treating supporters with contempt, as cattle to be controlled. Those fences killed.
Something had to change, but not this. Sport is one of those areas of life where irrational attachments enrich and entertain, where the fans have a sense of identity and of ownership of their club. Yet it is a dream. Us fans own nothing. We are at best customers, at worst voyeurs of the goings on of the super rich, certainly at the top level. In the crises that followed the deaths at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough the model of reform mirrored the global attraction to turbo-capitalism. There are other models. Community ownership might not be a wholly viable option for top level sport, but there is also the European social model followed in Germany, where admission prices have been kept down, safe standing areas remain and the game is booming, though with one exception. Without the vast sums being poured in by plutocrats and media, the best players are elsewhere, most notably in England and Spain.
So there is a tension between success and stability. The English Premiership have chosen the high cost, ultra capitalist route. Smug in their satisfaction at the quality of what they keep referring to as 'the product', they ignore the sustainability of a model that rests on the benefaction of the capricious super rich or welcomes in the corporate asset stripper. It is horribly reminiscent of the financial services industry before the credit crunch. The German model certainly seems more robust in the long term and, for me, it would mean that I could still go to games and indulge an old obsession. Thank god for Rugby League.