In mid-July, when the empty weekends dragged and the football threatened never to begin, nobody was pinning for West Bromwich Albion against Stoke City. Even supporters of those two teams likely see that fixture as a necessary evil. Perhaps West Brom see every match that way?
It was understandably then, that Sky Sports’ first game yesterday was played out to the sound of grinding teeth and wringing hands. Where was Chelsea against Everton? Ronald Koeman’s rebuilt side theoretically carried a puncher’s chance to Stamford Bridge and Chelsea, defending champions and perennial contender that they are, were surely a bigger draw for the neutral.
That’s certainly true. The viewing figures from yesterday are yet to be publicly released, but they will presumably be meagre. From a business perspective and the standpoint of the £11m per game that Sky reportedly pays for its broadcasting privilege, it was an odd decision – pity also the pub landlords, required to pay up to £20,000 per season to show games on their premises, who probably didn’t do a roaring trade as two mace-swirling armies thudded into each other at The Hawthorns.
The counter-argument is strictly moral. It shouldn’t escape anyone’s attention that many of the people complaining on Sunday afternoon are typically among the first to take issue whenever the television companies prioritise the bigger teams. In 2016/17, Liverpool became the first side in the competition’s history to have 29 games shown live within a single season and, in recent years, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea have all flirted with that record. The concerns are legitimate and they centre on the inescapable conclusion that certain teams are deemed to be worth watching and that others – bluntly – are not.
It’s slightly conspiratorial, but the suspicion exists that the broadcasters resent having to show the other teams and that they would be far more content stuffing their calendars with endless Super, Grandstand, and Title-Deciding Sundays. Let West Brom and Stoke play in the dark, confine them to a blacked-out vidiprinter existence, and focus solely on Jose Mourinho’s ‘fascinating’ paranoia, Antonio Conte’s transfer lust, and Jurgen Klopp’s zaniness.
That is the Premier League of Richard Scudamore’s dreams. With the fat burnt away, the inconvenient middling teams shunted into a dark corner, and the melodrama pulsing violently from the golden taps.
But it’s not what it should be.
Of course, it would be naive to present the showing of West Brom against Stoke as some kind of offering to equality. In all likelihood, with the television companies obliged to show a certain numbers of games involving every club, this was an early season attempt to kill two unfashionable birds with the same stone – a way of a satisfying a criteria at a time when thirst for the game is at its highest. Show Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes now, don’t let them pollute the purity later.
The difficulty, though, is that such attitudes do the league few favours. While only the most delusional would deny the existence of an underclass, there remains a clear difference between how the Premier League markets itself and how it is being broadcast. It seems somewhat contradictory, for instance, to extoll the virtues of this “most exciting league in the world” when the preference is clearly to ignore almost two-thirds of its participants. Similarly, portraying the landscape as an environment in which “anything can happen” appears rather fanciful if those casting a gaze are discouraged from ever looking upon it through a broad-angled lens.
It is a league. Not a round-robin, not a five-team tour around the country, and not a competition in which thirteen clubs exist solely as obstacles.
West Brom against Stoke – especially given the game it proved to be – is a particularly poor example with which to make this point, but it was still a reminder of the importance in showing teams within a certain context. Rather than always being presented as the underdog in an unfair fight, resulting in a performance which isn’t necessarily indicative of what they are, it’s healthy for these sides to be seen on a level playing field. The advantage is clear: they get to appear on their own terms.
While it’s not often acknowledged, there remain a whole host of sub-plots in the Premier League which are hidden from view and accessible only to those inside the respective grounds. When Nathaniel Chalobah was called up by England last week, the reaction betrayed just how few fans are aware of his good start to the season. And why would they be? Watford have appeared just once on British television in 2017/18 and only then in a fixture which pitted Chalobah and his teammates against an opponent from a different weight class. The same is really true of Tammy Abraham, who has been steadily improving at Swansea but whose only live appearance came in the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United. Specific to Sunday, perhaps that game – stodgy as it was – presented the signing of Jay Rodriguez in a different light. Had his side been playing Chelsea, Manchester City or another unfeeling stream-roller, perhaps it would have been missed that Rodriguez looks one of the most astute pieces of business of the summer and that his traits marry ideally with West Brom’s style.
It sounds contrary but, as evidenced by the ubiquitous online titling habit, this is an era in which a great many fans want to learn. They want to see new players, understand different tactics, and reach different conclusions. It’s easy to make the argument that, rather than Chelsea against Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City actually served that appetite better.
Clearly, this is not an argument to suit the mainstream. There isn’t a case for saying that the Premier League, as a product, would become any more saleable by adjusting its focus to these weaker sides. However, on the rare occasions when the spotlight does drift, isn’t there something to enjoy in that novel perspective?