The Premier League is fast becoming an aspirationless world and, even with the 2015/16 season yet to begin, we already roughly know how the table will look in May. The rich sides will be at the top, the poor at the bottom, and the middle eight clubs will grind their way joylessly through the campaign, hoping to make incremental improvements on last year.
That’s the way of it now; beneath the PR gloss the league has become terribly stale and even during pre-season, a time of year when hope is supposed to rule expectation, it’s impossible to avoid the realisation that, if you don’t support one of the major teams, your side is competing to exist rather than to win.
That hasn’t quite been universally accepted yet. Because conventional thinking takes time to erode away, there are still those who believe that English football is competitive and who swallow Sky Sports’ marketing rhetoric whole. They’ll wake up on the 8th of August and believe that this year, finally, will be their moment in the sun; this is when the long climb back begins.
Being entertained by football and being emotionally invested in it are two different things. When the new season starts, every Premier League supporter in the country will wake up with that Christmas morning feeling again and bounce out of bed just as they have done on every other opening day of their conscious lifetime.
But, rather than being symptomatic of expectation, that’s just relief. The Summer has been long and barren and, irrespective of how good or bad they are, we all miss our teams when they’re on the beach. In a way that’s healthy, because it demonstrates that the sense of attachment is as strong as ever, but – from a different perspective – it illustrates that many fans have been forced to simplify their relationship with their club.
History tells us that there has always been a food chain in football and that rarely has it been an even playing field. The difference between then and now, however, is that the cyclical forces which used to govern those peaks and troughs have been eliminated. Rather than being the beneficiaries of talented generations and rising and falling with their development and decline, clubs’ positions are safeguarded by their financial resources.
As and when the current Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United sides go beyond their collective prime, they reinforce their position within the hierarchy by a recruiting a new army of £30m players.
The consequence is this: for the majority of sides, there is no prospect of tangible success. Rather than looking to the stars and desiring silverware, fans have been tricked into extolling the virtues of secondary objectives: moving between 12th and 10th is a victory, selling a player for a large profit can be a highlight, and anomalous league wins over monied sides become cause for a pitch-invasion.
And how can you blame the supporters for that? The Premier League is like a Broadway play with a fourteen-man chorus: six stars hog the spotlight, the rest of the cast just lurk in the shadows waiting to be punched or kicked as part of the narrative. They are cannon-fodder: out of focus faces who only become relevant when they collide with the main plot.
On the one hand, this is an overly-negative view and – probably – an unwelcome downer at what should be an exciting time of year. On the other, however, it’s a very real problem which will only get worse. When English football entered its financial era, it grow amidst a backdrop of concerns about its sustainability and projections that, at a certain point in the future, its superstructure would collapse in on itself. The demand wouldn’t last forever, the bubble would eventually burst.
They were half-right: money does threaten the game – but only because what its influx has bred. The greater the sense of futility, the more people will start to disengage – because without hope of achievement, where does the passion come from? The grounds will still be full and Gloucester Avenue will still be celebrating the size of the television contract but the game will eventually be played in an emotional vacuum, with cold air running through its bloodless veins.
This isn’t just typical Against Modern Football scaremongering, this is an elephant in the room which will – eventually – have to be faced.