Football power can shift very easily

Martin Samuel, the SJA’s Sports Writer of the Year in 2005 and 2006, provides this insightful commentary on the Premier League’s proposal for a 39th match

Match 39 is the thin end of the wedge because it establishes the principle that the league must never be at rest, that it must always be refined, not for the sake of greater fairness or equality, but to give its members more.

So there may not be a match 40, but there could be a play-off to decide the champions, or fresh rules on relegation, penalty shoot-outs, or a two-tier Super League at the halfway stage, all to fix something that was not broken, but was merely failing to generate enough wedge for a guy dumb enough to give Terry Brown £100 million for West Ham United and then pay Freddie Ljungberg £70,000 a week. As if anything ever could.

The sadness is that these seismic changes will be driven and sanctioned by men who are passing through our game. When the matches kick off in January 2011, some clubs are about as likely to have the present owners as the present season-ticket prices.

Rewind three years to January 2005 and see the future. In that time there has been a change of the boardroom guard at Manchester United, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Manchester City, West Ham United, Sunderland and Derby County. This does not include the significant power struggles taking place at Arsenal and Birmingham City, both of whom could change hands short term, along with Reading, Tottenham Hotspur, and Portsmouth and Liverpool (again).

One of the leading supporters of the scheme is David Gold, the Birmingham City chairman, who this season was preparing to sell the club to Carson Yeung, a Hong Kong investor who ran out of money having destabilised the business, as good as driving out Steve Bruce, the manager. Having failed to cash in, Gold is now going to be part of a process that alters English football irrevocably, which is fitting considering his previous readiness to dance to the tune of Asian investors.

Yeung’s pursuit of Birmingham was not all it was cracked up to be and the skirmishes of the past week suggest that the same could be said of the riches promised by the international round. One by one, the confederations of East and West have been voicing a lack of interest in the plan, a stance that is to be taken with a Siberian quantity of salt. This is a negotiating manoeuvre to force down the price. Premier League football does not come cheap and to appear keen at this stage would only inflate the bidding.

This, though, is the first sign that the nations identified as slow-witted cash cows by Richard Scudamore and his owners may not be as stupid as they look. Remember when football viewed television companies with similar contempt? Now who calls the shots, sets the kick-off times, even has a hand in the fixture list, if you consider the weekend just gone? Television still pays top dollar for football’s rights, but it makes damn sure that there is a return; and won’t the same be true of the Premier League’s new partners in Asia and the United States?

The balance of power between football and television shifted very quickly.

In the beginning, the networks needed football to sell satellite dishes and subscriptions and the game had the upper hand. What has changed is that football has grown to become dependent on television money and now both sides have a bargaining tool.

That will be the fate of the 39th game, too, or any of the other gimmicks requiring lavish patronage. At first, English football will be able to name its price, but, in time, when this bounty is factored into the budget of all Premier League clubs, the host cities will be in a position to play hardball with everything from kick-off times to format and the identity of the visiting clubs. Don’t think this cannot happen. A few years ago Scudamore was claiming that something else would never happen on his watch: Premier League matches kicking off abroad.

This is just a short extract from an extensive analysis piece in The Times by Samuel. Click here to read it in its entirety

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