The Last Day in the Premiership
The last day of the Premiership was awaited with anticipation. Most of the issues at the top of the table had been decided when teams kicked off yesterday- Manchester United had the Championship, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool would join them in the Champion’s League (filled with non-Champions) and a couple of places in the UEFA Cup were up for grabs.
Much more important though than those places in the UEFA Cup were issues at the bottom of the table. Charlton and Watford had already fallen down a division- but three clubs- West Ham, Sheffield United and Wigan vied not to join them. Relegation in England means a certain loss of 30 million pounds in tv revenue not to mention sponsorship deals and attendance falls- so its a big financial deal for those that go down and returning isn’t obvious.
The aftermath- both in terms of legal threats, accusations of southern bias, the effect of injuries and indeed today’s announcement that one of the managers of the clubs involved has resigned all demonstrate something about English football today.
All three sides involved in the relegation battle played yesterday. West Ham went to Manchester United- and Sheffield United played Wigan at Bramall Lane. Basically the only way that Sheffield United went down was if Wigan beat them and West Ham avoided defeat at Manchester United, Wigan went down if they lost or drew against Sheffield United, West Ham went down if Wigan beat United and they lost in Manchester.
In Manchester, where West Ham had to avoid defeat, the Hammers were on the defensive throughout the first half- they didn’t concede and managed to eventually manufacture a chance which Carlos Tevez their Argentinian striker took wonderfully. In Sheffield, despite scoring through Jonathan Stead, United lost the game after two goals from Wigan- the first a lovely finish from Paul Scharner and the second a penalty from David Unsworth- therefore Sheffield United today have dropped to the Championship- after losing to Wigan and hence falling on goal difference behind West Ham.
What does it mean?
Sheffield United’s fall through the divisions is not something that will be welcome to board, manager or players. Its likely that several of their players- the talented Phil Jagielka and the superb Paddy Kenny- may well leave to pastures new but more interesting is the sense of greivance that United and several other clubs feel about the fact that they have gone down and others have stayed up.
In January it was revealed that West Ham had fielded for the first part of the season two players who were ineligible- including the scorer at United yesterday- Carlos Tevez. The Premier League in the past has been very harsh upon those who misbehave- Middlesborough failed to turn up to a match in 1996 and had three points taken away from them- three points that relegated them at the end of the season. But West Ham when their case was finally heard in April escaped with a 5.5 million pound fine- given that the cost of losing their Premiership status was 30 million and that they escaped relegation on goal difference- people are asking questions.
The panel which fined West Ham but didn’t deduct points argued that the tribunal was held so late in the season that it would effect things on the pitch (as though points deduction earlier wouldn’t have either), that West Ham had great fans (a calculated insult to Sheffield United and Wigan), that the board had changed (but some directors involved still remain at the club)- and you buy a business with its liabilities) and so on. Sheffield United, Wigan and several other clubs were furious and rightly so- my own hope is that this goes to court and that they win- furthermore they were furious because despite the confessed ineligibility West Ham were able to continue fielding Tevez- having handed the Premiership an assurance that he was now a legal player. The ultimate irony is that Sheffield United and West Ham both lost their most significant striker to injury during the season- West Ham were able to replace that striker with an illegally registered player and have suffered no penalty, United operated legally and have been relegated.
Today’s resignation though brings some reassurance for the League that their stance was right. Because today Paul Jewell the manager of Wigan resigned as manager- because so the Guardian reports it, he didn’t beleive that Wigan could ever compete with the Premier League’s big guns. (Jewell could be heading to a bigger club- Manchester City- where Stuart Pearce has just been sacked.) The same thing could be said of Sheffield United. In that sense the panel’s decision may well have been good for the League- West Ham stand a chance of making waves whereas the other two don’t. One can’t argue that overall the League was biassed for them- Manchester United away could have been a hard fixture if the Championship had not already been decided (Manchester United were playing within themselves a bit- trying to conserve tired legs for the cup final next week against Chelsea)- but West Ham’s survival will be good for the competition next year, even if it does undermine a sense of fair play in this year’s results.
What does this say about the Premiership
The sad truths revealed by yesterday’s events and today’s resignation is that the Premiership is more and more based around the massive finances generated by takeovers, the Champions League and tv revenue. Of course football authorities were always biassed in the past- but the clubs are now moving further and further away from those that sit on the terraces and more and more towards both their multi millionaire owners and their tv sponsors.
For a start, the fact that Jewell has resigned demonstrates that few managers now beleive that they can do what Brian Clough did at Nottingham Forest, Bill Shankly did at Liverpool or Don Revie did at Leeds- transform a second division club into English Champions. Few beleive that a club like Wigan can ever do more than hold up the division. Bolton are possibly the only exception to this trend- but even their manager has now left them citing a wish to go to a bigger club. The football league has become more and more warped by financial undertakings that mean that smaller clubs don’t have a chance and that membership of the Premier League and Europe is essential.
A second point is that West Ham’s non-punishment has a severe impact- Sheffield United will now have to lay off players and staff thanks to the fact that illegal proceedings at another club have been tolerated. The events though demonstrate something else- West Ham have potential- the competition is better with them than with Sheffield United. Its possible to imagine them getting into the UEFA Cup next season but not possible to imagine United doing so- that’s a fairly sad state of affairs- because all teams ought to have a chance of doing well. West Ham though have money Sheffield United don’t.
Lastly the story that isn’t
This has been a fairly depressing tale- but we should note one story that didn’t happen yesterday and which shows that there is some light in English football afterall. Reading were the third club promoted last season- the other two Watford and United went down. But Reading finished mid table despite spending almost no money and relying upon the players that had taken them up from the bottom division- the second season is always harder but it is worth remembering that a club like Reading demonstrate that it isn’t all about money and about attracting players- a good coach and hard work can save a club and guide it to mid table security- for the sake of the Premiership lets hope that Reading have another good season next year!
Yesterday was the epitome of English football- watching especially the first half of the West Ham game and moments in the Sheffield United Wigan game was incredibly exciting- the goals were wonderful, all epitomising different parts of the game- wonderful skill (Tevez), brilliant finishing (Scharner), bravery (Stead) and of course horrible luck (the Unsworth penalty came from a moment of madness when a Sheffield United player, Jagielka, raised his hand to intercept the ball as it came into the box). The tension was palpable- the last half of the West Ham game fizzled out a bit but it was still there.
However just like the League in general the hint of corporate abuse, the hint of money driving events, the hint of the imbalance in the League all made one wince a bit. English football is a wonderful spectacle but its also a tarnished one- and many fans I know are slowly beggining to see the dirt under the gold dust.