Something For The Weekend (371)
It has been rather pleasant but ultimately an empty experience, to take a break from Villa's problems this past fortnight and try and discover a bit of interest in the FA cup, which was a forlorn hope, and, equally difficult, try to get passionate about the technical delights and perfectionism of the Champions League.
In the outcome it turned out to be a pleasant couple of weeks of convalescence from my Villa trauma, and I am aware, as I wake to face the implications of Villa's trip to Wigan, that I seem to have forgotten how bad Villa can be, and it seems I am almost well enough for a trip, of twice around the daffodils with nurse Catty.
Its been easy to put my Villa worries on hold as the papers have been obsessed with the problems of the big brands, what with Arsenal looking so enervated these days, and Chelsea giving a decent impression of a team in crisis (drawing with Birmingham City forsooth).
Considering the huge financial clout which these clubs can bring to bear on the matter at hand - Champions League qualification and survival - they make Villa's relative failure look quite forgivable.
There's no trace of schadenfreude in seeing Arsenal brought so low, even though Wenger has long stood as a minor personal taunt as regards my own alienation and sense of defeat, compared with his sagacity and his seemingly bullet-proof stoicism in the face of disappointment. Alas, he's looked rather more human since his problems began to multiply with every player he's signed, who hasn't looked quite good enough.
Chelsea's problems look more self-inflicted and the result of their owner's egregious hubris, when he decided that winning trophies just wasn't enough. The combination of finding quality replacements for Chelsea's aging squad of big egos, and the fact that there are fewer shoo-ins to be enjoyed in the Premier League, than in the Primeira Liga, seems to have created a massive combination of problems for AVB, and if rumours are to be believed, he will not be given the time to address them.
Not many fans of other clubs will be shedding too many tears over the troubles of the super-rich, but it does seem to be all to the advantage of Manchester United, who although less convincing this season, do have that rare ability of, when they are not excellent, just making fewer unforced-errors than just about any other team. This is frustrating because although their ability to buy up the better players, can be dismissed as the mere privilege of the super-rich, their virtues are much harder to rationalise and find consoling explanations for.
Although it is difficult to muster any real sympathy for the mega-clubs, we can't help but aspire to their special status, where their minor problems are presented by the media as if they were of national concern. Factoid of the week was revealed when someone was comparing the SPL with the Premiership. The former is notoriously always seen as an uncompetitive league totally dominated by two clubs. While the latter is all too often vaunted as the most competitive. Our prejudices were confirmed when Rangers got docked their ten points and still remained second. What we tended not to notice is that if the second-placed team in the Premiership (Man United) were docked ten points, they would still be fourth, with a five-point cushion over the team below them.
Both the Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1, are more competitive on this basis.
Happily, on this basis, Villa's 1981 championship was a stand-out year for competitiveness, as, if Ipswich had been docked ten points they would have plummeted to 9th. This fact adds even more laurels to Villa's achievement.
But even though this method of assessing competitiveness does not reveal a convincing case that the old 1st Division was more competitive, the huge variety of names which appear in the top four, in the 1980s and 90s, tells a more compelling story, with the likes of Norwich, Ipswich, Watford and even Crystal Palace, being the most noteworthy.
The big turning point in establishing the dominance of the Sky-4, was the increase in the number of Champions League qualifying places, from 2 to 3 in 1998 and from 3 to 4 in 2001. What looked like offering opportunity for lesser clubs, was actually a blatant piece of protectionism for the super-rich.
These extra Champions League places just provided a buffer, for the rich clubs when they might suffer a loss of points in the sort of transitional difficult times we are seeing right now.
What happened in reality is that it reduced the risk of the bigger clubs being cut off from the Champions League income. There have been a few token gains for the lower clubs, most notably Newcastle, Everton and Tottenham, but the overwhelming beneficiaries have been the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, who kept their Champions league income-stream, when they finished outside the top two (six times each). Even Man United have finished outside the top-two three times and guaranteed their access to Champions League cash.
Without the benefit of this buffer, it can be seen that these clubs would have had less of a financial advantage over smaller clubs and they would have had to invest more cautiously. This would have increased competitiveness.
The only conclusion is that these things were implemented, not for the sake of creating a more competitive league, which having fewer Champions League positions would tend towards, but to create the conditions for less competition, and the creation of a certain kind of football product, dominated by a few big brands in emulation of Italy and Spain.
With this sort of track-record, we can only assume that the financial fair-play rules, are not as stated, a means of protecting smaller clubs from dissolution, but are all to do with protecting the football product by further reducing competitiveness by fixing every club's status by their present turnover.
Under these conditions, the only way for the Premiership to return to any semblance of competitiveness, is to have the Champions League qualification places reduced to two. The combination of this protectionism for the big clubs and the handicap to the smaller clubs, which the FFR brings about, destroys competitiveness and ultimately the appeal of the Premiership product.
The best measure of how uncompetitive the Premiership has become, and how well UEFA regulations have protected the big brands, is the amount of money Manchester City have needed to spend to break into that cosseted exclusive club.
Randy Lerner gave it a go and ultimately found it too rich for him and his pockets.
It would seem that the game is solely regulated for the benefit of the mega-clubs, and the smaller clubs need to get their acts together and start to lobby, to do something about it.
Unless of course, they care more about the money, than the competitiveness of their league?
Keep the faith!