Top clubs certainly seem a long way from the striking lack of confidence currently keeping consumers away from the high street: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United each topped £50m of transfer spending before the transfer window, the period during which clubs are allowed to exchange players (running from the end of the season to 31 August) slammed shut on Wednesday night. Combined, those five clubs accounted for 66% of the total spend among the 20 clubs of the Premier League. That’s clearly how much they value qualification for the European Champions League – worth a hefty £53.2m to runners up Manchester United last season (or one Fernando Torres, if you want to put the sum in player terms).
It’s fascinating to watch the sums being bandied about, the notable thing this season being the number of home-grown players changing hands: £165m was spent on English players, around 34% of the toal spend. Those prices were largely inflated on the back of new Premier League rules about squad composition, designed to bolster the strength of the English game.
Of course, in the short-term at least it may just mean clubs end up paying even more for players like Peter Crouch, who manages to fetch £10m despite having tried more clubs than Tiger Woods. This would of course be a good thing if that transfer money was going to lower league clubs, but actually most of those players are spotted young and snapped up on the cheap by Premier League sides anyway, keeping that crucial cash circulating among the wealthier sides chasing those European places.
Not only does the Champions League football mean a definite cash injection, but it’s a huge stepping-stone towards global branding renown – and the increasingly important Asian markets. That may be the modern reality, but the depressing result is that games are no longer talked about in terms of sporting glory, and instead about how much they’re worth. Note Arsenal’s against Udinese the other week – never mind that victory kept them in the hunt for a trophy, it was simply being billed as a chance to net a crucial £25m.
The fact is, however, that as much as football would like to think otherwise, the external world does matter – were the all-important TV rights to disappear, the whole unsustainable edifice would collapse overnight. We’ve seen it happen elsewhere. And then we’d be left with a ball, some grass, and 22 players for whom there’d be no point in turning up unless they loved what they do…