“You eat alone, you choke.” During the years of plenty it became a habit to compare the Premier League’s wielding of power – always with a note of admiration – to the structures of a mafia family.
It isn’t hard to see why: the hierarchy of captains, the beautifully ruthless sense of unity, of a cartel of self-propelling interests. And yet the thing about mafia families is that now and then those interests start pulling in different ways. In mob lore breaking ranks is sometimes referred to as “eating alone”, with a certainty that bad things follow – and worst of all that bad business follows.
If the past few weeks tell us anything it is that there are plenty of elements in English football’s ruling family that are eating alone right now. The Premier League’s success has been profound and brilliantly managed. But for the first time it faces a genuine existential threat. The talk in the wider world is of corrections, generational shifts and obsolete models. This is a moment to tread very, very carefully.
Instead of which we have, well … what exactly? Two significant things will happen in the next few days. First, the government will announce some kind of mild loosening of the lockdown, a process football, like so many other industries, is hanging on.
The usual faces will appear at podiums covered with slogans. No doubt the health secretary, Matt Hancock, will be present, a minister who resembles increasingly in his public appearances the kind of doomed sci-fi under-commander whose fate it is to announce he’s got the situation under control sir and we’re moving to warp speed now, just as the bridge is split in half by a phaser bolt and he’s sucked out into the skull-popping deep space vacuum.
Perhaps Boris Johnson will even address the nation again, which may just mean good news for the football business, given this is a prime minister who acts like the smiling-lady figurine in a German weather clock, pinging into view only when there’s fine weather to report.
Behind all this there will be pressure, lobbying and a wrangle for a form of words that hints at progress being made. This will then feed into the Premier League’s own Monday meeting.
Here members will thrash out some kind of schedule, informed by their own leak-ridden internal struggles. This is an argument increasingly taking place in view of the neighbours, and leaves elite English football looking less like a family, more like a loose accumulation of venality, short-termism and greed. Hey! Who knew?
Let us be clear at this point. No spin or vested interests. Here is the dialogue that led us to this point. First principle: it is obvious no one in England should play professional football this summer. There isn’t time to play the games. It’s not medically safe. Train properly, plan properly. Restart in August. The end.
Big Football: But, there’s £1bn at stake.
OK. Well, just forego that part of the season. More money will come. You can absorb this.
Big Football: Er, we can’t. Our finances are insane. We spend £3bn, or 70% of income, on wages. Some of us on the way up spend more than we earn on wages. We are rich, but also reckless and greedy.
OK. Then take a collective haircut to preserve the model. Share the hit as sensibly as you can. You’re all in this together.
Big Football: Er, we can’t because we’re not. Those who are relegated may well sue the rest of us. Players will jump ship if we dock wages. The broadcasters are at the gates. Nothing works. There aren’t enough lifeboats. End result: playing the games is absurd. But we still have to play the games.
At which point, enter a world of terrible ideas. Enter biosecure football. Not biosecure nuclear plants or biosecure food production. No. Biosecure football, words that signify of their own accord that something truly idiotic is happening here.
Never mind, though. Keep it coming. Spitting to be a yellow-card offence. Over-70s banned. Compulsory snood-wearing. Sex bans. Shortened games. A 23-team league. There’s plenty more of this to come, each tweak a little more Weekend At Bernie’s, another version of marching this greying corpse around the place pretending it’s still out there having a great time by the pool.
What is certain is that the football produced at the end of this process will look terrible and feel terrible. This is sport as a punishment, sport to be forced down the gullet like bad medicine. Does this matter? The answer is surely yes, if only because there are more diffuse threats out there than simply how to finish the season.
Above all, there is a pressing need to tend to your consumers, to speak to your base, to at least try to present some kind of sensible, likable face. The popularity of the Premier League is not a given. It is an accident of history, a hangover from the 20th century, fruit of three decades of expert governance. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The old normal has gone. Empires fall.
Economists are already talking about industries with zombie parts – such as jumbo jets and multiplexes and mass office spaces. Football’s task now is to ensure as little of its model as possible falls into this category. Imagine, for example, mortgaging your future to the absolute certainty 80,000 people will keep getting on planes to gather in your stadium the whole year round. Good luck shifting tickets for that state-of-the-art horse-drawn train.
What is certain is this is a moment for shared not singular solutions, and for the kind of leadership the undeniably sure-footed Richard Scudamore might have offered. The message is clear for the entire extended clan, from clubs, to administrators to broadcasters and players. Stand together, eat together, fast together. Or choke.