Earlier this week on ConservativeHome, we published a letter by Screwtape. C.S.Lewis’ demon, in correspondence with a Big Six football club Chairman, told him to hold his nerve: that resistance from fans, players, commentators and politicians alike would be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of money from the new football Superleague.
We advised readers on our front page that, as Lewis himself put it, “there is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth”. So it proved. Why?
First, because the volume of protest from the wider public was louder that the six clubs seemed to have expected. But they should have had that priced in to their plan.
Second, because this was also true of the extended family of football pundits, former managers, commentators and ex-players, such as Gary Neville. Again, the clubs might have expected it.
Third, because it also applied to fans. Perhaps the clubs expected a big slice of them to rally round, dazzled by the prospect of their teams having some the world’s best players, and playing other teams with some of the world’s best players – permanently.
But why did they expect the fans to take this view – so quickly, or at all? If the logic of your plan is to move your team abroad for large parts of the year, and risk expulsion from the Premier League and F.A Cup, what do you expect to happen?
Fourth, because of the threat of legislation. Boris Johnson and Oliver Dowden threatened windfall taxes, fan takeovers and anti-competition action, plus withdrawing work permits from players, and police from games.
However, when we and others ran through the options of what might be in a Bill (or what Ministers might do separately), we found that each of them was at least questionable if not impracticable, and that all were open to legal challenge.
Our take of what happened is that the tiny David of Dowden, thrust naked into the gladitorial pit by Johnson without even a slingshot, waddled up to the footballing Goliath, and whispered “Boo!” At which Goliath burst into tears, and collapsed into a heap.
The Culture Secretary deserves a gold-plated edition of the Bluffers’ Guide to Politics, and must feel this morning like the proverbial dog with two cocks.
The events of the last week have been a political triumph for him, and he will doubtless be promoted to a bigger portfolio, perhaps Health or Education, when the Cabinet reshuffle comes later this year.
The moral of the story is that Screwtape overestimated the nerve and solidarity of the owners, Chairmen and directors (variously) of the Big Six.
In a legendary moment of film-making, defiant slaves cry “I’m Spartacus!”, rather than betray their hero to the Romans. What we’ve seen from the Very Small Six during the past few days is the opposite.
First Chelsea cracked, announcing they’d pull out. Then Manchester City actually did. With Arsenal and Spurs, they piled blame on Liverpool and Manchester United. “He’s Spartacus!” cry each of the six, jabbing frantic fingers at each other.
Our reasons for the scheme’s failure in England can be summed up by the biggest of all: the clubs, as football fans sometimes say, bottled it – early doors.
Is there any politics in all this, other than a win for Dowden, and an adrenaline shot for the Government? Maybe, maybe not. There is a very good case, as put on this site by our columnist Emily Carver earlier this week, for keeping politicians out of football.
What counts for the moment is that a bunch of politicians leapt into football this week, seeking the channel the wrath of the fans rather than be consumed by it. And won.
“Football clubs aren’t just businesses”…”a small handful of owners want to create a closed shop of elite clubs”…”We will not stand by and watch football be cravenly stripped of the things that make millions across the country love it.”
“A small number of individuals who wield an incredible amount of power and influence”…”These owners should remember that they are only temporary custodians of their clubs, and they forget fans at their peril”…”We are the people’s Government”.
Those quotes sound like John McDonnell; they are, of course, from Dowden – all part of the project of the Prime Minister, that “Brexity Hezza”, whose party now holds such seats as Redcar, Leigh and Burnley.
The football policy is all of a piece with nationalising railways, big infrastructure, industrial strategy, higher corporation tax, more co-operation rather than competition in the NHS, and tougher green targets.
All credit to the Prime Minister, by the way, for not pretending to be a football fan when he isn’t. Which will enable him to steer clear of West Ham/Aston Villa David Cameron-style mess-ups. (Remember him?)
Whatever you think of Johnson’s Big State approach, it is a useful counter to the charge of Same Old Tories – a drum which Keir Starmer keeps beating. And goodness knows, he has no new song to sing of his own.
Maybe a cultural wind of change is blowing as the pandemic whirlwind gradually calms. Perhaps the top players feel well enough remunerated as it is, and are disinclined to traipse each year from Wilmslow to Chongquing to Detroit…and back again.
Could it be that they miss the fans more having seen them less? Is the socially-conscious Marcus Rashford the role model for the future, as the high-rolling George Best was in the past?
“We don’t want it to happen,” the Liverpool players declared as the drama approached its climax. The colleagues of Screwtape responsible for them have been asleep on the job.
The challenge now for Tracey Crouch, as she starts work on her football review, is how to avoid Labour-type plans to nationalise clubs if they collapse.
Anyone who follows football knows that what fans cheer today, they can boo tomorrow: club ownership is a potential sporting, ethical and legal timebomb, not to mention a political one (as Crouch is the last person not to know).
Finally, there is a puzzle about the whole business. Real Madrid and Barcelona are the last clubs left standing. They seem to have squared Spain’s government in advance, as the Italian clubs may have Italy’s.
It is odd that the Big Six didn’t try to screw a similar commitment out of our own Government – one of the strangest aspects of this strange story. At any rate, that Big Six Club Chairman hasn’t heard the last of Screwtape. With football as it is, he will be back – like the Superleague Scheme, in some recast form.