It’s all about those 90 minutes and timeless passion of supporters
Jim White’s ‘labour of love’ gives Premier history through his top 10 matches
Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero scores his winning goal during their Premier League match against Queens Park Rangers at the Etihad Stadium in May 2012. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Jim White is talking about the impact on people’s lives of a devotion to a football club, whether from their own neck of the woods or further afield, and laughs when he recalls an exchange with a chap in Dublin earlier that morning.
“He said: ‘I’m a Tottenham fan, for my sins’. I said: ‘You don’t have to apologise, mate!”
“But that’s how so many people present themselves to the world, it’s their point of identity,” says the Manchester-born journalist whose latest book, Premier League: A History in 10 Matches, was recently published.
A “labour of love”, he says, “great pictures, shame about the words. And it’s really heavy, so if you’re short of a stopper, it could hold back a bloody fire door.”
It could too. It’s an absorbing journey, though, through the Premier League years. No easy task, but White chose 10 games in its 21-year history to “tell its story”. Not necessarily the greatest or most memorable encounters, he says, but ones that were symbolic. Like the game that sent Manchester United on their way to their first Premier League title (that ‘Fergie time’ win over Sheffield Wednesday in 1993), the one that saw Blackburn win their only crown, and the defeat that relegated Leeds from the division amidst their financial meltdown.
And the overwhelming theme through those years is, inevitably, money, and how supporters of Premier League clubs in Britain and now, more significantly, abroad, have seen their devotion “monetized”, as White puts it. “It’s a lifetime commitment from the fans, and the clubs’ owners have realised that that commitment can have a monetary value – a very big one too.”
“But while most people, as I do too in the book, talk about the money, and money is basically the heart of the story, that passion, I believe, is still there at the core of everything.
“There’s a great picture in the book of Man City fans during that QPR game when they won the league. City, backed by the richest man in the world, bought the best players in the world, and yet look at those faces, look at the emotion, the anxiety, all those elements that have always been key. Yes, that’s why it’s such a valuable ‘product’, but you can’t buy emotions like that. You can’t.”
Still, the money madness features prominently in the book – he recalls that United v Wednesday game, for example, back then United’s turnover was double that of the Sheffield club, today it’s 36 times higher.
“And they now live in completely different worlds, Wednesday in the Championship. And more than half of the clubs in that division are now owned by foreign investors who would like to get in the Premier League, but it’s too expensive. So they’ve come in at Championship level and hope to play their way in.
“Put it this way, the money that Jack Walker paid to win the Premier League with Blackburn in 1995 wouldn’t even get you promotion from the Championship now – if you want to buy the League, which is effectively what the Abu Dhabi people did with Manchester City, it will cost you 100s of millions.
“Yes, the owners are different now from back in the day – 21 years ago they were the local butcher made good, literally in the case of United, Man City was owned by a former player who made money in toilet rolls. Now they’re owned by foreign entrepreneurs, who are interested in the fact that their clubs give them global penetration. The most obvious example being City.
“You go to see City matches, the hoardings are all about Abu Dhabi – the Grand Prix, take your holiday there, all that – because they’re shown around the world.”
“But the owners of today are no less impatient than their predecessors. Bob Lord, for example, who was the owner of Burnley in the 1960s, wanted them to be champions because it would make him look good at the Rotary Club. Simple as that.
“True, it’s a slightly higher plane that they’re operating on now, but they still react just as quickly if they’re not getting their way. Look at the Premier League now, the second longest serving manager after Arsene Wenger is, amazingly, Alan Pardew – and he’s only been at Newcastle since December 2010.”
And the media’s part in the fuelling of all this knee-jerkery? White doesn’t know where to start. The ‘are David Moyes’ days at Old Trafford numbered’ stuff, for one, leaving the United devotee sighing, heavily.
“It’s extraordinary stuff. Moyes will do fine, he’s a good guy, a good manager, but it’s a soap opera, you’re a genius or a fool, there’s nothing in between. And, of course, the best way to promote a news story is to make it about goodies and baddies, geniuses and fools, to make it a soap opera, no shade, no light.
“And there are so many pages to fill. I have a chapter about Eric Cantona in the book, about the day he attacked the fan at Crystal Palace. The Sun had something like 18 pages devoted to it, so, of course, all the other papers had to follow. And most of it, then as now, is opinion, largely because there’s so little access to players or managers.”
“But that level and type of coverage is down to Sky being the chief Premier League broadcaster.
“Sky was pay per view, [Rupert] Murdoch had invested a huge amount of money, he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he needed football to work. So he used his newspapers to promote sales of subscriptions, from then on football coverage in our daily newspapers increased exponentially – and, of course, the best way to promote a news story is to make it a soap opera.”
The beauty of White, though, and all his writings on English football through the years, is that while he’s often left befuddled by the filthy lucre . . . .
. . . . It was 2011, he was invited to Robbie Savage’s home in Cheshire to interview him about his playing career and his post-retirement move in to punditry.
The house, he said, looked like something from Beverly Hills. “I was just thinking, somewhere values went askew,” says White, “this is absurd. This is a player who redefined the term ‘average’, living like a king. How did that happen? That’s probably why they don’t want us in their lives, because if people realised what lives they live . . . . it doesn’t drown him in cynicism. It’s still, he insists, about those 90 minutes and the timeless passion of the supporters.
“The Premier League has ridden the digital revolution, it’s not just on television in the Far East, it’s on tablets, on smart phones and so on, they’re selling content for that new medium in a way that everyone else is playing catch-up. That’s the business side.
“David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, said wherever he went in the world people wanted to talk to him about the Premier League. He said Britain used to export cars, locomotives, engineering, now our biggest export is football, he called it our Hollywood – and I think that’s absolutely right.
“How can you remain so passionate when there’s so much to make you think this is ridiculous? I think one of the reasons is that however ridiculous, however much money is put in to it, there isn’t a contrived element to it. Look at the faces of those City fans. Again, you can’t buy that. The 90 minutes are the same as they ever were. Real. Despite all the ludicrousness, it’s still great. And despite everything, all that crazy stuff, that passion is the core of it all.”