Is the Premier League really the greatest show any more?


About this time in 1991 the Observer ran a whimsical look ahead to the upcoming English football season, the last of the old First Division.

As well as poking fun at contemporary giants like Fergie and George Graham, there was a bit about the massive fee Manchester City had just paid Wimbledon for Keith Curle, a robust centre half whose £2.5m transfer made him the most expensive defender in English football at that time.

The writer said that the phenomenon merited inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, in that any transfer in which a desperate club paid an extraordinary fee for an ordinary player should be referred to as a ‘Curle’, immortalising the rugged Bristolian stopper as a byword for sporting vulgarity.

Alas, the name never stuck, mainly because the Premier League was just around the corner and English football’s top flight would soon prove itself beyond parody. In the same way that comedians and satirists struggled to keep up with the antics of the Trump presidency, the Premier League’s great trick was to follow each example of jaw-dropping excess with another one.

And so, a year after City broke the bank for Keith Curle, Alan Shearer was on the move from Southampton to Blackburn Rovers for a scarcely believable £3.5m, a fee that was doubled a few years later when Andy Cole left Newcastle for Manchester United and doubled again when Shearer left Blackburn for Newcastle and nearly doubled again when Juan Sebastian Veron joined Manchester United for £28.1m, or just over ten Curles. And so on and so on. Any time you wondered if the Premier League had gone too far, further it duly went.

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The league’s main cheerleader – Sky Sports – even made a successful brand out of its busiest day of transfer dealings. A running total of spending by Premier League clubs would flash up on screen like in some sort of inverted telethon, as if an earnest Lenny Henry was about to come on and say, “Thanks to your generosity, James Maddison will drive a Bentley this season.” 

It is the memory of these halcyon days that has led many to say that the Premier League has simply been getting a taste of its own medicine this summer, with the spending splurge that has lured a host of Premier League stars to the well-numerated obscurity of the Saudi Pro League.

And yet, while the Saudi largesse – tempting established Premier League names like Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kanté and Ruben Neves – has generated a certain amount of shock and awe, the broader reaction has been a knowing shrug towards long understood market realities. Game recognises game, and few within the Premier League have been clutching their pearls.

The Premier League’s CEO Richard Masters spoke for the general mood when asked this week whether the Saudi Pro League was a threat to the established order of things. “I wouldn’t be too concerned at the moment,” Masters said, “but obviously Saudi Arabian clubs have as much right to purchase players as any other league does.” 

No, after all it has stood for, the Premier League was never going to get hot and bothered about the free movement of capital, even if it has been knocked off its perch in pure transfer terms. And when most of the players concerned were either out of contract or entering their career dotage, what of it? For all the attention-grabbing deals, few casual football fans really know their Al Ettifaqs from their All Ittihads.

And yet, for all that the Premier League remains sure of itself, there is just the slightest sense that the barbarians are – if not quite hammering at the gates – then at least knocking politely. When Sky Sports, in their season launch campaign, labelled their prime product ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, you wonder if there was a little bit of subconscious self-reassurance going on.

After all, everyone saw how the Saudis swallowed professional golf whole, like a boa constrictor gulping down some unfortunate guinea pig. Football is exponentially bigger and chewier and gristlier than golf, but that might just mean the Saudis will cut it into little pieces.

Richard Masters referred this week to the depth of heritage that he reckoned will help the Premier League withstand the changing times. “It has taken us 30 years to get to the position that we have in terms of profile, competitiveness and the revenue streams that we have,” he said, with typical disregard for the previous century’s events.

But what do such certainties even mean anymore? The logical conclusion of the laissez-faire economics that have fuelled English football is that one of its biggest clubs, Newcastle United, like the top guns of the Saudi Pro League, is also wholly owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

Last season’s big spenders, Chelsea, are owned by an investment fund which also has a fair chunk of Saudi change behind it. It might be the greatest show on earth, but whose show is it?

There is also the broader sense that the very tailwinds of globalisation that helped the Premier League in those decades of exponential growth might also dilute its omnipotence.

Wrexham probably received more worldwide coverage for their non-league promotion campaign last season than some lesser Premier League clubs enjoyed, thanks to the ownership of Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny and the Disney Plus series that accompanies them.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of Lionel Messi and Inter Miami – a brand new club, in a previous fallow football market – have been covered in minute detail.

These examples suggest that the global football consumer is looking for content and is not particularly bothered about context. They want stories and sensation, something the Premier League has provided since the days when Keith Curle roamed the earth.

But now the jaw-dropping excess can be found elsewhere, will it still be the greatest show on earth?

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