There are times when the modern global obsession with football seems exhausting. Why do so many people from so many places care so much? What drives the endless jokes, the Ronaldo fundamentalists, the conspiracy theories about the preponderance of North West referees? Why is that the focus rather than the seemingly more pressing concerns of a growing energy crisis, runaway inflation and a worrying new prime minister? Why are we more bothered by Erik ten Hag compromising his Ajax principles than by the tactics of the Ukrainian counter-offensive?
And then you get weeks like this when you realize the Premier League is the greatest drama ever written. And like the best literature, it contains multitudes of them. On the one hand, there is the warning. Poor Brighton. You are one of the few clubs not owned by a hedge fund, public investment fund, sheikh, oligarch or tax exile. You belong to a well done local boy, a childhood fan. You graft for years. You put plans in place. You set up a clever recruitment service. You find an innovative and discreet manager who fits your model. You impress but for one thing: you don’t convert your chances.
Then suddenly, you snap. You win at Old Trafford for the first time in your history. You are compact and well organized. You put five ahead of Leicester. You are fourth in the table. You are two points from the top. You know that probably won’t happen, but it’s a weird season. The calendar is absurdly compressed. You are not involved in the European competition. Not that many of your players will be involved in the season-breaking World Cup. It’s unlikely but maybe… maybe there’s a chance of reaching the Europa League, the Champions League, maybe even a remote possibility of repeating the glorious Leicester monster. .
Down comes the meaty fist of capital. Never bother to dream. It’s not the 1960s when Alf Ramsey could lead Ipswich to the title. It’s not the 70s, when Brian Clough could win the league with Derby and Nottingham Forest. It’s not even the 80s when Graham Taylor could take Watford to second place. This is modernity, when the slightest sign of promise must be swallowed up by the super-rich.
You can’t blame Graham Potter for joining Chelsea any more than you could blame Marc Cucurella for going there in the summer, or Yves Bissouma for joining Tottenham. There is a clear ladder and if you want to earn trophies you have to climb it. just as Potter rose through the ranks leaving Swansea for Brighton. But it’s depressing when the moral of the story is that no matter how smart you are, football is a world in which money will always trump smarts.
Brighton are an example of how a club can be run successfully without regular splurges. They have not only dealt with the loss of Cucurella and Bissouma, but they are thriving. They will almost certainly have anticipated the loss of Potter and have a contingency ready. But still, the momentum was checked. It will take a new manager, no matter how talented, time to get used to it. What could have been the best season in the club’s history was stopped after six games.
This, the warning comes, is what happens if you get over your station. But this is not a grim morality story. The Premier League is multi-layered. From Chelsea’s point of view, it looks like something big comic opera. Is Todd Boehly, the long-haired, sunglasses-wearing college wrestler, a bit too much on his nose as an American capitalist? Maybe he is, but not everything has to be brilliantly subtle.
He certainly seems to have played the role with enthusiasm, from when he showed up for the 2-2 draw with Wolves last season and looked thoroughly bewildered by VAR ruling out a goal for offside. Perhaps he had to actually appoint himself sporting director this summer as the elimination of Roman Abramovich-era staff stripped the club of sporting expertise, but his fumbling attempts to navigate the market sometimes felt like to one of those body-swapping comedies that were so popular in the 80s.
Maybe it’s unfair to Boehly. Maybe he will learn quickly. Maybe it brings a new perspective. But the first signs were not good. Football, more than any other sport, is about unity and you modify its components at your own risk. It’s not just about paying for the “best” players. That Thomas Tuchel’s reluctance to allow Boehly to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Anthony Gordon was a key sticking point suggests it’s not understood – and it should worry Chelsea fans while offering everyone else a potential source great entertainment. If Manchester United have really begun to pull themselves together under the fierce gaze of Ten Hag, there is likely room in the drama for a financial giant run by an owner easily seduced into stardom with little ability for long-term planning.
It’s the Premier League as a satire of capitalism. There’s a well-run club that thrives on a budget, and there’s another club that just sacked a manager a week after the close of a transfer window in which he was allowed to guide a quarter of a billion expense books. And yet, it is the latter that can attract the trump of the former; who can destroy the little man’s dreams on a whim.
Welcome to modern football. Welcome to the modern world. Welcome to the circus.