And Another Thing
Four football fans in a round-(pub-)table discussion
Are you proud of being in the big four or is it a stigma?
Arsenal I’m proud to support a team that’s always in the best four in the country, but the money from the Champions League is what makes it significant. With that money coming in, I can’t see the balance changing for a while.
Chelsea When we started doing well, I didn’t think, ‘Oh good, now we’re in the top four’. Staying there comes from the ambition of the board and going for that global reach. But it’s an arbitrary term, and there’s a massive difference between being in the top four and winning the league.
United Any oligarch can come in and buy a club and then we’d be talking about a big five. It’s transient: it’s a bit like the UN Security Council, where you have three permanent members who will always be involved, and then other teams will come into it. Leeds were up there five years ago and look now.
Liverpool In the old days it was a big five with Everton and Tottenham and not Chelsea. But in 10 years’ time Chelsea will be as big as United and Liverpool because kids are going to grow up and support them.
United All it takes is one Chechen sniper and things can change very quickly.
Is the league competitive enough?
Chelsea I can’t see anyone outside this four winning the league for a very long time.
United Everyone went mad when Spurs nearly finished fourth but the fact is they only did that because Arsenal had a shocker. And Liverpool had a shocker the year before when Everton finished fourth. It’s not like there’s any suggestion that Spurs and Everton were anywhere near the top two. It’s not going to happen. In the 1980s it was never as one-sided as it is now. We finished 10th and 11th and the gap in wealth wasn’t that huge. We’ve lost that unpredictability.
Arsenal There are obvious groups within the league. I think there’s the top four, the three that have come up, who will always be the favourites to go down, and then the rest.
United I think it’s just the top four and the rest. Within three seasons any one of the 16 teams not sitting round this table could go down.
The competition used to be between Arsenal and Manchester United, so at least there are two more teams in the mix.
Arsenal Definitely. Eight years ago there were only two teams that could win the title and now there are four. That’s a good thing.
United The support of neutrals has changed too. It used to be anyone but United for the title, and now it’s anyone but Chelsea. It shows that people want competition.
Liverpool But the anti-Chelsea feeling is not because of them winning the league, it’s the package: the moaning and complaining. Ferguson and Wenger have been doing similar things for 20 years and 10 years respectively but no one has turned against them as quickly as against Mourinho – even if their ‘us against the world’ mentality helps them.
Chelsea That’s due to a combination of Chelsea’s sudden emergence, the amount of money they have spent – which British people seem to find vulgar – and the fact that Mourinho speaks rubbish after most games.
Arsenal But it works for the team, as the more attention Mourinho gets, the less pressure is on the players.
If we gave you the choice of finishing in fourth place or winning the FA Cup and finishing fifth, what would you take?
Liverpool I’d take the FA Cup. We win trophies. That’s what the club is about. Is David Moyes really going to put on his CV, ‘I once finished fourth’? No, he wants a trophy.
Arsenal But being in the Champions League gives you the chance of winning a better trophy the next year because of the money you get.
Chelsea We’re similar to Liverpool in that we play proper teams in all the competitions and try to win them. The big players often play in the Carling Cup. It is about winning trophies.
Liverpool That’s only because your reserves are big players too!
Has the Champions League become more important than the league?
Liverpool Not for me. Be the best in your back yard, then in your country, then in Europe. That’s the way it should be.
Arsenal I’m not sure. I’ve seen us win the league a few times now and I’d love us to win in Europe. Winning the league would be great, just to rub Chelsea noses in it, but winning the Champions League would be more of a blow to Chelsea.
Liverpool You’d rather do well in Europe and get battered by Spurs for the next 10 years?
Arsenal That’s a different kettle of fish because you’re talking about a team I hate.
United You’ve got to win the league first, I think. If United win it this year every fan will be delighted, because of what’s happened the last few seasons.
Chelsea If Chelsea lost the league to United but won the Champions League I think most Chelsea fans would take that. I was quite glad Barcelona won the Champions League last year, not just because they beat Arsenal, but because Porto won it when they weren’t very good, and Liverpool won it and finished 37 points behind us. I wanted a good team to win it to re-establish the credibility of the Champions League so that when we won it, it would be seen as a top competition.
Liverpool That’s why no one likes you!
If Liverpool hadn’t won the Champions League, would they still be in the big four?
United What is keeping Liverpool in the top four? They have a magnificent history but it’s not gate receipts or spending power.
Liverpool The English game is a long way from Liverpool not being in the big four. We’re very well run: the board backs every coach and that comes back to my point, we exist to win trophies, not to make money. There is a myth to the club but we’re not up our own arses. I mean, how long have United lived on the Busby Babes?
United I agree. I think United and Liverpool fans look at the other two and think, ‘Who are these filthy impostors? Who are they?’ You sneer at it. ‘We’re the big clubs, the ones with the history, the tradition. Who are you?’
Liverpool You can distance me from that. I don’t feel like that at all!
Has the atmosphere changed at your club in recent years?
Arsenal There are no more fans at the Emirates now than there were at Highbury because the extra seats have just gone to corporate spectators. There’s a huge ring around the middle of the stadium which is empty either side of half-time.
Chelsea All clubs have changed, because the fans’ demographic has shifted. People say Chelsea fans aren’t real fans, but 10 years ago most of the fans there were seething racists who wanted a fight. So there is a change but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As for the atmosphere, when your team starts winning trophies and buying the best players, you do become complacent. In the early days of Abramovich I used to get excited when I saw the players we were linked to, but now it’s like, ‘Oh, Ronaldinho again.’
United But Chelsea were a working-class club and it would be interesting to know how many of those fans can afford a ticket now.
What about FC United?
United If ever a club’s fans have been disenchanted by what’s happened in the boardroom, it’s United fans. A lot of the fans who go to watch FC United take their family, and it costs a couple of quid to get in. They can’t afford to go to Old Trafford, so what are their options: only to pay to watch Sky and keep funding the machine.
Do you feel that the larger squads the big four have weakens other teams in the Premiership?
Liverpool There’s a difference between having Jermaine Pennant on the bench in case Steven Gerrard is not fit and spending £25m on Shaun Wright-Phillips when everyone else would have bought him for £10m less.
United It’s incredible for United to be envious of another club’s wealth, especially after the clowns that took over our club, but I don’t think that is good for football.
Arsenal As soon as any club know Chelsea are interested, they hike up the prices, but at least Chelsea are buying some English players and putting money back into the English game.
Is buying English players a good enough excuse for spending the amount that Chelsea do?
Chelsea I do have an affinity for English players like John Terry and Frank Lampard, but then we had that affinity with Gianfranco Zola, so it’s not just about nationality, it’s about loyalty. Having said that, I admire Wenger for buying young players and training them into stars.
United I feel warmer towards my club because they have English players. Wes Brown is a local boy and, as a Mancunian, that gives you a lot of pride. Even though the club has become this global brand, the community element is there.
Liverpool Well, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are idolised in Liverpool, but when Djimi Traore was there, I still supported him too.
United We use Belgium as a breeding ground for our young English players, while Arsenal use Belgium to bring in African and Ivorian players and that’s different. There’s never a fear at United about giving English kids a go.
Is now a good time to mention Ashley Cole?
Arsenal He was an Arsenal fan, he came through the youth ranks at Highbury and he was one of our best players, and we loved him until this thing came up with Chelsea and then he left, showing that local pride counts for nothing. How can we feel sorry for Cole, who was offered five grand less a week, the poor sod?
United We had this with Rio Ferdinand as well.
Chelsea But they’re footballers, so what do you expect? You can support them but you don’t have to share their values. I don’t support Chelsea because I agree with their views of life.
Liverpool Steven Gerrard didn’t go to Chelsea and Jamie Carragher is not going to go anywhere else. Ashley Cole admitted that he went for the money and don’t get me wrong, I’d play for United if the price was right. But I’d play for Liverpool for nothing.
United I admire Rio as a footballer but don’t rate him at all as a human being. He’s not the reason why I support the team. I support my team for players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
Is there an argument for trying to level the playing field?
United A salary cap has worked in rugby league, which is far more competitive now.
Liverpool But rugby league is only played in two countries whose seasons take place at different times, so that’s easier to manage. This would have to be across the whole of Europe and that’s not going to happen.
Chelsea I can’t be that altruistic about it. I just want to see my team win. We’ve got a window of opportunity after being mediocre for so long. You could see lots wrong with the Abramovich era, but I’m enjoying it. While it may be positive to even it out, I just don’t want it.
Are there any other clubs that can break into the big four?
United Newcastle are the ones for me. When you drive into Newcastle, the stadium is at the highest point of the city, it’s where the cathedral should be. They have amazing fans and I do feel sorry for them as they’ve been mismanaged for so long it’s an embarrassment. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when it comes to them.
Liverpool You laugh.
Arsenal I hate to admit it but I think Tottenham could break into the group. They may not have as big a fan-base as Newcastle but they have a lot of money, and they have the history.
Liverpool It’s possible that the next big club will come from London, simply because of geography. The best players want to live in the best cities – look at Barcelona, Madrid, Milan. In the past, both Liverpool and United had problems trying to get world-class players. Location plays a big part. Ronadinho’s not going to move to the Wirral, is he?
Chelsea Middlesbrough gave it a go, didn’t they, but look what happened to them. They got relegated. Ha!
So who will be the biggest clubs in 10 years? Will we be talking about a big six, with Newcastle and maybe West Ham or Aston Villa among them?
Liverpool I worry it will go the other way. I can see the two London clubs running away with it because of their location.
Arsenal Financially United are still the biggest club in the world and I don’t think they will ever have a problem in that respect. They won’t be left behind. I went to the Far East the year Arsenal won the league and wore my shirt and no one knew what it was.
United We were first to develop a Far East market, and Liverpool never did that. If they had, Liverpool would be in a much better financial position than they are. And among the top clubs, the gulf in wealth is so wide that I can’t see new clubs breaking into it. That global market is what makes it sustainable.
You’ve said that if Newcastle were better run, they could force their way up there. Does it just come down to good management?
Liverpool No, it’s a combination of factors, including location, fan-base and marketing potential. Look at Charlton, they are a well-run club but will never be up there.
United Good point. But if Newcastle were well-managed they could do something. And I’d love it, absolutely love it, if they did!
Interviews: January 2007
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