FFP: Farewell, Flexible Positions

Posted by Simon Curtis

While Chelsea were doing a passable impersonation of the turkey that voted for Christmas, followed by Wigan Athletic playing the sitting duck and Arsenal the inevitable heap of self-satisfied cranberry jelly, the football world watched half-agog (and half-asleep, let's be honest) as the new Financial Fair Play rules and regulations were wafted in last week with a swift jerk of Sir Alex Ferguson’s feather duster.

Hey, presto, the structure is in place to halt for all time any club with the temerity to challenge the elite. The bearded elite. The gilded elite. The historical elite. The elite elite.

Ask yourself in the midst of this financial maelstrom one question, and please let it be this one: When did Manchester United become the guardian of the nation’s football teams’ hopes and aspirations?

Exactly.

Does it say "for the good of all" below United’s badge? No, it says -- if I remember correctly -- something like “Manchester United.”

Self-preservation, self-fulfillment and above all self-worship is the name of the game at the citadel of power just across the city boundary in the Borough of Trafford. This is not something, you would imagine, that United CEO David Gill and his cronies thought might save Ferguson’s good footballing pals at Wigan and Stoke.

It is very likely to cement both those teams in a place well down the pecking order, seeing as they have been bankrolled beyond their means by wealthy chairmen for many years now. Dave Whelan has done “a fine job at Wigan,” but it has been built on the vigorous spending of his own fortune and getting lucky, incredibly lucky with his choice of managers, in first the runabout Paul Jewell, then the suave Roberto Martinez, who opened up South American trade routes, made Wigan's play more expansive and stayed loyal when others came calling for him.

Mr. Gill is interested in the health of the competition, as he put it last December. That’s “the competition,” as in the FA Premier League, not “competition” as in lots of teams competing for the honours. He wants to stop Manchester City easing their way into things, stop Everton ever getting beyond sixth. He doesn’t mind the odd chaps who have turned up in Portsmouth and Blackburn. They seem OK and will be free to fly in, underinvest, bomb their new playthings into the lower leagues and reinvent old bedrock football league clubs as laughingstocks. That’s all OK, of course, because they’re not overspending.

Meanwhile, Stoke City have their Mr. Coates in shining armour, the betting mogul pouring his cash into a new stadium and a new team, just as Whelan had done before him further north. In Tony Pulis it is difficult to say Stoke got lucky, but, in a way, they did. The football might be a touch too close to Neanderthal for the tastes of some, but the result is top-league stability, an FA Cup final appearance and getting to see Glen Whelan and Cameron Jerome gallop across the fields of Europe.

All these things, be they pretty sights or not, are or have been perfectly achievable in modern football. From now on, they will be considerably more difficult. Another repercussion might also be the suddenly self-inflating sponsorship deals both City and Paris Saint-Germain have becoming more and more inflated.

There is no way the game’s administrators, covered as they are in a thick and clinging layer of dust, can tell any club whether they are getting value for money or not out of their sponsorship deals. The hike in amounts in this area is one element of the fightback by clubs protecting their right to attract investment.

Will the FA, with all of its grand expertise in the ways of big business, be looking closely at City’s sponsorship deal with Etihad to see if it is fair play or not? And if the weighty brains involved decide it is not, by how much will it have overstepped the mark for this most nebulous of ideas. Fifty million? Three and fourpence?

The FA no doubt will find a reasonable example from somewhere they like the look of and use it as their benchmark, but how do you set such parametres in a world of football that every day exceeds its known borders? Who are the old chaps at the FA to decide where the ax falls in any case?

All they know is that a significant, powerful minority have started belly-aching about overspending by, in particular, Chelsea and City. This, of course, because these clubs represent the biggest wedge to be plugged between the Arsenals and Liverpools and their beloved trail of trophies since the invention of the door stop. Manchester City are a threat. They must be stopped, or at least severely hindered, whilst the game’s megaliths regroup and gain high moral ground.

The irony of all this is that the new regulations will indeed solidify those who are at the top of English football. Take a look at the top four. City and Chelsea, second and third. Could it be that United’s gift to themselves may in fact end up solidifying City’s newly acquired place in the elite after all? It seems likely.

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