Commentary

English football is at the height of culture of greed

Garry Cook, the former Manchester City chief executive, used to talk of a vision to create "a successful business where the core competency is football".

How we cringed when he said that in 2009, but eight years later that is undoubtedly how many of the bigger Premier League clubs regard themselves.

Where once making money was a means to an end, which was on-pitch success, these days the football is a means to a very different end, which is of course ever-expanding revenues and asset growth. That is what made Leicester City's Premier League title triumph last season so uplifting.

In a sport dominated increasingly by the richest clubs, it seemed like a fairy tale, a stirring story of how, after all, there was a way for an underdog team to overcome an underperforming, complacent elite, bloated by their own sense of entitlement.

Some wondered whether Leicester were representative of a new way, driven by the best of human qualities - courage, unity, determination, a generosity of spirit. If they were, they soon regressed to a depressing norm.

Their "efforts" this season have called to mind Roy Keane's old line about how he felt some of his team-mates at Manchester United "forgot about the game and lost the hunger that got you the Rolex, the cars and the mansion".


Leicester City and Claudio Ranieri collectively painted a beautiful picture last season, when they showed that an underdog could overcome a complacent elite. But this term, the club proved that they too are part of a cut-throat industry when they sacked their title-winning manager on Thursday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

  • Other harsh sackings

  • VICENTE DEL BOSQUE
    (Real Madrid, 2003)

    The classic of the genre. Del Bosque was stilettoed by ruthless Real Madrid president Florentino Perez just 24 hours after winning La Liga. His four seasons in charge yielded two league titles and two Champions League crowns, but Perez decided that the loyal coach was "showing signs of exhaustion". Del Bosque responded by witheringly describing Perez as "some smart-a*** in a pair of braces" and winning three major trophies with Spain.

    GUSTAVO POYET
    (Brighton, 2013)

    Poyet led Brighton from League One to the Championship play-offs, but things went rapidly south after a defeat by Crystal Palace. He demanded an internal investigation after discovering one of his players had defecated on the floor of the away dressing room, then criticised the second-tier English club for handing out paper clappers to generate crowd noise. Brighton responded by sacking him - a fate revealed to the occasional BBC pundit live on air by a sheepish Mark Chapman.

    LEROY ROSENIOR
    (Torquay, 2007)

    He was a Torquay favourite, having led them to promotion to the third-tier League One in 2004. His second spell was less auspicious. Ten minutes after his introductory press conference, he was told the English club had been sold and he had no future under the new regime.

    SABAN YILDIRIM
    (Sakaryaspor, 2011)

    He gamely agreed to take part in a TV phone-in, but it was not just disgruntled fans lining up to give him a kicking. A member of the Turkish club's board rang in to announce: "Saban has humiliated the club, therefore he is removed." The perils of live television.

    TSANKO TSVETANOV
    (Etar Veliko Tarnovo, 2012)

    Quantity, not quality, was the defining feature of his brief association with Bulgarian club Etar, which featured an incredible three sackings in three months. Having been reinstated after his first two departures thanks to fan protests, he was finally sacked for good after "undermining the prestige of the club". He had the last laugh as the club folded a year later.

    THE TIMES, LONDON

Leicester have been as shambolic this season as they were inspirational last term. And so, on Thursday, Claudio Ranieri, Fifa's Coach of the Year, was sacked.

It is a manager's job to instil and maintain that drive and motivation, of course, and the signals from a surprisingly early stage this season were that Ranieri was losing the dressing room.

Yet that loss of confidence in Ranieri, which appeared to result in a subconscious downing of tools, is so typical of Premier League culture, where the rewards are so high and the effort at times appears so selective.

You would not have to be a cynic to suggest that Jose Mourinho had his own experience at Chelsea last season in mind when on Friday, in what he said was solidarity with Ranieri, he spoke of "a typical selfishness of others - people thinking of new contracts, leaving, more money, forgetting who helped them reach a certain level".

He was undoubtedly right, though, when he said that "some principles are going away".

Nobody even begins to expect those principles at boardroom level any more. Leicester's board acted precisely as you would expect the owners of a Thai duty-free company to react if concerned about the threat of relegation and, with it, a potential loss of £100 million (S$175.06 million) a season in Premier League broadcast revenue.

Alan Smith, the former Leicester and England forward, asked on Twitter: "Is that it, then? Has the game officially gone?"

Some would argue that the game "went" years ago, replaced by a cut-throat business, in which the overriding motivation in boardroom and dressing room alike is financial.

The rewards for staying in the top flight are now so outlandish, that everything else - glory, entertainment, developing home-grown talent - has been shunted way down the list. As for loyalty, you can forget it.

That is the culture that English football has bred. The rewards for staying in the top flight are now so outlandish, that everything else - glory, entertainment, developing home-grown talent - has been shunted way down the list. As for loyalty, you can forget it.

Leicester looked in free fall under Ranieri. Ideally, they would have been in a position to give him the opportunity to get them out of that mess, but English football does not encourage such indulgence.

The stakes are just too high - too high to give a manager time, too high to develop young players.

Get relegated to the Championship with all those players on inflated contracts and your club could be in deep trouble. There is no shortage of big clubs in the Championship wondering how they will ever find a way back to the promised land.

The cost of failure is far, far too high, particularly when set against the huge rewards for mediocrity. It has created an environment in which Cup runs and the development of young players are seen as quixotic aspirations.

There are clubs who would be happy to finish fourth every year, guaranteeing Champions League revenue, and there are clubs who would be happy to finish 17th every year, just as long as the money kept coming in. As much as Leicester's owners enjoyed last season, you suspect that they would happily have traded it all for 10, or even five, years of guaranteed Premier League survival.

That is the culture of sport as a business - and it is at its height in English football. Leicester challenged that depressing orthodoxy, but only briefly.

Certainly the Leicester story this season has shattered a few illusions. These, though, are the very illusions Ranieri and his players created last season. Better to create illusions and magical memories, albeit fleeting, than to aspire to the mundane, which, too often in football these days, is all clubs care about.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'English football is at the height of culture of greed'. Print Edition | Subscribe