Chris Taylor takes us through the lows and lows of the ESL saga and points us to more delicious homegrown alternatives
And as soon as it arrived, it disappeared.
The European Super League was announced with no shortage of fanfare on Sunday night, and by Tuesday it was seemingly deader than the Arndale during lockdown.
We never really got a chance to find out just how evil it was going to be, but to put it into terms you might understand, it amounted to all the biggest bullies from all the schools around town ganging up to streamline the way they stole your dinner money from you. “But it’s in the middle of a pandemic!” you can imagine Rochdale or Oldham Athletic bawling as they sat scuffed and bruised in a puddle of their own blood, snot and tears.
What initially looked like a suave and straightforward coup was, by tea-time on Tuesday, looking more like a botched CIA attempt to remove Fidel Castro
Some of the biggest clubs in Europe, and Tottenham, decided that they didn’t just want to have their cake and eat it, they wanted to have their cake, your cake and our cake, and eat all those too. Big piles of cake filling the boardrooms of Europe’s largest football clubs. Executives and oligarchs rolling around in crumbs and buttercream icing, smearing jam all over their faces and suits. Outside, peering through the window, a starving football world stands and mouths incredulously: “Well this is a bit off, lads.”
If the 12 teams involved thought this was going to be a painless and quick transition of power, they read the room very badly indeed. Almost immediately, former United defender, and current Manchester hotelier, restaurateur, football club owner, TV presenter and all-round murine renaissance man Gary Neville used his Sky Sports platform to angrily and passionately denounce the plans.
Shortly afterwards both UEFA and the Premier League announced that all teams taking part would be kicked out of their competitions. Fans began protesting. Players had their say. What initially looked like a suave and straightforward coup was, by tea-time on Tuesday, looking more like a botched CIA attempt to remove Fidel Castro using remote-controlled pigeons and exploding cigars.
After City manager Pep Guardiola publicly criticised the ESL, City officially withdrew. Manchester United released a statement saying their unpopular chairman Edward Woodward would be stepping down at the end of the season. Rumours circulated that he was confronted by angry players, with several, including de facto leader of the opposition Marcus Rashford, taking to social media to voice their belief that the whole thing was a load of bobbins.
Then, at 11pm, they followed their rivals and neighbours by binning the whole thing off.
That’s where we are now. The ESL stands in confused and muddy ruins, with all six English teams involved having withdrawn, and others set to follow. Despite their victory, UEFA and the Premier League are both corrupt and venal organisations that only seemed to discover a sense of integrity when their bank balance was threatened.
Now that threat has been publicly humiliated, waddling off into the distance with its pants around its ankles, and the righteous fury of the fans and players has dissipated, they are both free to go back to what they do best: Exploiting the game for their own means.
Football at the top level, I’m afraid, will continue to eat itself. A dark, moral abyss. A shameful corporate boondoggle. A never-ending carousel of greed and exploitation, occasionally punctuated by moments of ecstatic delirium as Kevin De Bruyne or Bruno Fernandes biffs one in from distance. For many, the curtain was pulled back this week and they got a peek at the Wizard. To their visceral disgust he was more Paul Daniels than Gandalf the Grey.
More and more fans are getting fed up with top-flight football and looking for an organic, free-range artisanal substitute. Free from greed, shame and expensive tickets. Wholesome, pure, not as easy on the eye, but it doesn’t matter because you can drink beer on the terraces.
Confidentials looks at the best local alternatives to our city’s grubby footballing behemoths.
Northern Premier League
The unofficial motto of Moston-based FC United is “Making Friends Not Millionaires” but really it should be “We Told You So”. Formed in 2005 by Manchester United fans protesting the debt-laden buy-out of their club by the Glazer family, they’ve been banging on about the evils of modern football to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who refuse to since day one. Some see them as preachy and sanctimonious, but that’s always a risk when you’re so often proved right about your strong moral position. They are completely fan-owned and democratically run, rooted firmly in their local community. While their league was on a COVID-enforced break, countless fans volunteered to turn their Broadhurst Park ground into a food hub, providing vital supplies to those in need.
Football League 2
Co-owned by David Beckham, Gary Neville and the rest of the “Class of 92”, and Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, Salford City have enjoyed a fast rise through the football pyramid thanks to the deep pockets and global appeal of their celebrity benefactors. The strong and obvious links to Manchester United have made them an attractive prospect to polyamorous reds both here and abroad.
National League North
Did you know that Ashton is the birthplace of three World Cup winners? England heroes Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Armfield, and Simone Perotta, who lifted the cup with Italy in 2006, were all born in the town. There’s a statue of the trio outside the Tameside Stadium, which according to Google Maps is only a 14 minute walk away from IKEA, meaning you can plot the perfect day of watching a flat back four before constructing a flat-pack floor.
NWCFL Division 1 South
The latest non-league club to be adopted by postmodern, left-wing, middle-class football hipsters. West, as they are fondly known, celebrate their identity with songs about hummus, vegetarianism, and crudités. Proudly antifascist, antiracist, pro-LGBT, pro-EU and pro-equality, it's as if cult German club Sankt Pauli and the Unicorn Grocery got together and had offspring.
NWCFL Division 1 South
Bearing the name of City’s old ground, and sporting an eerily familiar badge on their sky-blue shirts, Maine Road was originally formed as a City supporters’ team in 1955. Despite recent attempts to pitch them as an FC United for Blues, they remain a less openly political but still much more affordable alternative to their big brothers in Bradford. Indeed, the main club sponsor is the Manchester City Supporters Club.
Altrincham is a lovely day out for a bit of food and a drink. Altrincham Market, Goose Green, Kings Court, all salubrious squares peddling street food and craft beer. It’s almost a shame to trek to the end of the tramline and have to interrupt your day with a football match. Papier-mâché headed troubadour Frank Sidebottom was a huge Altrincham fan. You know he was, he really was.
FA Women’s Super League
Eric Cantona once mused that you can change your wife (or husband), your politics and your religion, but never your favourite football team. There will be those among you who will baulk at the idea of supporting another football club, but hey, there’s still an alternative. Both Manchester clubs have thriving women’s teams. If you look at Manchester City’s website, they list the women’s team directly after the men’s first team and before the reserve and youth teams on all communications. This is because they want to stress the importance of the women’s game to the club. They are seen (if not paid) as equals. This is no afterthought. And like the men’s side, the women have a good recent record, winning numerous leagues and cups. There will be smart-arses among you who scoff at the quality of football, firstly without having seen it, and secondly conveniently pretending City weren’t absolute garbage throughout the 80s and 90s.
Meanwhile, across the city, United’s women are challenging at the top having only recently been reformed after they were disbanded in 2005. The Glazers, shortly after taking over the club, decided they weren’t part of the core business and deemed them unprofitable. It’s this sort of myopic, money-driven thinking that led to the aborted formation of the ESL.
It’s not men’s football no. Nor does it claim to be, but it is some of the best women players in the world representing your team in an environment suitable not just for lairy lads drenched in Strongbow Dark Fruit, but for the whole family. And, as the lessons of the last few days have shown, football should be for everyone.
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