One by one, they lined up to condemn the madness. “It’s certainly destroying my enjoyment of the game of football,” said Roy Hodgson. “You’re ruining football for everybody,” fumed Jamie Carragher. “The game’s gone,” tweeted Andros Townsend. “Maybe we can all get together and stop it,” urged Steve Bruce.
Meanwhile, on Monday a group of football fans, former players, administrators and politicians sent an open letter to the government warning that many EFL and National League clubs were “unable to meet their payroll obligations for next month”, and that without government assistance English football was facing “the collapse of the league structure that we have known for over one hundred years”.
The two were unrelated.
Perhaps it was no surprise, on reflection, that the imminent implosion of the domestic game generated considerably less ill-feeling over the weekend than the Premier League’s adoption of a handball rule that virtually everyone else in Europe was already using. This is, after all, how feelings work. They’re primal, unfocused, irrational, disproportionate. If someone slaps you in the face, your first thought isn’t necessarily going to run to all the millions of other people in the world getting punched.
But partly, too, it stems from the basic sense that the Premier League and the rest of English football may as well now exist in different worlds: a growing disconnect that the coming days could bring into ever sharper focus. On Tuesday, the Premier League clubs will hold a virtual meeting to discuss the game’s looming financial crisis, with little prospect of fans returning to stadiums unless the government makes another of its sudden and unceremonious U-turns.
Here we are: raging at handball decisions while an entire way of life goes to the wall
And so one of the items on the agenda will be the possibility of providing emergency financial support to clubs further down the ladder, who rely disproportionately on gate income for their solvency. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has already urged Premier League clubs to “step up to the plate” and “start looking after the football family as a whole”. All of which raises a host of supplementary questions. Namely: why would they? What’s in it for them? And is there not a certain doomed, unicorns-and-fairies idealism in expecting English football’s elite to care about propping up a system they have spent years actively seeking to obliterate?
It is at this point that people will generally throw in nice-sounding words like “ecosystem” and “the greater good”. They will point out how many of today’s Premier League stars – Jamie Vardy, Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire – were forged at EFL clubs. Implicit in this is the idea that from top to bottom, we are all somehow part of an organic and interdependent whole. That when one club goes under, it weakens everyone.
For an alternative standpoint you only had to ask the Burnley manager, Sean Dyche, who took a dim view of Premier League clubs being pressured into bailing out their poorer counterparts. “Does that mean every hedge fund manager who is incredibly successful does that to the hedge fund managers who are not so successful?” he sniffed. “Do the restaurants who are surviving look after the ones who are not? If you are going to apply it to football, you have to apply it to everyone and every business.” (Congratulations, Sean: you’ve just invented social democracy!)
At its heart, Dychonomics is underpinned by a heartbreaking, devastatingly cynical and yet largely accurate idea of the modern football club, which is essentially an animal of the market: one that sees not a pyramid but a jungle of predators and prey. Big clubs may not necessarily need smaller clubs to go under – far better, surely, to maintain them in vassalage as an easy talent pipeline and loan destination for young players – but they’re probably not too fussed either way. Big-club fanbases – now more disparate, international and overwhelmingly organised online – certainly seem to care less about smaller clubs than they ever did.
Or, to put it another way: there may be individuals at Manchester United or Manchester City who personally mourn the plight of Macclesfield Town or Bury, or those we may yet lose. But the organism as a whole will feel nothing at all. It’s the same reason Amazon wants to shut your local bookshop, why Pret a Manger is indifferent to the fate of the sandwich shop round the corner, why the Athletic wants traditional newspapers to bleed to death. Nothing personal, you understand. But expecting the modern super-club to heed any impulse other than its own avarice is a bit like asking Siri to mend your broken heart.
And so, here we are: raging at handball decisions while an entire way of life goes to the wall. Perhaps this was inevitable once we began to recondition the entire concept of football around escapism and mass entertainment, discarding all its alternative meanings in the process. Football, the employer. Football, the glue and the pride of small towns. Football, the nice day out. Burn the entire structure from the ground up and few will bat an eyelid. Tamper with the product even one iota, and people will start howling about “moral corruption”, perversion and theft.
Meanwhile, whether it’s a condition-strapped Premier League loan or a massive cheque from Rishi Sunak, you assume someone will see the PR value in saving the EFL for now. In the long run, though, the triumph of Dychonomics is more or less complete. The only way the game can emerge from this crisis intact is if everyone manages to put aside their self-interest and work together for the common good. Well, we generally know how that turns out.