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Lessons from Charles Dickens for the new Premier League season

Up for grabs. EPA/Wallace Woon

Codified football probably appeared too late in his life for Charles Dickens to have become a hardcore fan, but there are prophetic messages in his work for the sport.

The opening lines of Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities have some important pointers for football clubs about to kick-off the impending English Premier League season.

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’

These surely are the best of times for the 20 clubs that will compete for the Premier League title this season. Last season’s league winners Chelsea pocketed nearly £100m in television revenues alone. Meanwhile the club relegated in 20th place (Queens Park Rangers) earned almost £65m from such deals.

With the 2015-16 season looming, clubs can look forward to more of the same. Even the three relegated clubs from last season are likely to receive upwards of £25m in parachute payments from the Premier League as compensation for the loss of revenue that relegation brings and the high player costs that membership of the league inflicts.

And the best of times are about to get even better, as from the start of the 2016-17 season new TV deals will come into force. Earlier this year, the domestic rights to broadcast live Premier League matches were awarded to Sky and BT Sport in contracts worth £5.1 billion for the period 2016-19 – an increase of 70% on contract value for the period 2013-16.

Getting cosy with the TV companies. EPA

The respected blogger Swiss Ramble has already estimated what is therefore likely to be a phenomenal growth in Premier League club earnings. The highest earning club in the 2013-14 season, Liverpool, generated £97.5m from television deals. Swiss Ramble has estimated that under the new contractual arrangements Liverpool’s earnings from TV money that season would have been closer to £152m.

Swiss Ramble has also identified that even the club relegated in bottom place at the end of the 2016/2017 season is likely to earn upwards of £92m. Furthermore, relegated clubs will benefit from increased parachute payments, estimates suggesting that in 2016 this figure will grow to around £39m (so long as they’ve been in the Premier League for more than one season).

But these are potentially the worst of times for clubs too. With such a massive financial windfall on the horizon, one senses that some clubs have been preparing for the Premier League’s most important ever season with a mix of wisdom and foolishness – as described in the second line of Dickens’ tale.

‘It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’

The summer break has already proved that clubs which may be involved in a relegation or promotion battle are acting with either wisdom (some might call it strategic foresight or advance planning) or foolishness (which cynics might well label desperation or mortgaging the club to its hilt).

Consider the tale of the two cities, Stoke and Derby. The former is a Premier League club, the latter a Championship one. Situated only 30 miles apart, neither apparently seems keen to countenance the prospect of missing out on football’s biggest ever pay day. Both clubs have made eight signings over the summer, the premise presumably being that Stoke cannot afford to get relegated and Derby cannot afford to miss out on promotion.

And they are not alone. The case of Blackburn Rovers striker Jordan Rhodes is symptomatic of what has been happening this summer. Although an accomplished goal scorer, he is hardly world class. But this has not stopped Middlesbrough (of the Championship) leading the chase for a player who may ultimately be sold for upwards of £14m in the bid for promotion.

‘It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity’

The third line of Dickens’ novel reflects the astonishing heights that some clubs are shooting for. While the likes of Stoke and Derby battle for a Premier League future, others like Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City have such belief in their position that they too have enjoyed something of a player spending spree over the last couple of months. City have already broken the transfer record for an English player when they signed Raheem Sterling for £49m from Liverpool. In the meantime, Premier League clubs in general have already spent £500m, with almost a month to go until the player transfer window closes.

Raheem Sterling, formerly of Liverpool, in his new colours. EPA/Julian Smith

The amount clubs have been spending on players makes this an epoch of incredulity. And it’s not just spending to succeed, it is often simply spending to survive. It is actually beyond incredulous that a Championship team might pay such money for a player like Rhodes, considering that he hasn’t actually played in the Premier League. Furthermore, his possible value exceeds last summer’s big money Championship deal, which involved Ross McCormack signing for Fulham in an £11 million move.

The way that the Premier League is dominated by a few clubs is perhaps more infuriating than incredible for some fans to believe. For the majority of clubs, there is little if any possibility that they will ever win the Premier League, as the rich seemingly get richer while the majority flounder in their wake. This continues to raise significant issues of competitive balance in English football and of the financial sustainability of many of its clubs.

There is still more incredulity at the way in which clubs have responded to this epoch in football’s history. Clubs are no longer the social institutions they once were. Rather they are strategically managed and financially driven business operations.

Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities continues:

It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

By May 15 2016, the Premier League and Championship football clubs and their fans will either be celebrating or mourning. And this is largely due to the cash bonanza that a place in the Premier League brings. For fans and clubs alike, expect another season of the best of times and the worst of times.

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