IIt’s been a little over a year since Gary Neville stated US owner English football clubs “a clear and present danger to the pyramid and fabric of the game”. The comment caused a stir but the former England full-back turned celebrity pundit showed no remorse, insisting that if profit came first, there were important aspects of the role of football clubs that were in danger of being lost .
The problem is obviously not limited to US owners. It is unlikely that someone who is not a fan and takes over a club is acting primarily in the best interests of the community they represent. But considering that half of the 20 Premier League clubs (and seven of the 24 Championship clubs) are partially or fully owned by Americans or US companies, and given the dominance of private equity firms, their only interest short-term gain, this may not be the case. It’s surprising that it was the Americans who drew Neville’s ire, especially given the chaos the Glazer family caused at Manchester United, the club he used to play for .
Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace (US-majority Crystal Palace) meant they had lost four of their first seven league games for the first time since 1989/90. That was a season in which Alex Ferguson, apparently sacked in January, led his side to the FA Cup in May, ushering in two decades of extraordinary success. It’s fair to say that no one expects this season to end in a similar way for Erik ten Hag.
The optimism of last season, when Ten Hag, steely-eyed and single-minded, seemed to have the vision to turn the club around, has disappeared. To some extent he has been weakened by events – a series of injuries and the unavailability of Antony and Jadon Sancho, but also the culture at the club has undone him. There has been a lack of investment in the stadium, academy, recruitment department and media facilities, leaving Old Trafford as a shabby landmark of the Glazers’ reign. A lot of money was spent on the players but the now apparently shelved plan to sell the club has dragged on for most of this year and only added to the uncertainty. And the Glazers have been collecting dividends all along, having already saddled the club with interest repayments to pay for their leveraged buyout.
The most common complaint after Neville’s first comment was that fresh thinking from outside sources can be good. That’s true, but not all ideas are created equal. Todd Boehly’s suggestion that the Premier League could learn from US sports and introduce an all-star game was a big red flag for his understanding of football. There are numerous logistical reasons why an All-Star Game is a bad idea, but fundamentally it’s not happening because that’s not how football works. Teams need to be balanced, consolidated and cohered over weeks and months: you can’t just put 11 talented players together and hope for the best – although that explains his transfer policy at Chelsea.
Long-term contracts for young players may make sense in terms of meeting Financial Fair Play regulations through amortization, but they have largely been funded for academy product reasons. Imagine if Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Lewis Hall and Billy Gilmour had not left the club and no more than $1 billion had been spent in the last 15 months: would Chelsea be in a worse position now? It’s true that the underlying data suggests performances weren’t as bad as the results suggest, but more experienced players may not miss as many opportunities. The danger now is that talented young people are being undermined due to the lack of experienced players to guide them.
There’s a reason no one with a kindergarten has ever won the league. Maybe Chelsea are progressing well, maybe the major disruption will expose the flaws in the team building orthodoxy, but at the moment, as confidence dwindles, they have a squad of anxious players whose value is diminishing week on week.
While Arsenal and Liverpool represent more successful US investments (and 18% of Manchester City is owned by Silver Lake, a US private equity firm), all three of these clubs were quick enough to join the European Super League project to join in 2021, which is rejected by the vast majority of fans. And that’s really the biggest problem.
It’s not just about success. It’s about values, something American soccer fans seem to understand better than American owners. When Ellis Short, an American businessman, owned Sunderland, he not only ran the club so poorly that it was linked to the third division for only the second time in its history, but also reduced support to its charitable arm, the Foundation of Light. Why did he care what the club could do for its community?
Therefore, there is suspicion against every owner from abroad. Even if they know football, which the Glazers and Boehly apparently do not, do they have any sense of the traditions and responsibilities of clubs that are not just businesses but guardians of tradition and social institutions?
This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at football in Europe and beyond. Subscribe here for free. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email [email protected] and he will provide the best answer in a future edition