Robert Johnson, so legend has it, was fulfilled with such an overwhelming desire to become a blues guitarist that by instruction, and on the stroke of midnight, he met with the devil at a remote crossroads. Johnson learned to play a six string with such mastery he was able to create the music for which he became famous. Johnson’s Faustian deal was, of course, little more than a marketing exercise but while we’re on the subject, Sir Alex Ferguson this week accused football of making a similar deal with the devil. Take the money and pay the price, declared Sir Alex, who believes that television companies now have far too much power over fixture schedules and little regard for the needs of players, teams and managers.
“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price. Television is God at the moment,” Ferguson told BBC North West Tonight.
“It shows itself quite clearly because when you see the fixture lists come out now, they can pick and choose whenever they want the top teams on television. You get some ridiculous situations when you’re playing on Wednesday night in Europe and then at lunchtime the following Saturday. You ask any manager if they would pick that themselves and there’d be no chance.”
Ignoring the obvious antonym in Ferguson’s argument, this is a familiar refrain from the Scot, who both resents the modern business of football and yet defends the Glazernomic ideals of Manchester United’s globally-indebted owners. This has always been Sir Alex’ contradiction. That is an aside of course. Ferguson’s real beef is the genuine emasculation that United’s control-freak coach feels when it comes to fixture schedules.
But there is, of course, a far wider point to all of this. Modern football has sold itself to the beast and Beelzebub must eat! The Champions League’s expansion, the ever-growing international calendar and rigours of the modern game have placed huge physical and mental demands on players. And while coaches will always desire the greatest possible preparation time between matches, schedulers want the most attractive fixtures – frequently involving United – to kick-off at premium ratings times.
Supporters too have long been ignored in the game of football fixtures business. What price United’s 25 February fixture at Norwich being moved to the Monday night or late Sunday afternoon to suit schedulers? It is a hypothetical of course but few could be surprised. And in that there is a précis for the modern football business that at its heart views fans as customers, customers as revenue and revenue as potential profit.
Driving the mill is the broadcast industry, which at last count paid some £1.8 billion for domestic Premier League rights. Another £1.2 billion flows into the English game from overseas rights while, as one of the biggest markets, Premier League teams benefit hugely in the Champions League pool. In fact United’s accounts showed around £120 million flowing into the club from TV revenues alone in the last financial year.
In this Ferguson and the supporters, often at loggerheads when it comes to the club’s finances over the past six years, are soul-mates. Well, almost.
But fans must also look the devil in the face and ask whether they would make Johnson’s choice. Broadcasters pay, in part at least, for the players that grace Old Trafford, the all-seater comfort and the Premier League ‘product’. Is this a price that fans are willing to pay? Sold out stadiums and a legion of AON-branded shirts walking down Sir Matt Busby Way says Faust wanders among us and we love his choice. That is the deal supporters make. The deal Ferguson makes. The deal football itself has made. Money begets money, so the old economic theory goes, which in turn begets the men who love money and will do anything for it.
One wonders what Sir Matt would make of it all. After all, here is a man who when questioned about United’s comparative wealth in the 1960s said tersely: “Money in the bank? That’s great but I’d rather see it on the pitch?” Ferguson and United’s supporters would surely agree.
Yet in the competitive world of modern football, with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations set to be phased in over the next three years, the pressure to generate revenue can only increase. It is the law of competition and clubs face this whether they generate income from supporters via ticket sales, indirectly from commercial sponsors or from the broadcast world. The deal football has struck is one it can no longer break.
Faust might might lend a knowing look. Faust, so the fable goes, is assuredly corrupted by his personal deal with the devil, and when it comes to an end, Lucifer carries him to Hell. Johnson’s music, by contrast, is revered to this day as one of the most important contributions to the Blues canon. Choose your devil carefully and then love him for it.