I’m old enough to remember the Premier League’s tentative first steps under the bright lights in 1992. The old first division was discarded like yesterday’s newspaper and domestic football in Europe would never be the same.
It sounds dramatic, but when you consider that the television rights deal negotiated by the Football League in 1988 resulted in the top clubs earning around £600,000 per year and the transfer record in England at the time of the Premier Leagues first tentative steps was £5.5m (Paul Gascoigne from Spurs to Lazio), then the picture becomes clear.
The Premier League was the sugar daddy that came along and swept your auntie off, luring her with promises of trips to Tiffany and holidays in warmer climes. Your poor uncle is left behind with the kids and mortgage, trying to get by with his nine to five job in the local factory. All you care about is what shiny new gifts your new uncle brings at Christmas.
It’s fair to say that not many people really knew what the Premier League would eventually morph in to; an all-consuming 24 hour a day news beast, generating tens of billions of pounds in television deals and a global audience of around four billion. Never mind the land of milk and honey, this was the land of crystal and caviar. People couldn’t get enough.
Here we are, some 27 years down the line and the footballing landscape has changed more than Alan Titchmarsh’s back garden. Have we sold our souls to the devil and more importantly, was it worth it?
Whilst Cardiff have only been in the Premier League for two seasons (so far), this makes it easier to be able to identify what it’s really like to be both a member of the cool kids and more often, out in the cold eating lunch with the nerds over in the Championship.
The first thing that becomes apparent when you finally take that momentous step from the Championship to the Premier League is that the corporate machine driving the beast is absolutely enormous. Think of the Titanic in your back garden. It dwarfs everything else and casts an unholy light on the promised land. Branding becomes boss and money falls from the sky like manna from heaven. The only trouble is, it has the touch of King Midas about it.
Whilst the money sounds wonderful, it quickly becomes apparent that just like the investment banker living in Kensington, they may be earning an eye-watering amount of money, but the lifestyle expenses increase to meet the income. You are instantly given an account with the biggest stores in town and the Porsche is available whenever you need it, but petrol is twice the price and your grocery bill quadruples. You may be in line for a guaranteed jackpot, but everyone knows it and nowhere is this more apparent than in the transfer market.
Within 25 years, the United Kingdom transfer record has gone from £5.5m to an astonishing £105m (Coutinho’s transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona) and the average top division weekly wage has increased from £1,755 per week in 1992 to just over £50,000 per week in 2017. The worst part of all of this is that we aren’t even shocked by these figures anymore. It’s become like Monopoly money.
Between the television deal, wages and transfer fees, we’ve developed some sort of callous skin; insensitive to the frankly disgusting wealth on show every night of the week. Hearing Neil Warnock say that he’s received over 2,000 recommendations on players to purchase in the January transfer window brings it home that the football player market has become a cattle market.
We’re the farmers bellowing from the sides, as yet more cattle is brought out for purchase, only to take them home and slaughter them over their inability to score a hat trick on their debut or tackle fourteen times a minute.
When you’re in the Championship, peering into the distance at the bright lights of the big time, it’s difficult to see the smog that envelops you on arrival, yet this is how the Premier League is for some. It’s like walking into Debenhams and finding the perfume section all at once wonderful yet ghastly.
In the Championship, you’re one of the top contenders, someone to be feared and a real challenge, yet in the Premier League, you’re written off before you kick a ball. Somehow this manages to strengthen your resolve to stay there and basically prove every one wrong.
Warnock builds teams that stand on his shoulders. He holds them high when everyone else says they’re finished. The Premier League is that strangest of things. It feels like the cake you shouldn’t have eaten. It’s the kiss you shouldn’t have stolen and if you’re not careful, it can unravel everything you’ve worked for.
Is it worth it? Ask me in May.