There are times when the modern global obsession with football feels exhausting. Why do so many people from so many places care so much? What is it that drives the endless banter, the Ronaldo fundamentalists, the conspiracy theories about the preponderance of referees from the north-west? Why is this the focus rather than the apparently more pressing concerns of a mounting energy crisis, soaring inflation and a worrying new prime minister? Why are we more bothered by Erik ten Hag compromising his Ajax principles than by the tactics of the Ukrainian counteroffensive?
And then you get weeks like this when you realize that the Premier League is the greatest drama ever written. And like the best literature, it contains multitudes. On the one hand, there is the warning. Poor Brighton. You’re one of the very few clubs not owned by a hedge fund, a public investment fund, a sheikh, an oligarch or a tax exile. You’re owned by a local boy made good, a childhood fan. You graft for years. You put plans in place. You establish an astute recruitment department. You find an innovative and understated manager who fits your model. You impress but for one thing: you don’t convert your chances.
Then suddenly you crack it. You win at Old Trafford for the first time in your history. You’re compact and well-organized. You put five past Leicester. You sit fourth in the table. You’re two points off the ball. You know it probably won’t happen, but this is a strange season. The calendar is absurdly compressed. You’re not involved in European competition. Not that many of your players will be involved in the World Cup that will interrupt the season. It’s not likely but maybe… maybe there’s a chance of reaching the Europa League, the Champions League, perhaps even a tiny possibility of repeating the glorious freak of Leicester…
Down comes the meaty fist of capital. Never bother dreaming. This is not the 60s, when Alf Ramsey could lead Ipswich to the title. It’s not the 70s, when Brian Clough could win the league with Derby and Nottingham Forest. It’s not even the 80s, when Graham Taylor could take Watford to second. It’s modernity, when the slightest sign of promise must be gobbled up by the super-rich.
You can’t blame Graham Potter for joining Chelsea, any more than you could blame Marc Cucurella for going in the summer, or Yves Bissouma for joining Tottenham. There is a clear ladder and if you want to win trophies you have to climb it; just as Potter climbed the ladder by leaving Swansea for Brighton. But it is depressing when the moral of the story is that no matter how smart you are, football is a world in which money will always trump cleverness.
Brighton are an example of how a club can be successfully run without regular splurges. They have not merely coped with the loss of Cucurella and Bissouma but are thriving. They almost certainly will have anticipated losing Potter and will have a contingency ready. But still, momentum has been checked. It will take a new manager, however gifted, time to familiarize himself. What might have been the greatest season in the club’s history has been checked after six games.
This, the warning comes, is what happens if you get above your station. But this is not some grim morality tale. The Premier League is multilayered. From the Chelsea angle, this looks like something grand opéra bouffe. Is Todd Boehly, the college wrestler with his long hair and sunglasses, a little too on the nose for the US capitalist? Perhaps he is, but not everything has to be brilliantly subtle.
He certainly seems to have played the role with gusto, from the moment he turned up for the 2-2 draw against Wolves last season and appeared thoroughly baffled by VAR ruling a goal out for offside. Perhaps he had to appoint himself in effect as sporting director this summer as the clearout of Roman Abramovich-era staff stripped the club of sporting expertise, but his fumbling attempts to navigate the market felt at times like one of those body-swap comedies that were so popular in the 80s.
Perhaps that’s unfair on Boehly. Perhaps he will learn quickly. Perhaps he brings a fresh perspective. But the early signs have not been good. Football, more than any other sport, is about the unit and you change components within that at your peril. It’s not just about paying for the “best” players. That Thomas Tuchel’s reluctance to allow Boehly to sign Cristiano Ronaldo and Anthony Gordon was a key point of friction suggests that is not understood – and that should worry Chelsea fans while offering everyone else a potential source of great entertainment. If Manchester United really have started to get their act together under Ten Hag’s ferocious glare, there probably is room in the drama for a financial giant run by an owner easily seduced by celebrity with little capacity for long-term planning.
This is the Premier League as satire on capitalism. There is a well-run club thriving on a budget, and there is another club that has just sacked a manager a week after the closure of a transfer window in which he was allowed to lead a quarter of a billion pounds of spending. And yet it is the latter who can lure the prize asset from the former; who can dash the dreams of the little man on a whim.
Welcome to modern football. Welcome to the modern world. Welcome to the circus.