OLIVER HOLT: Customers not fans. Brands not clubs. It's no wonder we are so angry about the European Super League... the 'Big Six' owners threatened to destroy the entire fabric of our national sport
There is a task that lies beyond the fabulous wealth of Joel Glazer and John W Henry and Stan Kroenke and Joe Lewis and Roman Abramovich and Sheik Mansour.
None of the owners who plotted to betray their own clubs, their fans, their managers, their players, their staff and the rest of English football last week, seeking to destroy generations-old traditions in the process, is rich enough to buy back his past. No man is.
None of them can make us forget what they did. They declared their hand and, briefly, they allowed us to gaze into their soul and all we saw there was gold. Dollar signs for eyes, like Scrooge McDuck.
No love for football. No affection for their club. No respect for their club or the people who work for it. No respect for our football culture. No respect for past triumphs or for loyalties handed down from generation to generation.
All the non-apology apologies that have followed their humiliation, all the empty words, all the transparent attempts at damage limitation, all those solemn mea culpas: we have heard them so many times by now that we could recite them by rote. They are hollow and meaningless. Anyone who takes them as evidence of genuine contrition deserves to be laughed out of town.
It is worth remembering what they were prepared to do, these billionaire owners, what they wanted to do, what they had signed up to do. To make them even more money than the billions they already make from their television deals, they wanted a closed European Super League that would have destroyed the Premier League and the Champions League.
They wanted to turn themselves into 12 teams of Harlem Globetrotters, playing exhibition matches for wide-eyed new fans. They wanted a Year Zero for football. If John W Henry had got his way, Liverpool’s proud tradition in the European Cup and the Champions League would have counted for nothing. They won it six times and then they would have won it no more.
The same applies to Joel Glazer at Manchester United. The modern United is built on the tragedy of Munich and Sir Matt Busby’s epic quest to recover from it and win the European Cup. It is built on Sir Alex Ferguson’s burning desire to emulate that achievement.
One of the only times I spoke to Ed Woodward, United’s outgoing executive vice-chairman, he made great play of the fact that the Glazers had not sold naming rights to Old Trafford and yet now we know they were prepared to sell the club’s heritage down the river.
Even if football forgives these six men, it should never forget. Because we see them now. I know we should have seen what really hid beneath their masks before and I know that some did see. But some of us were fools and gave them a second and a third chance. Some of us believed the second apology and the third apology. Now they are out of apologies and out of chances.
That is why the anger is not subsiding. That is why Arsenal fans turned out in their thousands outside the Emirates on Friday night to protest against the regime of Kroenke before their team lost 1-0 to Everton, a result which left them ninth in the Premier League. That’s right, ninth. And they were supposed to be part of a European Super League? Please.
The anger still burns. The ESL would have destroyed the entire fabric of our national sport. That is why Chelsea fans demonstrated outside Stamford Bridge before the goalless draw with Brighton. It’s why United supporters stormed the club’s training ground. It is why there is still resentment in Liverpool. It’s why there was a protest outside the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last week.
‘There was a lingering hope that these guys were interested in their clubs for something more than money,’ former prime minister Gordon Brown, one of this country’s most genuine, articulate voices on football, told me on Saturday.
‘Now we can see they are draining money out of the clubs. They have cut the golden thread that exists between clubs and their supporters. Taking the risk out of competition is what any business wants to do but without risk, there is no sport.’
The love of money does strange things to people. Sometimes, greed consumes them and makes them forget everything else. On Radio 4’s Thought for the Day last week, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, likened the way the owners of the Big Six had acted to a scene at the end of a post-colonial film where people are fleeing a country.
‘The blades are whirring and a last cluster of westerners just make it on board before the helicopter lifts them off to safety,’ Revd Wells said. ‘As for those left on the ground, it’s best not to think about it… There is something powerful at work here that is almost primal.
‘Is salvation a sense of profound belonging or is it more about escape, finding a way to get out of life alive, thinking, “As long as I am rescued, everyone else can make their own arrangements?”’
And the thing is, the football that we have always loved in this country is built on a sense of profound belonging. It is built on communality. Kroenke might have been prepared to sacrifice everyone and everything but Arsenal fans weren’t. Liverpool fans weren’t. Chelsea fans weren’t. Manchester United fans weren’t. Spurs fans weren’t. Manchester City fans weren’t. They all stood together. And they stood for those who would have been driven into extinction.
Some of the anger we are seeing now comes from a latent discontent with the way modern football was developing, the language that has turned fans into ‘customers’ and clubs into ‘brands’. And with ticket prices and the cost of a new kit for your kid every couple of years. And with VAR, too.
Football has travelled so far away from what people loved about it. All that discontent was smouldering but what the six owners did made the whole thing burst into flames.
So what now? There is a temptation to be vindictive and to push for draconian punishments for the six clubs, swingeing points deductions, bans from European competition and penalties of that ilk. But that would only punish the fans and the players of the clubs.
And the fans and the players of the clubs, like Jordan Henderson and Kevin De Bruyne, and managers like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, were among the people who did the most to bring down the ESL. There were among the heroes of football’s resistance.
There are good people working at these six football clubs. I know a lot of them and I have the utmost respect for them. To hear about them being threatened because of the actions of six billionaires is a warped reaction to the actions of a few rich men. The staff at these clubs, more than anyone, have been betrayed by men like Joel Glazer and John W Henry.
So let us instead watch the unfolding of the Government-led review headed by a politician of principle and authenticity, Tracey Crouch, and push for safeguards to be introduced to protect our game from the rapacity of men like Henry, Kroenke, Lewis and the Glazers.
Establish a supervisory board at every club, perhaps, where the supporters have a majority and give that board powers to vet and veto plans to join any new league or competition.
This is also an opportunity for Uefa to strike back at the clubs that were ready to take everything for themselves by abandoning the absurd plan to award places in the expanded Champions League format based on historic performance in European competition. As many have pointed out, that is ESL-Lite. Get rid of that and get rid of it now.
Seize this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for English football. Introduce a more equitable revenue distribution system for our game where the lower leagues get a bigger share than they do now.
Those six billionaires might have climbed on to the helicopter while the rest of the game was left at the gates. But the blades have stopped whirring now, gentlemen. It’s time to get off and show that if your apologies mean anything at all, you will rebuild what you tried to destroy.