How money saved football


As Leicester celebrate their unlikely title win, sports writer Alistair Mason celebrates the unsung hero of the hour.

There have been many undoubted heroes of this most unlikely of Premier League seasons.

Whether it's breakout talent such as Riyad Mahrez and Dele Alli, managers like Claudio Ranieri and Eddie Howe - who, in his own way, has also taken an unfancied team to unexpected heights - or the fans who pay extortionate amounts to turn out every week and support their team, there are stars everywhere you look.

Riyad Mahrez with the PFA Player of the Year trophy
Riyad Mahrez has been one of the stars of the season - and he has a trophy to prove it (Barrington Coombs/PA)

There's one unsung hero without which none of this would have been possible though - either the fairytale Leicester story or the unpredictable, jumbled up drama that unfolded all around them from the top of the table to the bottom.

And that hero is money. Buckets and buckets of cold, hard cash.

That noted philosopher Homer Simpson memorably described alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems" - and money is to football what alcohol is to life.

Because while it's surely true that money ruined the people's game, money has well and truly saved it again.

Football - specifically Premier League football - has been drunk on money for as long as a lot of us can remember. It's addicted to the stuff.

We've seen both the good and the bad it can do over the course of the last couple of decades.

On one level, of course, it's been great - we've seen many of the world's best players plying their trade in England, largely (though not entirely) thanks to the huge wages they can get paid here, from Eric Cantona to Didier Drogba to Sergio Aguero.

Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring for Manchester City
Money has helped attract the likes of Sergio Aguero to the Premier League (Owen Humphreys/PA)

And this has been great for fans of the teams those players happened to play for, or for neutrals watching at home on TV.

You can even say other Premier League teams benefited: as the general standard rose and the prestige of the brand grew - and TV money filtered through the league - even mid-table teams were able to attract better players.

But money also created a glass ceiling.

Try as they might, the Evertons and West Hams and Tottenhams could never quite mix it with the super rich - the successful and powerful brands of Manchester United and Arsenal, or the sugar daddied, new-money disrupters, Chelsea and Manchester City.

In fact, the dreams of a lot of football fans withered thanks to money.

In 1991/2 - the last season before the Premier League rebrand - the title went to Leeds, who had only been promoted two years earlier.

Leeds celebrate winning the title in 1992
An unfancied Leeds team won the title in 1992 (Neal Simpson/EMPICS)

This was the dream for all fans of all clubs - and it was an achievable one, too.

After that, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City took over. With the exception of Blackburn's triumph in 1994/5 - the rich prototype that the super-rich clubs would follow - those four teams between them won every Premier League title between 1993 and 2015.

For everyone else, what was the point in dreaming of success?

Even when outsiders like Newcastle or Liverpool got close, they were inevitably thwarted.

So the dream for fans became simply getting to the Premier League to witness their club mixing it with the big boys - or it became that tantalising prospect of a billionaire swooping in and turning them into the new Chelsea.

But now out of nowhere we have Leicester doing something apparently more absurd than even the most cheese-saturated brain could dream up.

That team have not only given their own fans the best year of their lives - they've also given fans up and down the leagues permission to dream big again.

Leicester fans celebrate a goal
Leicester fans have had plenty to celebrate this season (Mike Egerton/EMPICS)

So we thank Leicester for that - but we must also thank money.

Money, which took fans' dreams away from them, has restored them.

Because there is now so much money - such an eye-popping, mind-exploding, incomprehensible amount of money - swimming around in the Premier League, with a new £5.136 billion TV rights deal starting next season, that the advantage of being United or Chelsea or City simply isn't as big as it used to be.

Fine, City can open their enormous chequebook and sign Raheem Sterling, but so what?

Leicester can spend £8 million on Shinji Okazaki of £7 million on N'Golo Kante, West Ham can splash out £11 million on Dimitri Payet and Tottenham can get Toby Alderweireld for £12 million.

Yes, if you have the money and the gravitas to attract a superstar like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, that's a different matter - but there aren't many of them going around and anyway they're just one very shiny cog in a machine.

Beyond that, there isn't necessarily a big difference between a £40 million player and a £10 million player, and however many stars you buy you can only have 11 of them on the field at any one time.

Dimitri Payet celebrates scoring for West Ham
This guy cost about a quarter of Raheem Sterling's transfer fee (Steve Paston/PA)

Having tons of cash just isn't that much of an advantage when the whole league is absolutely rolling in it.

And we see this at the other end of the table too.

Take the money that's on offer simply for existing in the Premier League and do something vaguely sensible with it, and there's no reason why you're any worse off than anyone else.

Look at Bournemouth and Watford. They've each spent tens of millions of pounds on signings, some of which have worked out and some of which haven't.

Whereas before that would been an obvious folly, a hubristic preface to Leeds-style slide down the leagues, now it just represents sensible investment. Both have survived comfortably in the Premier League.

So all of a sudden anyone can have a great season and anyone can struggle. Leicester and Chelsea have proved that.

Now money has one big task left to perform and, oddly, we'll be almost back where we were before the cash started rolling in.

Benik Afobe celebrates scoring for Bournemouth
The money spent on Benik Afobe was a good investment for Bournemouth (Paul Harding/PA)

With so much money coming from TV, it's time for clubs to drop the price of tickets - which account for an ever decreasing proportion of a club's income anyway - and make football affordable for everyone once again.

Then football will once again be the people's game, where everyone can afford to watch and everyone can afford to dream.

So let's raise a toast to money: the cause of and solution to all of football's problems.