While we wait for the inevitable slew of books about the heart-of-stone-not-to-laugh fiasco of the European Super League, we can familiarise ourselves with the luridly complex relationship between football and finance. The most assiduous and perceptive follower of the money is David Conn. He was one of the first writers to analyse, in his 1997 The Football Business, how a new financial model was changing the culture of the game both on and off the pitch. Later, as a lifelong Manchester City fan, he was well placed to chart, in Richer Than God, how the scruffy, under-achieving poor relations to swanky United were elevated into the global elite via the almost unlimited resources of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Most recently his study of the sport’s governing body, The Fall of the House of Fifa, charted an organisation that when formed looked askance at individuals making profits from staging football matches, yet ended up as the target of FBI wiretaps more usually deployed to counter organised-crime racketeering.
Of course the problem for most football clubs, even today, is a perilous lack of money, not a grotesque surplus of it. And it wasn’t until comparatively late in the sport’s history that the cash began to feed through with as late as 1961 a maximum wage of £20 a week still in place as late as 1961. In When Footballers Were Skint, Jon Henderson recalls the good old days when players’ employment status was akin to serfdom, on match days they mingled with fans on public transport and contractual disputes could centre on the club being tight with its Christmas cigarette allocation. And even when big money did come into the game its distribution was blinkered and narrow. England’s first professional female player, Kelly Smith, recalls in her autobiography My Story, that when she started playing in the official FA Women’s Premier League in 1994, far from being paid she actually had to “hand over a fee, for referees, pitches and so on. It may have had ‘Premier League’ in its title but it certainly didn’t feel Premier League to me.”
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that football memoirs tend to feature money more than most sporting lives. The standard anecdote remains the young player’s First Big Contract, but there are also less orthodox financial dealings. Jonathan Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, covers not only triumphs on the pitch but also the less heroic subject of bungs, the brown envelopes stuffed with cash received by managers for facilitating a transfer. By contrast, in David Peace’s novel The Damned United, the Clough character is disgusted by fellow manager Don Revie’s fondness for stuffed envelopes to bribe officials.
So was it all more wholesome back in the day? Well, in 1888 the Football League itself emerged after a split over money, in this case professionalism v amateurs, a tale engagingly told by Richard Sanders – complete with avaricious owners and clandestine meetings – in Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football. And, although those Premier League clubs not invited into the ESL were vocal in their disapproval of the project, the Premier League was likewise born after the bigger teams duly broke away from the Football League, to the detriment of smaller clubs, inevitably in search of more money. That early-90s schism is catalogued in Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s The Club, in which a confluence of events – economic boom, the arrival of satellite TV and a sclerotically run sport mired in violence and squalor and vulnerable to predators – prepared the ground for the unimagined wealth of the football world, for better and for worse, we have today. The venal and ham-fisted antics of the ESL billionaires and bankers might have been the latest instalment in a long story, but no one believes it is the final chapter.