The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg

The Blurb On The Back:

The never-before-told inside story of how English football became the most popular entertainment business on the planet.

The Premier League is a business empire built in only twenty-five years on ambition, experimentation and gambler’s luck.  Lead by a motley cast of executives, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs, Asian titans and American tycoons, the Premier League has been carved up, rebranded and exported to a phenomenal 185 countries.  Today, players are sold for hundreds of millions, clubs are valued in the billions, and all the while the league struggles to preserve its ‘English’ identity.

Drawing on dozens of exclusive and revelatory interviews from the boardrooms – including executives at Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, West Ham, Leicester City and Aston Villa – this is the definitive account of how the Premier League product took over the world. 

You can order The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg from Amazon USAAmazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg both work for the Wall Street Journal (Robinson is European sports correspondent and Clegg senior editor).  This is an eye-boggling account of the establishment and development of the English Premier League that’s targeted at those more interested in business and finance than the off-side rule and which sets out the increasing insane economics of the League and the egos and ambitions of the men who run it.

I was a little wary of this book because although I am nominally a Liverpool FC supporter (in the sense that my family are all Scousers so that’s my team), my actual knowledge of football is pretty slim.  I mean, I can give you the name of the Liverpool manager, owner and some key players and I keep track of the scores and their position in the Premier League but I couldn’t tell you any of the rules of the game and my knowledge of the clubs and their funding is superficial and limited to crazy transfer sums and a lot of debt.  I was therefore concerned that this book would require too much knowledge on the part of the reader but, for the most part, I was wrong.

The book tracks the history of the Premier League from its start in 1992 to the 2017/2018 season and its focus is on the business and financial ambitions of the men (and this is very much a male story) who founded it and who took it forward.  What’s very clear is how much money was at at the heart of every decision as a small cabal of club owners were determined to maximise the returns that their clubs generated.  Robinson and Clegg to do a good job of setting out what League One was like back in the 80s and the semi-amateur way in which the clubs were run.  They had access to many of the people involved at the time (including Daniel Levy and David Gold) and so do a good job of portraying their frustrations with the lack of ambition on the part of other owners.  What really comes through is how the NFL and its media deals and stadiums helped shape the thinking and also how important TV broadcasting rights were to establishing it and how these continue to influence thinking today.

Robinson and Clegg also do a great job of showing how all the money flooding in was both the making of the Premier League but also started an arms race with European clubs as the focus came on recruiting talent and how the Bosman ruling meant that it became very difficult to keep them when the contracts were due to expire.  At the same time clubs needed to update their stadiums (initially to meet legal requirements following the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters of the 80s and then to maximise TV and revenue) and this brought in leverage against the club and its assets (most famously done by the Glazers at Manchester United).  This necessitated a more professional attitude to revenue, with Manchester United stepping up its merchandising and sponsorship game in a way soon emulated by the other clubs but the revenue potential from merchandising and broadcast rights also brought the attention of oligarchs and billionaires keen for a way to promote their reputation (or that of their state) or to exercise power.  Robinson and Clegg do a whistle stop tour of some of the personalities and aims of the billionaires who came and went but go deeper on the economic wreckage they left behind.

The other theme that comes through the book is how the more successful the League gets and the more the owners look to expand the overseas markets the more alienated the UK fans become – both financially as season tickets rapidly become too expensive – but also emotionally as decisions are taken without any thought as to the fans or their needs.  This is particularly the case as the clubs eye up playing overseas games in the US and Far East – trips that would be impossible for many die-hard fans to afford.

I would have liked to have a bit more analysis of the financing underpinning the Premier League clubs, mainly because given the impact of COVID-19 (which the authors obviously could not have foreseen) I would have been interested to see how much stadium closures would affect it or whether they could survive on broadcasting and merchandising sales alone.  The authors do set out how the disproportionate wealth of the Premier League and the importance of reaching and staying up in it has an adverse impact on the lower divisions (in fact I am writing this a day after Macclesfield FC went into liquidation) but I would have liked to know more on how disproportionate this is and how much the lower league clubs are adversely affected.  I also would have liked a bit more of a focus on clubs outside the Big 6 as Robinson and Clegg do rush over the need to avoid relegation and the strategies for trying to avoid the drop (which basically seems to involve hiring Sam Allerdyce) and given the Big 6’s threats to break away it would be good to get the perspective of the other clubs on that – both in terms of potential affect and also how realistic such a threat is perceived to be.

These criticisms aside, I did find this a really interesting read and one that doesn’t require a huge amount of football knowledge (what you do need, they pretty much give to you although it does help to know the personalities of some of the managers and players).  I certainly left the book with the idea of the Premier League’s finances as being a kind of Wonderland that works to its own rules and I would be fascinated to read a revised version to this in a few years to see how it fares under the combined efforts of Brexit and Covid-19 and where it sees itself going.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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