The Beautiful Game? by David Conn (Shane's book 15, 2009)

If you believe Sky Sports or the majority of Britain's football writers, the Premier League is the greatest league in the world. Understandably, it's an image the Premier League is happy to perpetuate. It's hard to see how a league so hideously uncompetitive as the English Premier League could be held up as an example to the world, until you realise that it's really about money.

Despite its predictability, the Premier League is the most lucrative football league in the world. However, the money is concentrated at the top, between Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

It is this inequality that David Conn is concerned with in his book, The Beautiful Game?. The subtitle - "Searching for the soul of football" - makes Conn's stance clear. He believes that football belongs to the community and that the pursuit of cash has caused it to lose sight of its purpose. Ordinary fans, especially younger supporters, are being priced out of the game and clubs are being driven to the brink of extinction in an attempt to keep up.

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If the book has a villain it's Arsenal and specifically their former vice-chairman, David Dein. Opening at an Arsenal-Chelsea match in 2003, Conn spins back to the formation of the football league and explains how the Gunners ditched their Woolwich-based fans and moved the club to north London and later, possibly, bribed their way into the first division.

After that, David Dein's business background comes under scrutiny, in a section that has been carefully worded for legal reasons, before Conn turns his attention to the way that Arsenal bulldozed through Islington, literally, in the process of building a new stadium. Arsenal need a bigger stadium to provide the cost base to maintain a position in the top four but Conn notes that the Emirates Stadium is considerably smaller than Manchester United's Old Trafford, leaving them still at a disadvantage.

A chapter on Hillsborough, which will probably shock even those who know the story, establishes both the contempt in which the football authorities and club owners hold supporters and the longstanding ineptitude of the Football Association, the supposed guardians of the game at all levels.

The deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough created an appetite for reforming the game. That and the surge in popularity for football created by England's unexpected semi-final place in the 1990 World Cup are popularly thought to have led to the Premier League - a chance for football to become a respectable family game.

But Conn shows that the Premier League plan was developed from the very beginning as a way to enrich the big clubs. The first step was to stop sharing top-flight TV revenue with the rest of football and instead carve it up among themselves. David Dein fronted the bid for the Premier League and when he took the plan to the FA they simply asked how high he would like them to jump. They saw it as a chance to strike a blow in their petty battles with the Football League but, as Conn shows, there were other plans on the table that would have better met football's needs.

The result, almost 20 years later, is a league in which the same four clubs have filled the top four places for the last four seasons. The vast amount of money they can spend on transfer fees and player wages has an inflationary effect that is felt throughout the rest of football. Many clubs are bankrupting themselves in the mistaken belief that they can keep up. Conn gives numerous examples of clubs that have done just that, most notably Bradford City.

Possibly the most eye-opening and infuriating chapter comes at the end, when Conn explains how the Premier League has slowly taken control of the FA. Always pathetically weak, the FA is now little more than a puppet organisation for the big clubs.

Is there any hope? Conn sees some potential in the growing involvement of fans in running lower league football clubs and he focuses particularly on AFC Wimbledon, the fan-run club set up when Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes. The stories of life at some of these smaller clubs - Glossop is another that Conn explores - are heartening and make the book well worth reading. Despite the money-centred modern game, small groups of dedicated fans refuse to let their clubs die.

David Conn's book was written before the Roman Abramovich effect had become clear. The arrival of the Russian robber baron brought billions to Chelsea and bought them a seat at the top table. Money can't guarantee success, as the consortium in charge of Conn's club, Manchester City, has discovered, but it is a prerequisite. Abramovich timed his acquisition perfectly, buying his way in just a season after the number of Champions League places available to English clubs grew to four.

Since Conn's book was last revised - in 2005 - the situation has grown worse. In the 2006-2007 season, revenues for the Big Four averaged £178m. The rest of the Premier League's clubs averaged £50m. [Link to PDF of data.] The data for 2007-2008, due to be published shortly, is likely to show the gap having widened.

All football supporters should read this book. Those who are not Big Four customers will be horrified by what it contains. Those who are will be forced to adopt uncomfortably contorted arguments to justify their having benefited from a deliberately skewed system - 'the other teams aren't trying hard enough' being a current favourite.

The game has been taken away from the fans, the league is now unwinnable by any team without multi-billion-pound backing and it may already be too late to do anything about it.