Contro il calcio moderno

Anyone who has followed English football closely in recent years will have nodded along grimly with last night's Panorama [available on iPlayer for the next 12 months, it seems], which examined the game's worrying reliance on debt. There was little that was new but a few nuggets made the programme worth watching. Reporter John Sweeney focused on Manchester United and the debts loaded onto it by the Glazer family. He explored the Glazer's finances and raised questions about levels of debt across their business empire.

It wasn't surprising that the Glazers and Manchester United refused to speak to Panorama but I was surprised that the FA, the Premier League and the new sports minister all declined to be interviewed. It's a measure of how seriously the football authorities take the problem that they couldn't be bothered to provide a talking head, even to argue that everything is fine.

It was hard, though, to muster much sympathy for the aggrieved Manchester United fans who popped up throughout the programme. Having hoovered up trophy after trophy as the Premier League's Big Four carved up English football among themselves, they're now realising that there's a bill to pay for their gluttony. Sorry lads, that's modern football and it's the monster you have spent 20 years creating.

Club after club has gone to the wall over the last two decades (with surprisingly little protest from Manchester United fans) and football's finances have not yet been reformed. Perhaps nothing will happen until a big club goes under. In that sense at least, Manchester United has my full support.

Another long rant about competitiveness in the Premier League (with numbers!)

It's time for my annual moan about the Premier League and how it's killing English football. There are a variety of approaches one can take to make this case. Anyone who prefers the financial approach would be advised to read David Conn's The Beautiful Game?, which I wrote about last year at 26 Books. I prefer to look at competition. Last weekend Chelsea won the Premier League, making them English football champions for the third time in six seasons. Yesterday they added the FA Cup to their haul. Chelsea have won the Cup six times altogether - three of their four wins in the Premier League era have come in the last four years.

Winning both trophies means that they have completed 'the Double'. That used to be quite a feat. Between 1889 and 1992 just five clubs managed it. Since the 1992-93 season, the Premier League's first, there have been six Doubles - Chelsea's this season, Arsenal in 1998 and 2002 and Manchester United in 1994, 1996 and 1999. In other words, something that used to happen once every 20 years or so now happens, on average, every three years.

The fact that four of those Doubles were won in the 90s could be seen as a sign that the Premier League is opening up but other evidence suggests that is not the case.

Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated English football since the 1992-1993 season. Here's how each competition breaks down:

Premier League
Winning clubs: 4
Big Four trophies: 17 of 18

FA Cup
Winning clubs: 6
Big Four wins: 16 of 18

League Cup
Winning clubs: 9
Big Four wins: 10 of 18

Eleven different clubs have won the Premier League, the FA Cup or the League Cup in the 18 seasons since the Premier League began. Out of 54 possible trophies, the Big Four have lifted 43.

And how did the previous 18 seasons compare?

League
Winning clubs: 7

FA Cup
Winning clubs: 10

League Cup
Winning clubs: 11

A total of 19 different clubs won trophies in those years. The league and FA Cup were almost twice as competitive. Only the League Cup had a similar number of winners.

Are things getting less competitive? In the first nine seasons of the Premier League the Big Four won 20 of a possible 27 trophies. Since then they've won 23 of a possible 27. I don't know whether that's statistically significant but it's certainly not encouraging.

For the last two seasons Chelsea and Manchester United between them have won all three major English trophies. It's too early to call that a trend but perhaps the Big Four is becoming a Big Two.

Gunn smoked

Well I expected him to get sacked but not quite that quickly. Like Nich Starling I think it was the right decision but made at a strange time. It's as if the board spent the week unsure whether to be patient or give in to their anger after the first result. They made it as far as Friday afternoon and then snapped. And next? Who knows. I'd like someone with experience of getting a club out of this division. For all his shortcomings, I think Gunn has assembled a good squad. Let's hope his successor can get them to play to their best.

I won't miss Gunn as manager but it is a sad end to a great career with Norwich. Whatever his next move is, I wish him every success.

Every Gunn gets fired eventually

Last season, Norwich City were relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in 50 years. Yesterday, in the first match of the season, Bryan Gunn's team managed to make a bad situation worse. They were beaten 7-1 by Colchester, the worst home defeat in the club's 107-year history.

Back in May, with Gunn about to make the step up from caretaker manager to full-time boss, I wrote:

I can't be confident in a manager who sends a team out in a must-win game and sees them three goals down within 30 minutes. Ultimately, the responsibility for that lies with the players but it raises concerns about Gunn's ability to prepare and motivate his team.

Those concerns are more serious today. Twenty-two minutes into yesterday's match Norwich were four goals down. Gunn needs to learn to organise and motivate a team and he needs to learn quickly. If he doesn't he won't be in the job very long.

Last night Gunn said: "You have to win the right to get the fans' approval here."

Approval? Do you know how far from approval you are? Get a map and find Norwich. Imagine Norwich is approval. Now imagine you're on the moon. That's how far from approval you are.

Next Saturday Norwich are away to an impressive, newly-promoted Exeter. Let's set some benchmarks for success in that match. First, if we must lose - and I fear we must - let's try to lose by fewer than six goals. Second, let's try really hard to still be in the match after 30 minutes. Does that sound manageable?

Forget "approval", Bryan. Just try to get a team out that isn't a laughing stock come the final whistle.

Why Barcelona are better than Manchester United (regardless of tonight's result)

From David Conn in the Guardian comes a good article about what makes Barcelona such a great club: they are owned by their supporters. Alfons Godall, Barcelona's vice president, puts it perfectly: "We are free. We do not depend on a Mr Abramovich. We want to be successful but also to have meaning, social values. I am sure fans of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal would like to be in our situation. But they have passed the point of no return; they are customers, not members."

It's worth reading the full article to understand the extent to which Barcelona is a club to be proud of, while United should shame its supporters. The former elected the people who run their club, the latter saw their club sold against their wishes and then mortgaged to the hilt:

"United's record turnover after winning the Premier League and European Cup was turned into a £42.7m loss because they paid £69m interest, on the loans the Glazers took out to buy the club in the first place. Three years after that takeover the £559m they borrowed had grown, with costs and rolled-up interest owed to hedge funds, to £700m."

Conn quotes a Manchester United spokesman who, in a fine example of point-missing, claims to have found a flaw in the Barcelona model: "We are committed to selling TV rights collectively and, if we did not, it would be at the expense of clubs like Wigan, Hull and Bolton and would seriously weaken the Premier League."

Good point. Imagine a Premier League in which Wigan, Hull and Bolton were unable to compete.

Oh, wait. You don't need to imagine - we've got one.