It wasn’t that long ago that our opponents tomorrow, Aston Villa, were one of the big hitters in the Premier League. I can remember when they were consistently finishing in the top six with the target every year of breaking into the ‘big four’. Back then, of course, the ‘big four’ consisted of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, with other teams so far away from them financially that many didn’t think that things would ever change. Since the birth of the Premier League (or Premiership as it used to be called), Aston Villa have been one of many teams who threatened at the top of the table for a while, before dramatically slipping down the league and eventually being relegated in 2016.
In the first season of the newly established Premier League (1992-93), Villa finished second only to Manchester United, with Dean Saunders, pictured above, finishing as their top goalscorer. Of the teams who participated in the top division of English football that season, only nine of them now remain there. This figure is all the more surprising given that the league then consisted of 22 teams, meaning that an incredible thirteen clubs who played there 25 years ago are now competing in the Championship, League One, League Two or might not even exist anymore in the same way (AFC Wimbledon). Back then, every manager in the Premier League was from the UK or Ireland, and clubs were generally supportive with there being far fewer managerial sackings than there are now. Today, the Premier League is much more diverse in its personnel, managers seem to be sacked after a 6 game winless run (or four if you are Frank de Boer) and the people at the top are perhaps more interested in money and TV audience figures than the people who pay into the stadiums every week. It’s heartbreaking to the true football fan, but there really is a disconnect between the top clubs and their fans.
It isn’t true in all cases, and we can still see the passion from the fans and players alike, but too often we see players who just don’t appear all that interested any more. People might say that the face of football has changed and we just have to get on with it, but I say that the change goes much deeper than the face and what we can physically see. Don’t get me wrong, many of the changes are changes for the better, like the incredible global audience that can now be reached through international TV deals, pre-season tours around the world and then the amazing power of social media, but I’m not alone in arguing that some of the changes are for the worse. The gap between player and fan is massive, and because of this there is a danger that football has moved away from the people who truly keep it alive- the spectators. The money being pumped in at one end, is now having to be matched, in a sense, by the people who love it the most, the fans. Prices for replica kit and match day tickets are increasing making it harder and harder for people to stay in touch, while there are players on the pitch who think that it is OK to refuse to train if they don’t get the exact contract that they want, something that the majority of us wouldn’t dare to do as it would result in getting sacked for our jobs. Money dominates the game, and this is both a good and a bad thing. The good side of it has allowed clubs to improve their squads, bring in the right backroom staff and has dramatically improved the sports science and the technology side of the game that has then went and improved it on an entertainment level. But on the complete opposite side of the scale it has resulted in clubs that people love actually being forced to close down. This, to me, is an absolute travesty. We desperately need to get back to the days when money doesn’t dominate, I just don’t know if it will ever really happen.
Both Fulham and Aston Villa have been clubs who struggled because of factors behind the scenes, factors that at the very root of it stem from money. However, both clubs seem to be coming out on the other end and are determined to make it back to the Premier League in the coming seasons. Both teams have passionate players and fans who will combine to make tomorrow’s game into what football used to be. With Villa losing their remarkable winning run last week to a strong Wolves side, and Fulham just about claiming a point against Preston, both teams will be focused on getting the win, meaning that we should be in for a dramatic affair tomorrow. Football has changed dramatically because of the money involved, but we can still love it and work together to bring it back to the passionate game that it used to be.