Most people already know the Premier League’s origin story by heart and can sketch the outline of its ascent to becoming a global powerhouse. From an under-nourished game played in creaking, pre-war grounds, British football rose to become an international behemoth, setting a new standard for the commercialisation of sport.
But much of the detail is missing, as are many of the shades of grey. The Club, a collaboration between Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg (both of The Wall Street Journal) offers a vivid portrait of those early days, but also a candid account of the league’s imperialist present and likely future. At times, it’s almost fly-on-the-wall in its level of detail, even taking the reader inside the initial negotiations between the breakaway cabal, ITV and what would later become BSkyB. Few would find being in bed with Rupert Murdoch an appealing prospect but that, to the book’s great strength, is where it begins.
Fundamentally, this is an honest appraisal of what the Premier League is in every sense. Richard Scudamore is apportioned plenty of credit for its rise and the account of how he diversified the broadcasting contract is very compelling, so too the means by which he evolved the competition’s sponsorship model to maximise its earning capacity. Robinson and Clegg also do a fine job of unravelling the knot of charatacters and motivations which have also instructed that progress, and take time to explore the stories of those who have been drawn to its lights only to suffer at the hand of its realities. The chapters dealing with Randy Lerner and the Glazer family are particularly excellent, as is the retelling of Thaksin Shinawatra’s demise. As a whole, it’s a more complicated story than often appreciated and it’s well handled throughout.
But the authors are never wilfully blind to what has been created. Or even why and how. The mechanisms and ideas used to instruct the game’s growth are, quite correctly, traced back to the models employed by American sports. It’s a repeating theme. By the time the book reaches the present day and the appearance of pre-season, money-harvesting tours, the International Champions Cup and, most regrettably, Charlie Stillitano, football’s ‘vision’ is still being shown as over-reliant on imported operating procedures.
In the latter chapters, which deal case-by-case with the many takeovers of clubs encouraged by the Premier League’s prosperity, some of the assessments are more stark. For obvious reasons, many of which are currently playing out on the pages of Der Spiegel, Gloucester Place’s eagerness to embrace foreign investment and look away from nebulous intentions or moral red flags is treated with an appropriately raised eyebrow. So this is a very fair account, but it’s a very complete one too; given how over-discussed and over-covered the Premier League is, it’s quite an achievement to produce a piece of work which adds to the collective understanding of the competition’s fabric.