By Mark Docherty
For most people New Year’s Eve represents a chance to let the hair down and look to see in the new year with a wave of optimism, but for the football world it can have a host of different meanings. Some can look back at the positive memories their club has made in the past twelve months, while others try to drink their past year into distant memory. For some, the new year offers the opportunity to recruit new players in the transfer window, while others must desperately fend off interest in key men. Every fan of every team will look at the end of the calendar year in a slightly different way, but I am going to look at the impact the past year has had on the game as a whole. In ten, twenty, fifty years, how will this this year be remembered? What will be the legacy of 2017?
Finances in football have continued to rise beyond control, and the world transfer record was broken once again in the summer as Neymar made the move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for £200 million. However, I find it unlikely that this will still be remembered a decade in the future, as the continued rise in transfer fees suggests that Neymar’s move will no longer be a record by the time people are looking back at 2017. The fact remains, however, that football’s governing body has once again failed to use this year to bring the sums of money in the game under control. Not only has nothing been done, but the signs are not good for the future: Sky and BT Sport have gained a greater monopoly of Premier League television rights, with an agreement in place for an extra match to be shown each week at 7:45 on Saturday each week. There is also resentment within some of the Premier League clubs, with grumbling from some of the top six that the distribution of television money is unfair. A Premier League Match was moved to a Sunday so it could be shown live in India but not in Britain. Not only has the chance been missed for 2017 to be remembered as the year when football was brought closer to the working supporter, but it has arguably allowed the game to be taken even further away.
2017 has also seen the role of sponsors change in football, both positively and negatively. Sponsorship has been creeping into a bigger role within football clubs, with subtle changes coming into play. It is no longer uncommon for teams to have sponsors on the shoulders of their shirts, with Everton announcing such a partnership with ‘Angry Birds’ during this year, among other clubs. The League Cup has also drawn headlines for its partnership with Carabao which has seen draws being made in China in the middle of the night in British time. There are even tentative propositions that sponsors could allow competitive matches to be played abroad in the future, despite the clear inconvenience this would have on supporters. However, although sponsorship is playing a greater role in some areas, there are other aspects of football which are becoming less reliant on advertising. The Premier League chose not to agree sponsorship when its deal with Barclays expired, meaning that it has chosen respectability over another cash injection. Similarly, the FA has outlined its intentions to make the game less reliant on the gambling industry. After Joey Barton pointed out the hypocrisy in the close relationship between football and bookmakers, steps are being taken to distance the game from such organisations. In some ways 2017 has seen the game become even more reliant on sponsors, but in others we are starting to see those in charge prioritise legitimacy above finances.
The past year has also seen League One and League Two clubs vote in favour of continuing the Checkatrade Trophy in its current format. After last season’s trial, clubs agreed to accept a format of the tournament which includes Premier League Category One academy teams along with EFL teams. Attendances at matches have been simply appalling, especially when under 23 sides are involved, with some games being watched by fewer than 1000 people. The aim of the format is to give young England players of the future the chance to face up against seasoned football league professionals, but I have my doubts over whether the Trophy will make any considerable difference in bringing through the stars of the future. Premier League under 23 teams have fielded such young English players as Michy Batshuayi, Charlie Adam, Ibrahim Afellay and Leonardo Ulloa. I’d be prepared to wager that none of them makes England’s World Cup squad. While the old Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was hardly the biggest deal, it at least did not demean lower league clubs by forcing them to line up against academy sides. While I understand that a democratic decision was taken by EFL clubs to include the Premier League academy teams, I feel it is a shame that so many were happy to accept the FA’s cash incentives to support the competition. 2017 may well be remembered for failing to put a stop to the Checkatrade Trophy and possibly even, god forbid, bringing Premier League B teams one step closer to inclusion in the EFL.
I realise that this article has been rather depressing so far, but I will finish with a truly positive achievement for which the year should always be remembered. 2017 saw football supporters show that, for an overwhelming majority, hooliganism has been left firmly in the past and that the game can bring people together all around the country. For evidence of this, one only needs to think back to the story of a Bradley Lowery, who tragically died this year. Thousands of pounds were raised for the young Sunderland fan, who was also able to befriend Jermain Defoe and lead England out at Wembley. The five year-old received hundreds of birthday cards from supporters he had never met, and when he died his funeral was held in the theme of football shirts, with fans and clubs throughout the leagues paying their respects. Football fans have a reputation for being antisocial and violent, but their reaction to Bradley Lowery – as well as to terror attacks which have taken place over the year – has shown that the overwhelming majority are great people capable of making a truly positive difference. 2017 should be remembered for discrediting the stereotype of football fans as hooligans and setting in motion the idea of football being a means of bringing about change for the better.
2017 has been a mixed year for the development of the game, with some aspects improving and others deteriorating. Financially there is little to be optimistic about in terms of the future if the game, although some progress is starting to be made in distancing football from sponsors. The Checkatrade Trophy is one of the worst things to have happened to the game this year, but although clubs and competitions have not had a year to remember, 2017 has allowed supporters to come into their own. Football fans can look back in years to come and be truly proud.