NAPLES, ITALY - NOVEMBER 22: Mario Balotelli of Manchester City sits on the ground during the Uefa Champions League Group A match between Napoli and Manchester City at Stadio San Paolo on November 22, 2011 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Oh noes! We might not qualify for the Champions League knockout round! CRISIS!
This was going to be a piece about the travails of three of England's most well-loved clubs in the Champions League. I hadn't quite decided which, though: perhaps I could weigh into the Andre Villas-Boas debate, preaching caution and making jokes about straight-speaking, plain-talking, John "calls a spade a spade" Terry*. Or I could turn to the Manchesters, with (on the one hand) seasonal ho-ho-hos at the stumbling of the nouveau riche and (on the other) sorrowful head-shaking at the hiccups of a once-proud European result-machine. (Biased? Moi?) Or perhaps, on a more positive note, the unusual (if not entirely unforeseen) position of Arsenal: the only English team in the Champions League but not In Crisis.
However. While gripped in the throes of creative thought -- that is to say, procrastinatingly furiously -- I came across this piece by Ian King over on Two Hundred Percent, about the increasing concerns over the future of Kettering Town. While you should read the whole piece, in summary the club -- which was founded in 1872 and currently competes in the Blue Square Premier, the fifth tier of English football -- are in trouble. Serious, proper, the money's running out and the chairman wants to sell and most of our players have left kind of trouble. Existential trouble. Trouble that makes the possibility of failing to qualify for the knockout stages of a competition bloated on its own excess look, well, kind of irrelevant. Trouble that warrants the word crisis.
Or does it? Because while what possibly faces Kettering is undoubtedly more serious than the "unthinkables" hanging over England's three nervous giants, part of the implications of the word "crisis" is a universal sense of awareness. A crisis is big. A crisis is something everybody cares about. And if you were to stack up everyone who cares about Kettering Town, and everyone who cares about (say) Manchester United, well, there's THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY THREE MILLION, HONEST, DAVID GILL COUNTED THEM ALL of the latter, and there's only 81,000 people in Kettering, more than a few of whom probably follow the red side of Manchester.
(As an aside, the only thing I personally know about Kettering is a family joke, to be made without fail each time we drove through, past, or near the town. Q: "Do you like Kettering?" A: "I don't know, I've never kettered." It doesn't work so well written down.)
I suppose that's a reflection of the priorities of the world: an old man dies alone without remark while the hair problems of omega-list celebrities clutter the front pages. "Crisis" is a media label, determined by interest rather than severity, and interest is an amalgamation of novelty, glamour, reputation, convenience, and a whole host of other monstrous terms like "saleability". Indeed, that's one of the saddest thing about Kettering's problems: football club in existential peril barely qualifies as news any more.
Wimbledon, of course, was big news, partly because the notion of transplanting a club from one place to another was so alien to English sporting sensibility, and partly because the process served to demonstrate the remarkable contempt in which the fans -- the only part of the club an owner can't destroy, lest we forget -- are held by those who purport to run the game. The rest have, by and large, been too low down the pyramid to comprise much coverage. This is only natural -- newspapers are businesses, and as such are required to chase sales, click-throughs, and so on -- and that's not a problem. Local clubs aren't always national news; "Wenger In/Out" makes sense, even at the sixth time of publication. And would you even be reading this if it had a picture of Kettering next to it?
While it's easy to severely damage a football club, they're bloody difficult things to kill. This is because they exist not only as an aggregation of actual stuff -- ground, players, etc. -- which can be buggered with just a couple of seasons of bad ownership, but also as an idea in the minds of their fans, That idea persists, even when the gates are locked. For the most part -- and there are sad exceptions, of course -- if a club closes, somebody reopens it. Take Rushden & Diamonds (whose recently vacated stadium Kettering are currently having trouble making any money from): expelled from the Conference National in June 2011, AFC R&D entered the Northants Senior Youth League with an U-18's team this season and are aiming to put out a senior side the next. They're lower down the pyramid and they haven't even got a first team yet, but they're a club again.
If Kettering fold, will AFC Kettering rise in their place? Maybe, maybe not. But the important thing about such clubs is that while they are brilliant in themselves -- true demonstrations of the fact that football can create and sustain communities -- they always follow disaster. If you've got a phoenix, after all, something's gone wrong, whether it be Rushden & Diamonds, Wimbledon, Chester, wherever ... somebody, somewhere, burned something to the ground.
And while Kettering's troubles may not be a CRISIS in their own right -- at least not to anybody outside the club -- it is a part of the larger crisis that is flourishing within the game. Everything is connected. The problems at Kettering are of a type with those that humbled Leeds, that bedevil Portsmouth, that are grumbling around Birmingham: distant, selfish owners, divorced from the fans, and overseen -- if you can call it that -- by a supine Football Association so lacking in teeth that it's been off solids longer than I've been on them.
Back to our stumbling giants. Of England's four representatives in the Champions League, only Arsenal are the ones with a relatively stable financial future (and even that is contingent on enough people paying the highest prices to watch football anywhere). Manchester United are weighed deeply in the red, while Manchester City and Chelsea both thrive on the whim of a rich patron, and a quick glance north of the border to Gretna will show you just how precarious that can be. As was reported recently, 56% of the debt of Europe's football clubs can be found in England, yet the stretch continues. Bigger wages, bigger fees, and bigger debts. This is the crisis, and it rumbles on. And the sadness is that while there is a greater interest in fan ownership than ever, for so many clubs the only chance the fans will ever get is when they are left to pick up the pieces after the sky's fallen in.