MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 14: A general view of the Barclays Premier League winner's badge on a Manchester City shirt during the victory parade around the streets of Manchester on May 14, 2012 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
You can argue that Manchester City have bought the title. You can also argue that it was ever thus. But if they're not the first club do so, they're certainly the richest.
After the victory, the carping. If it was inevitable that Manchester City were going to win the title before too long, and it was, then it was equally inevitable that their victory would be followed by a susurrus of voices casting doubt upon the validity of their triumph. Those of you that hoped we'd got all of this out of the way with Chelsea, or maybe even with Blackburn before them, are going to have to resign yourselves to another tilt around the carousel of snark and counter-snark:
MUFC fan: "You bought the title."
MCFC fan: "Yeah, but you did it first."
MUFC fan: "Yeah, but you had the title bought for you."
Chelsea fan: *innocent whistle*
Arsenal fan: *sob*
Blackburn fan: "Ah, memories ..."
Liverpool fan: "Net spend!"
You can make a very good case that money earned is better than money given, and so assert that "buying the title" through the remorseless hiking of ticket prices and hawking of advertising space is morally superior to simply catching the eye of a very rich man who wants to sit in a comfortable chair while people he owns run around for his amusement. That's a different question. The provenance of the money is debatable; the necessity of it is not, and is the tragedy. It is now virtually impossible to conceive of an English league champion that hasn't built their triumph on vast quantities of cold, hard cash. And while it is true that spending money doesn't guarantee success -- hi Leeds! -- this slides weakly past the point: not spending money definitely guarantees not-success. The rich can always fail, but the poor can never succeed.
Of course, the connection between money and power is as old as money itself; one pertinent example, as pointed out by Jonathan Wilson on T*****r, is that Manchester United were given £60,000 in 1909 by one of their owners, John Henry Davies. They won their second title shortly afterwards. Liverpool weren't shy of paying for their talent through the seventies and the eighties, and before them Everton were known as the Mersey Millionaires thanks to the generosity of chairman, Sir John Moores. To carp about bought titles is, it would appear, to carp about the rule rather than the exception.
But to just accept that -- plus ca change -- is to lose sight of the importance of degree. To put this all another way, the problem is not that success can and has been bought -- it can, in anything. O blessed world! -- but that the number of people capable of buying success has shrunk and is shrinking further. Should Glazernomics roll out to its logical, post-Ferguson conclusion, then the Premier League might amount, in fairly short order, to a constituency of one.
The difference is in the scale. Following inflation, £60,000 in 1909 is the equivalent of around £5.6m now, which these days wouldn't even buy you Roger Johnson. Davies, whose money was used to fund the move to Old Trafford, was a wealthy man by local and maybe even national standards, the chairman of various brewing companies and linked via his wife to the Tate sugar fortune. Sheikh Mansour, on the other hand, topped FourFourTwo's 2011/12 football rich list with an estimated fortune of £20bn. The £930m that City have spent would have been worth around £9.8m in 1909. Maybe the title has always been bought. But rarely have so few been able to afford it.
Let's think ahead to next season. Either Manchester United will buy some new players and win (possibly), or Manchester City will buy some new players and win (probably), and the year after that the same. Their closest rival, after all, finished nineteen points behind, and are about to lose their best player. UEFA's FFP may work, or it may not; most likely, it will simply fossilise the pre-existing hierarchies. There will never be a Premier League Montpellier. As things stand, here is a league with precisely one model for success, a model that is now beyond the reach of almost all its participants. The shirt colour may have changed, and the trophy may be on the other side of the city, but the Premier League continues, and becomes ever more itself.