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Phil Soar: What I’ve learned about football

by Phil Soar

Although I often give speeches and presentations about the exhibition industry, if a chairman mentions my CV no one then ever asks about dull boring trade shows. Instead I get questions about football. ‘Why don’t Spurs ever win anything?’, ‘what’s Alex Ferguson like?’, ‘can we borrow your European Cup?’, ‘are Liverpool the greatest team in the history of the galaxy’ and other such gems?

So, for a change in EN, let me tell you some of the things I learned from football.

You don’t know anything about the game

Even though I had written about, and commentated on, football for 25 years before buying Nottingham Forest, the first thing I learned is that I knew very little about it. As soon as I got involved I realised I had little idea about the subtleties of three or four at the back, or why a manager kept playing a midfielder I thought was useless, or the dominant utter importance of the line – the offside line defenders had to maintain together to find a forward offside. Thirty percent of all training sessions were devoted to the line.

I went to matches with my managers (Frank Clark, Dave Bassett, Paul Hart, Stuart Pearce, Ron Atkinson) and listened to them explaining what was happening on the field, why teams lined up the way they did (note how Liverpool start a game with their defenders almost in the centre circle) , who were the real danger men on the other side. Just seeing where the full backs started a game at kick off told you how a team were going to play.

Don’t mark the weakest player on the other side

I picked up subtleties like deciding who was the weakest player on the opposition team, and then deliberately not having anyone mark him (in case it isn’t obvious, if he wasn’t marked then the ball would be passed to him more often). If Forest had a tough away game Clough would make sure they wasted time at the start of the match, not at the end. The referee wasn’t going to book them a few minutes into the match, and 30 seconds wasted then was as valuable as 30 seconds wasted in time added-on.

Dave Bassett would often catch me out with a simple question about a player – is he right or left footed? Ask yourself that question about your team’s opponents next week.

There are two parallel world’s of football which hardly ever meet

This is vital to understand for anyone involved in running a club. The two worlds are the ‘real’ world and the world of the back pages. A good analogy is all of those ghost stories which have a family of ghosts living in the same house as a human family – the two occupy the same space but don’t interact.

Many times I have talked to supporters’ groups who had followed the club for perhaps four decades. They knew everything the newspapers had ever written about the club and knew the ‘ghost world’ really well. But that wasn’t the real world. And it was almost impossible to convince these supporters that the reality is different from their perceptions – to do so would be to pull down decades of sincere belief.

There are numerous examples I could name. One involved the club captain, an England centre-back who played for Forest in the early 2000s. We sold him to Middlesbrough for£ 5 million and incurred the wrath of the fans. They couldn’t understand it, and we did not want to explain why. The truth was that the manager couldn’t get the player to fit with ‘the line’. Though he was in many ways a very good player, he was not the fastest. So he had a tendency to hang back a couple of metres to give him space and time to defend against a Thierry Henry or a Michael Owen. This had the effect of making ‘the line’ crooked and allowed fast forwards to beat the offside trap. Other managers spotted this, and told their forwards to work on it. We couldn’t say any of this because clubs never reveal that sort of thing. The fans thought the Board was to blame and were just grabbing money to spend on heaven knows what. We never said it was entirely the manager’s decision.

The newspapers and the sports channels have to fill vast amounts of paper and time every day. They have to generate ‘opinions’ and ‘facts’ from the smallest tit bits of information (clubs no longer talk openly to the media). And readers remember what they want to remember – and thus live in a parallel universe.

Fans can’t cope with rejection

The dedicated fan – and these are the ones who make the noise – has a relationship with their club which is not unlike a romance. Winning the FA Cup, or a promotion or (in my case) two European Cups really will be among the three or four most emotional moments of their lives. Football is about provincialism, and the connection to a club, which may well be the only thing about your town which the world knows, reinforces something akin to patriotism.

Fans often (if not always) think they know what is best for the club. I have sat in many supporters’ club meetings and been abused for not having signed Thierry Henry or Eric Cantona when it was obvious to them that was the player the club needed. I have been told numerous times that we should have player contracts which halve their salaries if the club is relegated (try that one on the agent of a player you want to sign – he will just go elsewhere it is only players other clubs don’t want who would sign such a contract) – and the fact that we don’t do what the fans suggest shows we have no idea what we are doing.

Fans feel these things – and the fact that we should both spend more on players but reduce ticket prices simultaneously – strongly and indeed emotionally.

Their relationship with the club is not that unlike a love affair with a boy or girlfriend. And if they feel their club is ignoring them or doesn’t understand the depth of their emotion, they react in some ways as they would to a broken love affair. The emotions can be intense and their antipathy to their spurned lover deep and even damaging.

Players are not as they appear on television

Non-insiders are often surprised when they meet players: ‘He’s not at all like I expected. He is much nicer and much more articulate.’ This has become more true in the last 25 years. Before then players would speak to the press, particularly the local papers, and appear at local functions like school sports days. Even in my time, some players would go to games on the bus. Bobby Moore came to a book launch for Martin Tyler and myself on the tube.

Players are just like you and me – only they are fitter and better at football. They are a normal cross section of young men. They really don’t go out at night getting drunk, nor crashing fast sports cars with blonde gold diggers in the passenger seat. In fact, they are far less likely to do this than any cross section of young men. They take their health very seriously indeed – as they have to.

Since the 1990s the tabloids, and in particular The Sun and Mirror, have treated footballers as part of the celebrity culture and tried to document any moment of silliness or marital strife. But footballers are not young film stars or actors who are looking for publicity at any cost and employ PR people to make sure they are photographed outside night clubs. It is inevitable that if the only stories the public reads are of the Gazza variety, then they will assume a small sample is typical of the whole. It is not.

It was really the Gazza phenomenon of the 1990s, nurtured by Rebecca Wade at The Sun and Piers Morgan at The Mirror, which tracked every move, and many non-moves, of a vulnerable young man who happened to have been brilliant at Italia 90, which helped turn much of football away from the media.

“We take it one game at a time”

Nowadays players are trained about how to answer questions, and how to avoid talking to the press at all. Despite the obsession with the game, how often do you see serious in depth pieces about a player or manager? What you do see are pages fillers, quotes and anecdotes picked up from elsewhere to give the impression of inside knowledge. Players give the same answers to the same questions: ‘We take it one game at a time. Yes, the boys played well. No, I didn’t see the penalty incident. City gave us a good game and are too good to go down. It’s 11 men against 11. I definitely want to stay and play here – it’s up to the club now. I never read reports of the match.’

You learn nothing from these interviews, and it is something of an insult that TV keeps showing them. They rarely reveal anything of the players’ personalities, which is why when outsiders meet them they are often surprised at how articulate and interesting they really are. And I particularly include players who’s first language isn’t English. If you get a chance, find a Fernandino interview.

All players have now come to believe that anything they do or say might be twisted by journalists simply looking for a story today, and never mind about tomorrow. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s many players had close friends in the press corps, who could be relied on to give good advice and never to reveal anything untoward. For the press man, this gave access to what was really going on and allowed them to be much more analytical and accurate about a club, without damaging the reputation of a friend. Norman Giller has recently written a book about his close friend Jimmy Greaves, perhaps England’s greatest ever goalscorer, but a man who struggled with alcohol for much of his life. Norman was a great confidant and help to Jimmy (and also a good friend to the likes of Martin and myself directing us to interesting stories on the promise that nothing harmful would be said).

Fans often don’t see what is in front of their eyes

Let me give a simple example, though one from a quarter century ago. John McGovern was the Forest captain who lifted two European Cups, one of only two British club captains to do so twice. He was integral to Clough’s League winning teams at Derby and Forest, but never played for Scotland. He was a defensive midfielder often nicknamed the octopus.

He had an uncanny knack of predicting where the opposition would play the ball and intercepting it. But quite often he would just get to the ball and it would come off his shin or knee and would not be under control. Fans sitting along the sides of the pitch would interpret this as a player who had simply failed to control the ball. But his team-mates saw it differently. Basically he had stopped an attack and prevented a ball reaching an opposing forward. If the through ball had passed him by, fans on the side of the pitch would not criticize him – all they saw was a good attacking pass by the opposition. So for them, John would have had a better game if he had not made those interceptions.

Why Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick

A more famous example, though from the mists of time, was England’s 4-2 defeat of West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. Roger Hunt, at the time Liverpool’s leading scorer, appeared to have quiet game which some described as anonymous. Hunt was always irritated by this. Germany had an excellent sweeper – Willi Schulz (Beckenbauer was not the sweeper, something the English press often got wrong). Alf Ramsey, the England manager, saw Schulz’s abilities in the middle of the German defence as one of the major threats to England. So he asked Roger Hunt, an out and out goalscorer, to do the unexpected, to sacrifice himself and mark the sweeper Schulz. This was an unheard of tactic and threw the German team off balance. But it meant that Hunt hardly had a chance in the game. One of the main reasons for Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick was that Ramsey’s tactic with Hunt created more space for Hurst. But see if you can find that in any of the thousands of reports about the game.

The best team lost. All the rest is gossip

We’ve seen a lot of such headlines since the Man City/Real Madrid tie. It is nonsense of course. I recall sitting in a post-match interview with Jimmy Sirrell, manager of Notts County whom he took into the top league. County had just won a game 1-0 when the opposition had dominated the match. “Don’t you agree the best team lost Jimmy?” came the inevitable question. Jimmy rarely said much: “The best team is the one that scores more goals. All the rest is gossip.”

Anyone watching football should never forget this. Read the rules of the game.

What the bidding for Chelsea actually tell us

The real significance has been missed. In England we seem to be seeing the takeover of an English football by US private equity. But look at it as if you are sitting in New York.

In 2021 the American (Football League) Superbowl was won by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their owners, the Glazers, also own Manchester United. In 2022 the Superbowl was won by the Los Angeles Rams. Their owner? Stan Kroenke, who also owns Arsenal. The Boston Red Sox won the Baseball World Series in 2013 and 2018. Their principal owner? John Henry, who also owns Liverpool. The chosen buyer for Chelsea is Todd Boehly, who also owns the Los Angeles Dodgers – World Series winners in 2020 and runner-up in 2017 and 2018. 66% of Boehly’s bid for Chelsea is funded by private equity – some £3 million – which can only load debt on the club in the way the Glazers did with United.

This stunning correlation between the winning teams in US sport and the top of the Premier League seems to have passed most commentators by. Assuming Boehly succeeds, only one of England’s five seriously competitive clubs will not be owned by a major, winning, US sports operator – Manchester City (I discount Spurs from this group).

By 2026 us rights for the Premier League will cost more than the UK rights

How has this happened? You need to travel to the US to get your head around it. NBC has just paid $2.5bn for the rights to Premier League football. When I am at home in Florida I can watch every single Premier League match, plus much of the Rugby Premiership as well. NBC loves English football because games kick off at 07.30 Eastern time (04.30 LA time), 10am and noon. Weekday matches kick off at 3pm New York time. Thus they have no competition – baseball, basketball and the like are shown much later in the day. Bars in New York are full at 7 in the morning, with fans bedding down for seven hours of soccer. NBC shows many games on its principle free to air channel – not on a sports channel. This does not happen in England.

With Amazon increasingly in the game for soccer rights, it is perfectly possible that US broadcasters will soon pay more for the Premier League than Sky does for UK rights. And this is enhanced by the relationships – the Rams own Arsenal, the Dodgers own Chelsea, the Red Sox own Liverpool, the Buccaneers (with the great Tom Brady at quarter-back) own United.  This isn’t visible in the UK, but it certainly is in the US.

Private equity (generically) believes that Premier League clubs are undervalued compared with US sports franchises – and the massive viewing figures for soccer mean that the Premier League is now viewed as a US franchise (Premier League viewing figures now surpass ice hockey, traditionally the fourth American sport).

US owners will bring the American franchise model closer

The difference is, of course, that all American sports are closed shops. When you buy a franchise, you cannot lose it. There is no promotion or relegation. You can have a terrible season, but you still share the revenues in the same way as the winning club. Core TV rights are shared equally and, odd though it may seem, if you buy a Dallas Cowboys shirt the money goes equally to all 32 teams. My interactions have led me to believe that many of the US bidders don’t really understand that a soccer team can be relegated. I don’t mean intellectually – it is obvious – but viscerally. They come from a different tradition where the concept does not exist and where sport means the US model, not the European one.

We must not underestimate how much the ill-fated European Super League was driven by the American owners of United, Liverpool and Arsenal – even if they allowed Real Madrid and Juventus to be the front men. The objective was simply to create a US style franchise system – the key to it being no promotion and relegation.

And that proposition will not disappear – it will come again.

As a sidebar, what about the German, French, Italian and Spanish Leagues? For a number of reasons they just don’t much feature in the US. To a large degree it is because they are not competitive. Bayern Munchen have won the last 10 German Championships, Paris St Germain have won nine of the last 11 French leagues, Barca and Real have won 16 of the last 18 La Ligas. There is also the simple language issue. For reasons outside its control, the Premier League has become, by default, the fourth American sport.

US private equity believes that it is cheaper to buy a top Premier League franchise than a baseball or American football one, and that the US market will make them even more valuable in the future.

Don’t be surprised if the Glazers put united up for £6 billion

But remember one thing – the greater fool theory. Investors buy such assets because they believe that one day someone will pay even more for them (we can exclude “prestige” purchases like Manchester City and PSG which were made for geo-political purposes). No-one cannot be sure this will be the case. My counter-view is that Chelsea are not the “megaclub” the bidders seem to believe. Chelsea is not Liverpool, United or Arsenal – the three great clubs of English history. It is not the Yankees or the Dodgers or Real Madrid.

I am intrigued to see how this plays out. A prediction? The Glazers, looking at the £4bn price tag on Chelsea, will put Manchester United up for sale at £5bn or £6bn soon.

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