European Super League: Why all football fans should prefer watching non-league at Portsmouth’s Burnabayou than the Super League at the Bernabeu!

It was a moment of pure, undiluted joy and one the brains - I use the term loosely - behind the proposed European Super League would find hard to fully appreciate; the money men would struggle to understand the raw emotions involved.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 3:23 pm
Not the Burnabayou - Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.

At around 2pm last Saturday Tom Jeffes stepped up to convert the penalty against former club Christchurch that sent US Portsmouth through to the fifth round of the FA Vase.

As he wheeled away, arms out wide, he soon disappeared, swamped by his jubilant team-mates and club officials. Within seconds, the cries of ‘Wembley, Wembley, we’re the famous USP and we’re going to Wembley’ could probably have been heard by any shoppers leaving Gunwharf Quays.

USP aren’t going to Wembley. Well, not yet anyway. Having won five FA Vase ties now, they still need to win three more to book a dream trip to the national stadium. But the factual accuracy of the song isn’t important; it’s the passion it contains which sums up everything sport, at any level, should be.

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US Portsmouth players celebrate FA Vase victory over Christchurch. Picture: Martyn White

‘Should’ being the operative word here.

Prior to the penalty, as Jeffes strolled forward from the halfway line to take his spot-kick, a few things could well have been going through his mind.

The financial rewards for scoring would not have been one of them.

The Victory Stadium, Portsea Island, is of course far, far removed from the glamour, glitz and obscene wealth of the Champions League (involving, lest we forget, lots of clubs that aren’t champions of their own league).

Portsmouth's FA Cup win 2008 is one of only five occasions in the last 16 seasons when a member of the so-called 'top six' has not won either the Premier League title, the FA Cup or the League Cup.

US, tongue wedged firmly in cheek, like to call their ground the ‘Burnabayou’, a reference to the fact their ground at HMS Temeraire is on Burnaby Road, and in homage to Real Madrid’s slightly more famous Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

In similar fashion, some Bognor Regis fans have rechristened the Rocks’ Nyewood Lane ground as the Nye Camp - a nod to the sporting cathedral which is Barcelona’s Nou Camp. Up in Scotland, Northend Thistle’s pitch - surrounded by grazing sheep – is known as the Ewe Camp.

Such witticisms sum up the non-league scene. There is little glamour, little glory and - as many chairmen will all too happily tell you - little money either. But there is a warmth, a passion, a humour, a love of the sport, which has sadly long been lost among those who stalk the corridors of power in Europe’s elite.

I know this for sure - the players, fans, officials, volunteers at USP and Bognor, and all the English non-league clubs like them, are the beating heart of Pele’s beautiful game, not the bean counters at Liverpool, Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Guess how much USP received from the Vase prize pot for beating Christchurch?

£1,875.

Had US lost the shoot-out, they’d have pocketed £600. The fifth round of the FA Vase, it’s fair to say, is not up there with the Championship play-off final as one of English football’s richest games.

Having won through five Vase rounds - the same amount that Chelsea and Leicester have done to reach the FA Cup final - USP’s total winnings so far stand at a mighty £5,050.

If Paul Pogba really does trouser a £290,000 a week pay packet, the Manchester United player would earn £5,050 in just under three hours.

And £5,000 doesn’t go that far, even in the 10th tier of English football which USP currently play at.

Secretary Bob Brady had to pay the best part of £200 to the match officials last weekend, plus their expenses, while under competition rules the club had to pay Millbrook’s travel expenses for December’s third round tie - the Devonians’ coach bill was almost £700 - as well as the match officials. In addition, Millbrook also banked 50 per cent of the matchday profits - another £200 or so.

US will bank a further £2,250 if they can win at Tavistock this weekend; lose, and they collect £725. Compared to the European Super League riches, that is not even loose change.

Let’s dream and imagine USP winning the FA Vase. If they do, their total prize money would stand at £46,925. Massive money for a club at their level, the end result of winning nine cup ties in a row, and just over a day’s pay for Paul Pogba. That is the gulf which exists between the top of the English football pyramid and the bottom.

Of course, it is not about the money at USP’s level, which is just as well for those involved. None of the players get paid, indeed they have to find their own sponsorship deals to pay for their kit. Glenn Turnbull told The News earlier this season it costs him money to manage the team. For players and management alike, it is all about the love of the game.

For those desperate to pocket the filthy lucre of the European Super League, the contrast couldn’t be greater. There, the whole sorry concept is ALL about the money.

The ESL is the inevitable result of decades of greed. The rich get richer, then they get extremely richer, while Bury and Macclesfield - just a few miles from Old Trafford and the Etihad - nosedive into oblivion. And the wealthiest carry on wanting more and more, heads down, constantly snorting away, in the money trough.

Pure avarice was responsible for the Premier League’s founding in 1992. Nothing more, nothing less. And all the clubs, not just the most famous ones, wanted to furiously milk Rupert Murdoch’s cash cow.

Notts County and Luton Town voted for the Premier League, only to be relegated in 1991/92. I don’t mind admitting I was happy to see both clubs subsequently relegated to non-league football.

I grew up in the late 70s and 80s. Looking back now, it was a wonderful time on the field (off it, less so) for our domestic game. Nottingham Forest went from the second tier to champions of Europe in the space of two years, and then they won the European Cup again. Forest, a club with a less illustrious history than Portsmouth, had won two European Cups before Barcelona lifted the silverware for the first time. Aston Villa also won the European Cup, Ipswich the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, Tottenham (and Aberdeen) the European Cup Winners Cup.

A second division club, West Ham, won the FA Cup. Coventry and Wimbledon also won the cup, while Norwich, Oxford United and Luton Town lifted the League Cup. Watford and Southampton (sorry) were runners-up in the top flight. There is hardly any of that romance left now. At the highest levels, greed has stripped the game almost bear of it.

And this is what have we ended up with as a result – in the last 16 seasons, up to 2019/20 inclusive, of the 48 major domestic trophies on offer (League, FA Cup, League Cup), the so-called ‘big six’ have hoovered up all but five of them. And of the six, Tottenham have only won one – the same as Pompey, Leicester, Wigan, Birmingham and Swansea. So, to recap, five clubs - Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal – have won 42 out of the last 48 trophies on offer. Read it and weep.

Last night, after spending a few hours at work writing up my US Portsmouth Vase stories, I returned home. A trailer for Match of the Day informed me the featured games were two Premier League fixtures, ‘and we’ll also have highlights from the second FA Cup semi-final.’

‘Also have highlights.’ Once upon a time, and not that long ago, this was one of the top games of the English domestic season. Now, the FA Cup semi-final is reduced to an after-thought to Arsenal v Fulham in the Premier League. That saddens me, and if you love football it should sadden you.

How did we get here? Easy, the spawning of the Premier League, the creation of the Champions League (more clubs, more money), the billion dollar TV contracts. Winning the FA Cup this season brings with it a £1.8m cheque. Compare that to the cash on offer for reaching the Champions League or, at the other end, staying in the Premier League.

In the first season of the Premier League, 1992/93, Nottingham Forest received £37,000 for finishing bottom. Last season Norwich banked £1.8m as a ‘merit’ payment, as well as almost £75m in TV revenue. The price for failure in the top flight is now the same as it is for winning a tournament that was, during my childhood, one of the highlights of the sporting year.

As the rewards for staying in the top flight, or reaching it, have ballooned to indecent levels, so the FA Cup’s importance, its traditions, its history, its romance, has been diluted. If you don’t care about that, fine, enjoy the ESL. But please, don’t call yourself a proper football fan.

My abiding hope now is that thousands of supporters will turn their backs on those who are in it purely for the wealth, and go and watch their local non-league club instead. Enjoy the warmth, the self-deprecating humour, the passion, and enjoy the fact you can sup a pint while watching the games.

If that can happen - and why shouldn't it? - then the European Super League will be giving a huge boost to grassroots clubs in a post-pandemic society. Indirectly, it will be doing everything it stands against - ensuring more clubs benefit financially.

Thankfully, I was at USP v Christchurch at the weekend, so I know that money isn’t everything in football, that there is still a place for romance.

There is still a place in this wonderful sport - the best sport in the world - for people who are in it for all the right reasons.

In a 32-year journalism career, I’ve covered Premier League games, the FA Cup final, other big Wembley occasions, EFL fixtures. But I’ve also stood, freezing cold, on touchlines at parks pitches. I’ve covered games in the depths of winter at Shepton Mallett and Shaftesbury. I was at Clandown once, on tghe outskirts of Bath, when the floodlights failed in a Somerset Senior Cup tie against Glastonbury and I got lost in fog on my way home.

That wonderfully varied life has given me, I like to think, a good perspective, and perspective is vitally important. So, given a choice of a European Super League game at the Bernabeu, or an FA Vase tie at the Burnabayou, I know which one I’d prefer. And not just because they don’t serve Bovril at Real Madrid …

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