Last season in the Premier League, 15 points separated the top seven teams from the rest of the division, which for me showed just how big the difference in class is between that septet of clubs and ‘the others’ in England’s top tier. A glass ceiling above eighth position has been created.
The problem is, that gap between the top seven – Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton – and the other 13 teams in future Premier League seasons is only set to get bigger following another summer of excessive spending at the top of the Premier League. At the time of writing, six of the aforementioned top seven clubs also help make up the top eight spenders in this country (along with Leicester City and Watford), Tottenham on zero expenditure being the exception. The North London side have of course been criticised by one of their own, Danny Rose, for not investing enough.
This is an issue that is a whole other topic of conversation in itself, but what is blindingly clear is that football now revolves around money. If you were one of the few that refused to believe that before this summer, then Neymar’s £200 million move to PSG that will earn him £26 million a year should shut the door on that debate once and for all. Fortunately (if you’re a fan of one of the top seven Premier League teams) or unfortunately (if you’re not), the riches of England’s elite are only getting bigger due to the monetary rewards that come with playing European football, having world-renowned names and attracting big sponsorship deals. As such, it is entirely plausible to say that last season’s top seven will make up those positions in the table, in various orders, for at least the next ten years. So where does that leave all the clubs that would class themselves as comfortably mid-table outfits?
Before we go any further, it’s worth referring to the dictionary definition of “mid-table”, which reads: “in a safe position half way between the top and bottom clubs in a football league”. In 2016/17, I would put all of the teams from Southampton in 8th on 46 points to Stoke City in 13th with 44 points in that bracket.
Of course, there are a few clubs that would bite your hand off to be consistently called a mid-table club. Newly promoted Brighton and Huddersfield for example, playing Premier League football for the first time in their history, could barely have dreamt of being mid-table in the top tier when they both were in League One six years ago. The same applies for any club that earns promotion to the promised land having spent a considerable amount of time in the depths of lower league football.
But then you look at Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, starting their tenth and eighth consecutive campaigns in the top flight respectively, having finished above ninth place just once between them, yet rarely troubled by relegation battles, and wonder what the next step is. I can easily see the likes of Southampton and West Ham, both promoted in 2012 and now firmly established in the top flight, following suit in the next few years. Clubs with enough money to stay well clear of trouble at the bottom but with not enough money to make a consistent challenge at the top. If the Premier League was a society, there would be very little opportunity for social mobility.
I imagine many people reading this right now think that I’m ignoring the fact that Leicester City broke in to what I’m calling ‘the elite’ by winning the title in stunning fashion in 2015/16. Yet that was a staggering anomaly, something that defied 5000/1 to odds. I’m not going to definitively say that it won’t ever happen again, but the only thing even comparable to the Foxes’ triumph is when Nottingham Forest won the old First Division in 1978 just a season after promotion from the second tier. That suggests that we’ll have to wait at least another 40 years before something so unthinkable happens again. At least.
Even once Leicester had won the title, they couldn’t sustain the success and stay in the top seven. Sure, they had a great run in the Champions League the following year, but massively struggled for two thirds of the league campaign before eventually finishing 12th. Their feat was incredible, but I’d propose that it is even harder for any side to do the same now purely due to the increase of money involved in the game even just a little over a year down the line.
When Wes Morgan lifted the trophy 15 months ago, the record Premier League signing was Angel di Maria to Manchester United for £59.7 million. Since then, the Red Devils have topped that twice by bringing in Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, whilst 11 of 20 most expensive Premier League signings of all time have happened in the the last year and a half according to transfermarkt.
So realistically, the only way any club is going to break into the top seven in the next ten years is either to be bought by a multi-billionaire or use Europa League football as a launchpad to bigger things. However, there are only so many multi-billionaires looking to invest in English football clubs, making the latter the much more likely, but still for me unlikely, option.
Without breaking into the top seven, the only way that teams can qualify for the Europa League in this country is through winning either the League Cup or FA Cup. This brings me on to a second point that being a mid-table Premier League team simply isn’t that exciting. Of course you benefit from the division’s astronomical TV deals, get an annual trip to Old Trafford and the Emirates and occasionally buy a supposedly ‘big name player’ or two, but what real entertainment do you get from the season as a whole?
That’s why I love the Championship. Naturally, there are still mid-table teams in the second tier, but barring a few exceptions, clubs rarely go more than two seasons without either a promotion push, flirtation with the play-offs or a battle to avoid the drop. The 2016/17 campaign is a prime example. Reading, Huddersfield and Fulham all qualified for the play-offs despite all finishing no higher than 17th the previous campaign. For me, it’s the most unpredictable division in the world. Whilst many Championship teams will have gone into this season not knowing whether they would be near the top or near the bottom of the table come May, I hardly think that the same has gone through the minds of West Brom or Southampton. They know they’ll come somewhere between 8th and 15th.
Anyway, I digress. As mentioned, a cup run can get mid-table teams into Europe, whilst it is also perhaps how many will get some excitement from their season. But on the evidence of 2016/17, many managers of mid-table clubs don’t seem that bothered by going far in the cup. Four of the six teams that finished 8th-13th in the Premier League were all knocked out of the FA Cup by clubs from lower divisions because they put out weakened sides. Why? Because they weren’t mathematically safe from relegation at the time of the cup ties so chose to prioritise the league. But what was it all for? They all comfortably survived by at least ten points anyway. This attitude needs to change if those mid-table clubs are to get enjoyment from campaigns or try to better themselves.
Where is this all leading to? Will attendances at mid-table clubs start to decrease because there’s no excitement in their seasonal journeys? Quite possibly, although again due to the power held by the big clubs, you’ll almost always get sell-out crowds for the visit of Manchester United or Chelsea. I suppose there really is no solution to the ever increasing gap and it is just another sad consequence of the growing monetisation of football.
Ultimately, we are in some ways lucky that that top group in the Premier League is so big. Any one of six teams seem to be in with a chance of winning the league title this season (sorry Everton fans!), which is greatly enthusing in comparison to Spain, France, Germany and Italy where a maximum of three teams are part of the elite.
I want nothing more than another club to ‘do a Leicester’, to smash through that glass ceiling, to defy me and the odds. But right now that seems a long way off, with life continuing to be boring for mid-table clubs for the foreseeable future.