A change has been instigated within Premier League clubs, one that has defined the summer.
They’ve been empowered. The oversized foot soldiers of “the greatest league in the world” were never exactly underpowered, or under-confident, but I’m talking about something quite specific. They’ve started to be able to say “no” when their players ask to leave, even to clubs far bigger than themselves.
You’ll be familiar with the three main examples from the transfer window that just closed. John Stones didn’t leave Everton for Chelsea (despite a string of obscene offers and a transfer request), Saido Berahino failed to exit West Bromwich Albion for Tottenham (despite going as far as tweeting his discontent with his chairman), and David De Gea did the opposite of leaving Manchester United for Real Madrid because, somehow, the paperwork got “accidentally” muddled. Let the passive-aggressive press statements commence, I say.
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The trend has been well noted and marks a decent contrast between a recent past littered with unhappy departures. Remember when Wayne Rooney was pulled away from Everton? Remember how Arsenal had to let Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri go in the same summer? Remember how Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling steadily engineered moves away from Liverpool? That’s all gone now.
Well, okay, to be fair, the last of those names did nip over to join Manchester City this summer, but what remains ultimately clear is that, for once, some resistance has occurred from below, even when players set out to force moves through. Premier League clubs have, however briefly, and rightly or wrongly, acquired the ability to drum up the occasional “no” when their financial betters come calling or faxing or emailing or whatever they do to contact their players. The movement is not all in one direction, as it usually is.
Now, you will find that, ostensibly, there are two competing explanations for this sudden surge in confidence when it comes to keeping said players.
The first explanation is my favourite, because it relates to a series of self-help tapes sent out to all Premier League club managers and directors at some as yet unknown point. It involves the words “you are a strong, confident football club” playing on repeat in between provocative montages of their clubs’ former best players scoring goals for other clubs, with Shia Labeouf on commentary.
But the second explanation is, unfortunately, marginally more likely. This one goes that the ability to turn down large sums of money for players hoping to leave for bigger clubs hasn’t arrived by a coincidence of timing at several Premier League clubs at once, and doesn’t really mark a sudden surge in dignity: really, it’s about power—with new television money coming into them, they’ve all got more of that filthy stuff.
Money means power, and power translates into the ability to turn down what once were irresistible offers. The watermark has been raised with a new flood of cash so that where “making him an offer he can’t refuse” used to mean bidding £40million for a young player would do the trick, this summer, at times, it has felt as though the words “he won’t be going for any price” actually have renewed meaning. There really might not have been any price at which Everton would have sold Stones, for example: there might have been, but we just can’t say for sure this time.
Obviously this concept doesn’t stretch as far as protecting Liverpool from City in the case of Sterling, or Aston Villa from City in the case of Fabian Delph for that matter. But the shift is really in the sense of what is possible: at this moment in time it feels possible for a mid-table team to say “no” to a top four club, or for a top four club to say “no” to Barcelona or Real Madrid, however temporarily—and that is a definite change.
Where the downside of this change arrives—depending on your perspective—is that this newfound power hasn’t just turned up from nowhere. Power isn’t limitless, and in order for Premier League clubs to find themselves with the privilege to say “no,” it seems as though clubs from other European leagues have been made less able to say it.
Look at the Bundesliga. It sold almost £200million’s worth of players to English clubs this summer, with Mainz 05’s general manager declaring, “There’s never been as many offers from the Premier League as in this summer. And every time, it came down to the wages.” Look at Stoke City. It bought Xherdan Shaqiri and Ibrahim Afellay, two former Inter Milan and Barcelona players, a statement that speaks rather eloquently for itself.
What’s really happening with the notional “democratization” of the Premier League is that there’s not less dominance of big teams over small teams, it’s just that the dominance has been better hidden away from anyone only watching the Premier League. Everton or Stoke or West Brom feel more powerful than they ever have been right now—they are better able to decide their destinies—but at the same time anyone outside of their neatly sealed bubble has had almost that exact quantity of power taken away from them. They now have to say “yes” to the Premier League clubs who get to say “no.”
And this is why you have to be careful with your words when you describe this summer. “A change has been instigated at Premier League clubs” is right, but the overall structures that made saying “no” so difficult for the likes of West Brom and Everton before are still in place; those clubs just happen to have been some of the beneficiaries of it this time around.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter