The Observer view on the collapse of the Super League

The past seven days have been claimed as a heartwarming victory for the egalitarian instincts of football “fan power”. It was only last Sunday that the owners of the self-styled “big six” of the English game announced that they were removing themselves into a different sporting sphere, one in which they could, in perpetuity, admire their collective Bigness, alongside a handful of equally Massive continental peers – and in which the traditional footballing virtues of failure, relegation, despair and near-bankruptcy would no longer be options. What followed was like a rewrite of the Craig David song; the Super League “founders” were pilloried on Monday, panicking on Tuesday, capitulating on Wednesday and distantly contrite by Friday. “Seismic” is the word that pundits reached for to describe the original announcement, but in the end the break-away bid hardly rattled the crockery.

Certainly, the fans protesting outside Stamford Bridge and Anfield early in the week, and swamping social media with genuine hurt and outrage at the proposals, were a crucial factor in that humiliating climbdown. Those protests were amplified to great effect by ex-players who understood the fatal threat to European football’s “pyramid”, which allows any club to at least dream of one day reaching the pinnacle. The common rallying cry of those protests, which gave a common purpose to football fans of all stripes, was that the offshore owners of clubs “don’t understand our game” and that “they don’t listen to the ordinary fan in the street”. While the former claim might certainly be true, it is a little harder to make the case for the latter proposition. If the overwhelming voice of Premier League football fans was in fact for greater competitive fairness, then the owners of the clubs might be forgiven for it having passed them by. Listen to any football phone-in or read any fan site and supporters are demanding not checks and balances but medieval beneficence, the drama of extreme inequality. They want their oligarch or oil sheikh to spend, and spend big time, and then when that doesn’t work, to spend some more. Arsenal fans are far from alone in loudly bemoaning the reluctance of their majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, to “put his hands in his pockets so we can compete”. Any efforts of the footballing authority Uefa to impose “financial fair play” have been limp and ill-conceived. The result has been predictable.

There are within the Premier League – not least among the “big six” – strong examples of the positive impact that clubs can make on their cities and communities, but it is also true that the final standings of any recent season correspond fairly exactly with the respective individual wealth of the plutocrats in charge. Fans of the rags-to-riches stories point to the title triumph of Leicester City as a prime example of footballing romance (perhaps forgetting that the Srivaddhanaprabha family that owns the club is worth £4.6bn). Claims might be made that a greater outlier was Liverpool FC, which managed to become champions with an owner worth “only” half that amount and a 10th of its rival, Manchester City.

Among the myths that have been exposed by the Super League debacle is that such excessively wealthy individuals love free and fair competition; rather, billionaires never see a market that they don’t want to manipulate. By trying to de-risk their investments the owners were only doing what comes naturally. Their mistake was to misunderstand that, while Premier League fans may routinely demand that sporting success be bought, they don’t want ever quite to acknowledge that fact. Talk of level playing fields last week was no doubt sincerely felt – and perhaps the first stirrings of a new consensus – but come summer there will still be calls to splash £100m on a new striker.