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The predictability of the Premier League

The Premier League kicks off again this weekend.  Given the abysmal showing of our boys in the World Cup, a falling off of interest might be expected.  But increasingly, the competition attracts many of the best players from all over the world.    A self-reinforcing process has been set up on a global scale.  The more popular both the League and its individual clubs become across the world, the more money is brought in through TV rights, merchandise sales and so forth.  Even better players can be employed, which increases its attractiveness even further.

Yet this very process makes the competition more boring in the sense that the outcomes at the end of the season become more predictable.  The places really worth playing for are the top five, which guarantee entry into European competitions.  If we step back in time, to the days of the old Football League Division One, which became the Premiership in the 1990s, there was frequent turnover in these elite positions.  Fifty years ago, in 1963/64, the names of the top five are very familiar: Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Spurs and Chelsea, in that order.  But both three years before and after, in 1960/61 and 1966/67, just two of these finished in the top five.  Spurs were in fact the only one of the 1963/64 teams to claim a top five slot in each of these three seasons.

In recent years, turnover in positions at the top has atrophied.  Over the past ten seasons of the Premiership, Arsenal have been in the top five in every single one, and both Chelsea and Manchester United have appeared on nine occasions.  Liverpool and Spurs feature in six.  Manchester City muscled their monied way to success in 2009/10 and have been in the top five ever since.  The only rank outsider to finish in the top five in the past decade was Newcastle, squeezing into fifth in 2011/12.  The top half dozen clubs now effectively form a league within a league.

The decline in turnover has accelerated during the lifetime of the Premiership.  The winners in the opening season were, predictably, Manchester United.  But, almost incredibly from the vantage point of 2014, the next five were Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn Rovers and QPR.  Even during the first decade, top five turnover fell.  Manchester United filled one of the slots in each of the ten seasons, with Arsenal and Liverpool on eight and seven respectively.  But Leeds, now vanished to the nether regions, was in the top five on seven occasions also.  Other clubs had a chance.

The situation is not so dire as it has been since time immemorial in Scotland.  No team apart from Celtic or Rangers has won the championship since 1985.  Until Rangers went into liquidation in 2012, there was only a single season in which these clubs did not fill the top two slots in the Scottish Premier League.

Perhaps the fans like it this way.  To paraphrase TS Eliot ‘human kind cannot bear too much excitement’.

As published in City AM on Tuesday 12th August

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