The Premier League in 2023: Global, local, looming, booming, threatened… and back


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The Premier League is back. Over a four-day weekend, the world’s most-watched league, the richest on Planet Football, returned with its mix of skill, goals, controversy, competitiveness and hype. It started at Burnley on Friday night and ended at Old Trafford last night. Ten games featuring 28 goals, 42 bookings, one red card and 302 players, were bookended by victories for Manchester’s giants, City and United.

The Athletic has spent those four days roving from Burnley to Everton to Chelsea to Manchester United to soak up the sights and sounds of the first weekend. It was as it is — colourful, noisy and intense. It was fresh, it was traditional.

And sold out. There may be new rivals in Saudi Arabia, there may be growing interest in MLS football in the United States, but a new Premier League office was opened in New York this summer, to add to the one in Singapore, and this weekend these matches were broadcast to 189 different countries. The national and international fascination with England’s Premier League is not stopping.

Five o’clock, Friday evening, platform 6 of Manchester Victoria station: gathered early for their 50-minute shuttle north to Burnley, Manchester City fans are already in good voice. As the old train jolts its way through the Lancashire countryside, a long-time City anthem is belted out: “We’re not really here.”

But, of course, they are. Everybody’s here, everybody’s happy, the Premier League is back and no one has lost, no goalkeeper has looked forlorn, no manager has moaned.

What’s new? Some rules, some faces — Luton Town — and as City’s supporters are delighted to reveal, some songs. What’s new is that when City visit each ground in the league, they do so as champions of Europe, possibly the finest club side in the world. They do so as treble winners last season and to the tune of Neil Sedaka’s Amarillo, the travelling fans let everyone know. As Burnley approaches and Turf Moor appears on the horizon, the chant celebrates Istanbul, where in June City won the Champions League against Inter Milan.

And suddenly here they are, Europe’s best of 2023 restarting at a ground that first staged football in 1883. On a rare warm night in this dismal British summer, the contrasts are ancient and modern: it’s Pep Guardiola on Harry Potts Way — Potts was Burnley’s greatest manager and led them to the league title in 1960; it’s the squad of young Americans from St. George, Utah, awaiting their tickets outside the Bob Lord Stand — Lord was the local butcher who made his local fortune from local meat and became chairman of his local club. The plaque on the wall states Burnley were Founder Members of the Football League in 1888.

Lord distrusted television and banned the BBC; you could see these 90 minutes at noon in Los Angeles or 4am in Tokyo.

The world wants to watch this global, parochial Premier League, to own it — literally. City are controlled by an oil-rich state, Abu Dhabi; but Burnley, too, are a thoroughly modern football business, purchased by Americans utilising debt and seeking a return. A transfer embargo was imposed on them last season.

Kompany has taken over from Dyche as the new king of Burnley (Picture: Michael Walker)

Under chairman Alan Pace, of ALK Capital, Burnley have been relegated and then promoted. They bet on the intelligence of Vincent Kompany last season and it paid off. In his programme notes Pace writes of bringing “the Clarets to a worldwide audience” and welcomes new investors “YouTube sensation Dude Perfect”. Kealia and JJ Watt are already on board. It’s all so positive, though Pace revealed last week some of the personal abuse he received post-relegation. Quaint, it ain’t.

But down the street the club shop tills are ringing — £55 for the new adult home kit — and up the road at the Royal Dyche — the pub re-named in honour of former manager Sean Dyche — the poster reads: “Here’s to you Vincent Kompany, Burnley loves you more than you will know.” The tune this time is Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.

It was a Manchester City ditty originally, and Kompany’s status as one of their recent heroes is heard when a Burnley fan shouts: “You can stick your Arab money up your arse,” at the away end entrance. City do not like it, but those 155 charges of financial rule breaches, all of which they deny, hang in the air.

At eight o’clock the anticipation in the full and refreshed stadium is audible and visible. Four minutes in, City’s perfect dude, Erling Haaland, makes it 1-0 and the reality of the Premier League is back.

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Haaland was back with a bang (Photo: Copa/Getty Images)

One o’clock Saturday afternoon and as the sprinkling of Everton fans trek along Liverpool’s Regent Road, the future rises in front of them. This is old Liverpool, dockland Liverpool, where vast red-brick warehouses speak of an industrial empire. This is Herman Melville Liverpool.

And this is new Everton. Here behind heritage brick walls the Bramley Dock Stadium (ballpark cost £500m) is under construction and will be ready for the end of 2024 – the year, not the season. It will be slick and modern and hold 53,000. Everton will move into a new financial era, though only if they are still in the Premier League. (Tragically, on Monday a 26-year-old worker was killed on site).

The one public house that held on during the de-industrialization of Liverpool’s Mersey trade is called the Bramley Moore free house, established 1758. It is opposite the new stadium. Melville walked these docks in 1839 so may have had a pint here; but he was too early for Arsenal v Nottingham Forest on the big screens and around the corner he wasn’t on the “soccerbus” at Sandhills station either.

It dropped us off outside Everton’s thronged club shop — new adult home kit £65 — and fans made their way to the statues of Dixie Dean at one end of Goodison Road and the Holy Trinity (Kendall, Ball and Harvey; look them up) at the other. Both will remain when Everton depart Goodison Park.

In Simon Inglis’s classic text, The Football Grounds of Great Britain (1983), the section on Everton’s 131-year home begins: “Goodison Park was the first major football stadium in England.”

On Saturday it looked lush, a word groundsman Bob Lennon had used. “It’s so intense the Premier League now,” Lennon said last week, “with HD TVs, the pitches have got to look, like, artificial — so green, so lush. We have electric mowers and they are governed off Bluetooth. That’s the technology these days.”

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Lush turf, old ground, familiar grumbles (Getty Images)

But soon the team will leave. Income demands it. The club will retain a significant presence on site as Everton are not just selling off the land for housing. This is a progressive club in some ways, who run a free school for excluded children among other social enterprises.

But they need Blue teeth up front. After about 20 seconds Neal Maupay harpoons a shot inches wide — and receives foul abuse on social media. There follows a series of saves from Fulham keeper Bernd Leno, a disallowed home goal and a hit crossbar. Angst grips Goodison. Everton fall behind to a tap-in from Bobby De Cordova-Reid and do not recover.

Fulham’s goal is initiated by Aleksander Mitrovic, on as a sub. The Serbian’s introduction brought a chorus of “F*** the Saudis” from the travelling support. “SPL” used to stand for Scottish Premier League; today it is Saudi Pro League and the clubs are all richer than Motherwell. Fulham fans are fearful the new entity will take Mitrovic, and maybe Willian.

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Mitrovic, centre, could yet join the new stars of Saudi football (Getty Images)

The Premier League’s status is hardly in jeopardy, though, and Tim Ream, who made his debut in it for Bolton Wanderers in 2012 — at Chelsea up against Didier Drogba — thinks the division has only got stronger.

“Going back to last season, compared to 2012, the depth of competition is a lot more interesting,” Ream says. “Just in general, the league as a whole was huge back then in terms of countries watching.

“But it’s grown so much in the twelve years. I think in terms of US fans it’s beyond what I imagined it would be. That starts with those who came before — Brian McBride, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, going back to Carlos Bocanegra, Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna. Fathers who have kids, it’s those generation to generation [relationships] and you have kids of four, five, six who watch the Premier League. You really get a sense of that when you go over in the summer and play there. It’s impressive the way it’s grown over generations.”

As Ream speaks, Dawn Penn’s lilting reggae floats out of the Fulham dressing room. “No, no, no,” she sings.

Actually, maybe it was the home dressing room.

Three o’clock, Sunday afternoon, west London and the swish bars and high-end restaurants of Hollywood Road feel a long way from Burnley and Everton. Turn onto Fulham Road and it quickly becomes clear the Premier League and its television partners have a blockbuster for their first Sunday afternoon.

Brentford are playing Tottenham Hotspur not far away, but it’s unlikely touts there are asking £800 a ticket as they are here. Yards from signs saying “street sales of tickets are illegal,” a Cockney tout says: “Eight, nine hundred, it’s going crazy. What’s your budget, mate?”

Well, it isn’t that.

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A sign can’t stem the roaring trade outside Stamford Bridge (Photo: Michael Walker)

That demand outstrips supply is a problem of capacity at 40,000 Stamford Bridge; it’s also a measure of demand. Chelsea v Liverpool on the opening day of the season? You can feel the buzz. You can also hear it — they’re singing “Super Frankie Lampard” in the Chelsea Gate, which has a queue outside, another capacity issue.

It feels buoyant — there is another queue stretching out of the club shop onto the street — and as kick-off approaches there’s a rush towards the outer ring of stewards protecting the turnstiles. It’s all anticipation.

And then something happens. Those who can’t get in, who won’t pay exorbitant street prices, hang around. Some sit on kerbs watching the game on their phone, others just stare at the stadium and listen to the sound of the crowd. But they don’t leave. “It’s strange,” says a steward, “happens every game.”

Tu Thai Pham, 30, and Van Cao, 28, from Hanoi are two of them. They could not get tickets but came to Chelsea anyway, part of their London sightseeing. They’re Manchester United fans and say United are the biggest club in Vietnam, where the Premier League is huge — “bigger than the World Cup. La Liga is big too.”

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Outside Stamford Bridge, where the match is under way (Photo: Michael Walker)

The internationalism on the pavement is reflected on the pitch where 22 starters and eight substitutes represent 14 nationalities from Uruguay to Ukraine. Nicolas Jackson is from Casamance, Senegal and says he was still playing shoeless at 15. He was 22 in June, a millionaire.

The two clubs are US-owned — two of ten with American finance in the Premier League. But both ownerships have questioning fans. Liverpool’s have grown more suspicious of the Yankee dollar as players targeted have moved elsewhere.

Chelsea’s fanzine, CFCUK, advertises its prices on the front — £1 (UK) €2 (Europe) $2 (USA) 200P (Russian Federation).

Chelsea (Pre-Romeo Lavia) have spent a £565m (net) mountain of money in the 15 months since Clearlake Capital took over, but the team got worse. Player contracts have been stretched but so has financial credibility. There is scepticism in other boardrooms about how Chelsea treat Financial Fair Play regulations, and in the fanzine. “The reality for Chelsea is that we are on the brink of a downturn.” says a page-4 editorial. “Mr. Abramovich”, as he is called, is obviously missed.

The sense is were it not for that pesky Russian war on Ukraine, Mason Mount would still be at the Bridge. Such pessimism may seem out of kilter with the signings and a new manager in place, Mauricio Pochettino, who says Saudi Arabia “is good for football, for players, for coaches, for this business that is football.”

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Pochettino watches Jackson at work (Getty Images)

But then as 2022 dawned Chelsea were reigning European champions and in the February became FIFA Club World Cup winners. Thomas Tuchel was a well-liked coach.

So the fall has been great and painful. It has been relished across England, where the lack of Abramovich self-scrutiny and the historic, swaggering Chelsea gait are really quite unpopular.

Seven o’clock, Monday night, Old Trafford. In the inevitable Manchester rain, Thomas Byrne joins the line of Wolverhampton Wanderers fans waiting to be searched. Byrne set off on a supporters’ bus at 2.30 on Monday afternoon; he reckoned he would get home near that time on Tuesday morning.

“Well, it’s been a bit of a mess,” Byrne says of Wolves’ pre-season, which saw manager Julen Lopetegui walk out last week to some fanfare and Gary O’Neil walk in to none. “It’s a bit of dampener and coming to Old Trafford on a Monday night is not ideal, especially with the weather,” Byrne says.

Manchester United’s summer signing Mason Mount turned up carrying an umbrella. Byrne carried first-night hope — “I think there’s worse teams than us. The squad’s good enough to finish mid-table”. While passing Reds might have sniggered at that opinion, three hours later, Byrne had vindication.

Wolves lost but were the better team. They should have been awarded an injury-time penalty kick for which O’Neil received a post-match apology from the referee’s co-ordinator Jon Moss. It was too late for O’Neil but he could say his energised players “represented everything I think a football team should be.”

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United players and supporters celebrate Varane’s late goal (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

And it will give Wolves belief their Premier League stay can last a sixth season and lead to a seventh. They were a good-news story for a long time under the management of Nuno Espirito Santo and as Byrne says of Premier League status and profile: “It’s massive, especially when we got into Europe.

“Up until Covid, it was fantastic. There was a real cohesion between the city, the club and the fans — and the players. You’ve only to look at some of the things the ones who’ve gone have put on social media, (Raul) Jimenez, (Ruben) Neves, Nuno. They really bought into the area, lived in Wolverhampton or on the outskirts in Tetenhall. They were visible.”

Geographical commitment matters to towns like Wolverhampton and Burnley, or Bournemouth or Newcastle, places deemed unfashionable or remote. The latter makes travelling support complicated and expensive — Newcastle go to Man City at 8pm on Saturday night — yet it is the rival fans who so often create the atmosphere. Wolves’s did here. Old Trafford was on hold until Raphael Varane’s goal released a volcanic celebration.

United fans have reason to withdraw their fervour. They are 18 years into the Glazer family ownership and nine months into a stalled sale. “Love United, Hate Glazer” stickers appeared on Stretford lampposts years ago and they’re still relevant. Before kick-off there was another anti-Glazer protest on the giant concourse outside the packed megastore. Soul and commerce.

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New season, same protests at Manchester United (photo: Michael Walker)

Beneath a statue of Sir Matt Busby, fans chanted about the death of co-chairman Joel Glazer. How this fits with the new instruction on “tragedy chanting” is uncertain but the chant will be heard again as a post-match sit-in is planned for the next home game, against Nottingham Forest. Manchester United Supporters Trust released a statement saying “this feels less like a sale process and more like the Glazer family holding Manchester United and its fans hostage.”

Disputed ownership, VAR controversy, unconvincing but victorious Man United, the first Premier League weekend climaxed on familiar territories. It’s back.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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