When the Stands Speak, the Premier League Should Listen

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The referee’s decision was, by the standards of these things, pretty straightforward. Soccer in general and the Premier League in particular have a gift for spinning controversy from whole cloth, but this did not seem an especially compelling candidate for the hot-take treatment. The evidence was too clean, too clear-cut.

Early in the Premier League game between Sheffield United and Brighton last month, the Sheffield United defender Mason Holgate went careering into Kaoru Mitoma, Brighton’s dazzling winger. The referee, Stuart Attwell, showed Holgate a yellow card. A moment later, Attwell was advised by his video assistant, Michael Oliver, to take another look at the tackle.

The replay showed Holgate’s right foot crashing into Mitoma’s thigh. (The ball, for context, was very much elsewhere.) Mitoma’s leg crumpled with the force of the blow; he was still, even as the referee reviewed the video, writhing on the turf. Attwell reversed his decision and sent off Holgate, who seemed hurt, dismayed, baffled. You had to admire the chutzpah.

That this turn of events — and the prospect of seeing its team play a majority of the game at a disadvantage — outraged the crowd packed inside Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium does not count as a surprise. The spectators had not seen the replays. It is most fans’ avowed belief that any decision that goes against their team is incorrect.

What was striking, though, was the shape their displeasure took. They applauded Holgate as he left the field. They spent the rest of the game jeering Mitoma’s every touch. But they also gave long, loud and expletive-ridden voice to their belief that the whole incident proved, once again, that the Premier League was incorrigibly corrupt.

It is tempting to stress-test this allegation by asking two simple questions. No. 1: How would the Premier League’s corruption entice Holgate into making a dreadful tackle? No. 2: Why would the Premier League be corrupt to the detriment of Sheffield United?

Even if the league had for some reason decided that the presence of a longstanding, fervently supported team housed in an atmospheric stadium and a vibrant, eclectic city was an abomination, it would hardly need to do anything to ensure its would soon be gone. With both respect and affection: Sheffield United does not need any help being relegated this season.

Questioning the accusation, of course, is futile, as the claim is not rooted in logic. That has not stopped that word — corrupt — from providing something of a leitmotif for this Premier League season. Sheffield United is not alone in having bought into the idea that the authorities are, for whatever reason, arrayed against it.

The same chant that rang around Bramall Lane has also been aired by fans of, among others, Wolverhampton and Burnley over recent months, though if the curious process of osmosis by which these trends spread has a genesis, it is likely to have been at Everton.

It is Goodison Park, after all, where “corrupt” has appeared on T-shirts and placards and banners, where the Premier League’s admittedly pompous anthem has been jeered most loudly, where the roots of conspiracy run deepest.

That, at least, makes some sense. In November, an independent panel stripped Everton of 10 points for failing to comply with the Premier League’s financial regulations, suddenly exposing the club to the very real threat of relegation. It was the first time a club had been punished for such an offense and the first time a team had been stripped of points in more than a decade.

But just as relevant was the fact that Manchester City, the league’s perennial champion, had been facing 115 charges of egregiously breaching the same rules for almost a year and had not so much as had its case heard. It looked, from Goodison Park, as if the Premier League was rather quicker to penalize one of the league’s middleweights than its reigning superpower.

That Everton’s cause has been taken up by others, though, is noteworthy. Wolves and Everton make unlikely allies: Whereas the latter admitted to breaching the league’s financial rules, Wolves made the difficult and unpopular decision last summer to abide by them. If anything, Wolves should be of the view that Everton deserves everything it gets.

Sheffield United is more unusual still. It does have an old grievance with the Premier League related to West Ham’s having fielded effectively ineligible players in 2007, which ultimately led directly to Sheffield’s relegation. But it seems odd that its burning sense of injustice should flare up again now. Sheffield United has not broken any financial rules. It has not been given a point deduction. It has no real reason to complain.

And yet it is not hard to see why the idea of institutional corruption struck a chord. Justice in soccer is essentially as arbitrary as Everton has charged. This week, its point deduction was reduced by another independent panel to 6 points instead of 10, a penalty that appears to be much more to the club’s liking.

But that does not obviate the sense of injustice. If anything, it bolsters it: not only because one panel has decreed that another was being too harsh, as Everton claimed, but also because both penalties have essentially been plucked from thin air.

Nobody disputes that the rules were broken. But the punishments for breaking the rules are not written down; the Premier League is governed by convention, not a constitution. This is the first time this has happened. There is no precedent. Is 6 points too many? Is it too few? Should Everton actually be given points?

Nobody knows, and nobody can know, because all of this is a game, one invented and codified and altered by humans. At the same time, Manchester City has still not faced any consequences at all, and maybe it never will, either because it is innocent or because it has enough lawyers to prove that it is not guilty enough.

That does not make the Premier League corrupt, of course, but it does rather breathe life into the idea that justice depends just a little on context. Much the same can be said with the belief that the league’s executives are in the pockets of its most powerful clubs: It feels like paranoia, but it is not hard to see why this conclusion is compelling to some. A vast majority of the riches generated by the game are monopolized by the few. They hoard the wealth and the talent and the trophies, and they bend the sport to their will.

At the same time, games are now decided by a faceless, unaccountable authority, one that does not seem — let’s put this kindly — to interpret the rules with absolute consistency from its remote, screen-filled booth.

Fans, meanwhile, find themselves forced to pay ever-increasing sums to follow their teams, either in person or on television. Their needs are rarely, if ever, considered: Game times are shifted on short notice to suit broadcasters, with the transportation requirements of the supporters who turn an event into a spectacle overlooked entirely. They are powerless, passive and forgotten.

In that light, it is surprising not that so many clubs have internalized the idea that the institutions overseeing the game are corrupt, but that so many have not. The anger, if anything, should be more widespread.

Even so, it feels as if there is a lesson here, and not just for the people who run soccer. The protests might be inside stadiums, but the frustration, the dislocation and the simmering resentment driving them mirror a feeling that exists outside, too.

The author Terry Pratchett once cautioned that politicians should take note of graffiti: not just its presence, but what it said. “Ignore graffiti at your peril,” he wrote. “It is the heartbeat of a city. It is the voice of the voiceless.”

Soccer stadiums, the last great secular meeting place of a fractured society, play much the same rule. The Premier League is not corrupt, not in the way that the fans of Everton and Wolves and Sheffield United mean. But just because the claim is not logical does not mean it should be ignored. The stadiums are talking. The league would do well to listen to what they are saying.


It is not especially difficult to see why Luton Town has won so many friends over the course of its (first) season in the Premier League. Fans own the club. The team has risen from the depths of nonleague soccer. The squad is industrious, modest and devoid of cosseted, overindulged superstars. The manager is adroit, adaptable, extremely handsome.

Visiting Kenilworth Road for the first time, though, and another strand to its appeal emerges: nostalgia. Kenilworth Road is not really a stadium, not in the Premier League sense. It is, instead, the sort of thing you would build if you had scrap metal and a time limit.

But it is — to any fan over the age of, plucking a number entirely at random, 41 and a half — what stadiums used to look like, used to feel like. It serves to give Luton the air of interlopers from another age, emissaries from old soccer cast against the sheen of the modern Premier League. To those who remember, to those who might even yearn, that is irresistible.

A couple hours before the Carabao Cup final on Sunday, on the concourses outside Wembley, the lines of fans ground to a halt. Word started to go around that there was a problem with some of the electronic tickets: The ones with QR codes were fine, but those with bar codes were not working.

There was, it should be stressed, absolutely no hint of trouble. A little bit of grumbling. A touch of agitation as the clock ticked and kickoff neared. A lot of waiting patiently, as the fans nestled once again into that familiar feeling that they were a burden rather than paying customers.

In the end, it all worked out fine — the stands slowly filled and the noise built and the game kicked off — but it is worth pointing out that, in three months or so, Wembley will host the Champions League final. Again.

The last time it hosted a game of that magnitude, the final of Euro 2020 (in 2021), the mayhem that ensued led to a far-reaching inquiry. Should Manchester City or Arsenal, in particular, reach European soccer’s showpiece occasion, it will prove a considerable test of how much the stadium’s authorities have learned from that experience. Sunday, in that light, should serve to concentrate a few minds.

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