Should we hold players responsible for the Football Pay Gap?

Should we hold players responsible for the Football Pay Gap?

Inside Anfield, home of Liverpool FC © Liverpool

Last week, I came across this fascinating news feature by the Irish Independent’s Eamonn Sweeney Philippe Coutinho and the lack of living wage sums up football’s disconnect.

It is a perfect encapsulation of the Football Pay Gap or what the writer calls Downton Abbey economics.

And it is a feature not just of elite football clubs, but also within wider society where “Upstairs the aristocrats have so much money they hardly know what to do with it” while “Downstairs the servants scrape by on a pittance.”

The genesis, for Mr Sweeney is the high finance comings and goings at Anfield both on and off the field this winter.

Liverpool, of course, have just sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million. Previously, they bought Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton for £78m.

And at the other end of the spectrum, in November, Liverpool agreed to pay their lowest paid staff £8.45 an hour, in line with the recommendations of the Real Living Wage campaign.

The men and women that keep the Anfield show on the road can look forward to their 95p hourly rate increase in June. Just in time for the start of next season.

Liverpool, who employ around 1,000 part-time staff on match days, have reached accord with the Living Wage Foundation and Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool City Region.

Liverpool chief executive, Peter Moore said: “As a club, we have paid the national minimum wage at the higher rate only for many years and in June this year we ensured that all directly employed staff were paid at least the real living wage. By taking the next step, we are not adhering to an obligation, we are doing it because we feel it is the right thing to do.”

But it is hard to know where to start with this one because there is villainy everywhere you look. And Liverpool’s commitment to an £8.45 rate for matchday staff really shouldn’t be a cause for celebration, given prevailing attitudes in England’s top tier.

Liverpool are one of just five Premier League clubs that have agreed to pay rates which the organisation Citizens UK have estimated represents a living wage for workers in Britain today.

The Reds join Chelsea, West Ham United, Spurs and neighbours Everton in supporting the campaign but it is the list of omissions that confirms the vulgar reality that football, our ‘people’s game’, is governed by cynics of the deepest dye.

This is a reality confirmed by the 2015-16 annual turnover and minimum-wage rates for the likes of Manchester United (£515m, £7.05 per hour), Manchester City (£392m, £7.50 per hour) and Arsenal (£354m, £7 per hour), as detailed in the Irish Independent report.

Citizens UK: Premier League clubs league of shame

No doubt someone will come up with a tortured rationale to explain why Man United, to name but one offender, cannot find an additional £50 a week pro rata for their lowest earners to combat in work poverty and meet the living wage recommendation. But whatever that rationale might be, it sits uncomfortably with the £290,000 a week paid to Paul Pogba, the £15m annual salary of Jose Mourinho or the £2m+ annual earnings of the CEO’s at Man United, Man City and Arsenal.

Phillipe Coutinho in action for Liverpool prior to his £142m move to Barcelona © Kevin Walsh

This is clearly a question of ideology for the men that arrange things at England’s biggest clubs. That is, the offending clubs in the Premier League are expressing an active choice  when they fail to meet their moral obligations as employers operating at the heart of their communities. It is a ‘because we can’ viewpoint that informs each club’s wage rates for their lowest earners and also, I suspect, a true reflection of how the men in charge really view the people that do important, and unheralded, work within their clubs.

Watford have a £94m turnover and yet they pay a beyond mean £6.50 base hourly rate. Meanwhile at debut season Premier League additions Huddersfield Town the equivalent staff are paid £8.50 per hour on the back of a turnover of just £13m.

And remember, Watford FC’s £6.50 per hour rate should be set against the Real Living Wage campaign’s £9.75 hourly rate for London and its commuter belt that forms a natural border with Hertfordshire.

So, Huddersfield, despite their location, and an average crowd of around 24,000 deserve credit for paying an additional £2 per hour to staff in a part of the world where average salaries are just £20,792 per annum.

Emperors, gladiators and serfs

Eamonn Sweeney certainly paints an accurate picture of the current malaise when he says: “Football tells its supporters that the high achiever can never have too much money and that everyone else should be happy with what trickles down. The emperors in the Colosseum would approve.”

Due to the politics of divide and rule it is customary to kick downwards and blame ‘the gladiators’, the players that are the stars of the show. But there is also no doubt that at a fundamental level Messi, Ronaldo (or the megastars of other sports and showbiz) earn their wages in generating an incredible exchange of both cultural and economic capital. And that captures the imagination (and wallet) at a far more profound level than the machinations of the shadowy Hugo Boss men that inhabit the expensive seats at every major football ground.

I disagree with millionaire ex-players like Alan Shearer, who court public favour by saying footballers are overpaid.

Alan Shearer blasts English Football’s overpaid stars ahead of new season.

This is specifically because he really is extrapolating on the basis of his own experience having won his own version of the lottery as a Premier League legend.

Here is the reality of things for any boy that sets out to follow Shearer’s gilded path. At the top of the game, footballers’ wages have to reflect the limited opportunities to join the super rich elite simply because of the massive downsides involved in trying to get there.

Household names like Alan Shearer are the exception to the rule and this is how the numbers stack up as per Michael Calvin’s superb book on youth development ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ The Players. The Journey. The Dream.

BT Sport documentary: No Hunger in Paradise

“Less than one half of one per cent of boys who enter the [English] academy structure at the age of nine will make a first-team appearance. More than three quarters are jettisoned between the ages of 13 and 16.

The odds are no less intimidating the further a boy progresses. Almost 98 per cent of boys given a scholarship at 16 are no longer in the top five tiers of the domestic game at the age of 18. A recent study revealed that only eight out of 400 players given a professional Premier League contract at 18 remained at the highest level by the time of their twenty-second-birthday. Since only 180 of the 1.5m boys who play organised youth football at any one time become Premier League pros, the success rate is 0.012 per cent.”

Here’s the reality: five out of every six of the scholars starting with Premier League academy contracts next season will not be playing football for a living in five years.

And of those that prevail, most players fall out of the game with nothing or make peace with their dreams. Others play as journeymen players for say £250 per week part time, retiring at 34 or so. Again with little prospect of anything substantial.

Compared to the physical, emotional, educational and career sacrifices schoolboys make you could argue in favour of an income redistribution, sure. A soft landing. But elite salaries for footballers must reflect dynamic market factors – and the fact that someone, somewhere is still able to profit, to extract surplus value, above and beyond players’ wages.

Middle class values

I can understand £10,000 a week for a Celtic defender far easier than I can the inflated salary of a mediocre university professor in a Russell Group University – who contributes well nigh nothing to wider society in terms of impactful research, quality teaching or even simple application. And the same is true of the money taken from the game by the massed ranks of male, pale and stale corporate lackeys.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Most of what passes for ‘the good life’ is just accident of birth stuff and knowing how to play the middle class game of private school tie, dad’s connections and the cushion of family wealth. The lack of meritocracy in the prime professions, protectionism and structural impediments to social mobility are the real scandals, not the earnings of sportsmen who have a marketable skill only a few can even hope to aspire to, never mind match.

There is no such hiding place for footballers, as exists for most professionals in middle class occupations. For all but the lucky few, football remains a precarious life with some nasty side effects such as lower life expectancy, high divorce rates and of course the negative physical legacy of having played an impact sport later in life.

The Football Pay Gap within clubs that should pay a universal Living Wage, is The Premier League’s secret shame and rather than indulge a game of ‘whataboutery’, it is right to call the people that are truly responsible to account.