Today we welcome the players, staff and directors of Leeds United to the American Express Community Stadium for the first time since December 2016.
The West Yorkshire club have enjoyed an excellent return to the Premier League and, under Marcelo Bielsa's leadership, have quickly established a deserved reputation for playing entertaining football, and have secured a comfortable position in the table as we enter the final month of the season.
Our 1-0 victory at Elland Road back in the early part of the New Year brought to an end what was a frustrating run of nine Premier League matches without a win, albeit in many of those games the results failed to reflect our very good performance levels. Neal Maupay's winning goal early in the first half on that cold January afternoon in Leeds set us off on an unbeaten run of Premier League matches that included successive victories over Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
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Of course, it was those two clubs, along with ten others, including four more from the Premier League, who were key players in the plans for a breakaway European Super League just two weekends ago. Frankly speaking, it's hard to recall a worse-timed, more ill-judged, badly communicated or distasteful venture in sporting history. And, therefore, it was no surprise at all to see the ham-fisted concept get the universal opprobrium it deserved.
It was and, two weeks on, it remains, a PR disaster for the clubs concerned, and sadly huge damage has been done to the reputations of some great footballing institutions with proud histories. Trust, which we all know takes such a long time to build in any walk of life, was all but destroyed in the space of 48 shambolic hours, not just with more than 700 other professional football clubs throughout Europe, ours included – but with fair-minded football supporters everywhere.
It's very hard to imagine how anyone connected to the European Super League idea – the bankers, the lawyers, the PR specialists, the branding experts and not least the 12 clubs themselves – thought it was a good one.
You can only assume the blatant attempt to disregard 150 years of football history and the right to progress through success on the pitch, for the betterment of nobody but the 12 clubs concerned, was debated in a tiny echo chamber.
The right to dream is the lifeblood of football fans everywhere. The opportunity to make progress based on sporting merit is the backbone of our game. The European Super League attempted to remove both our dream and our backbone, and that of all football fans, just after 11pm on a Sunday night with what appeared to be a duplicated, almost incoherent, press release that begged far more questions than it answered. Tellingly, none of the architects from any of the English clubs involved appeared willing to face or take questions about it from the media.
In a way, the clandestine planning, the refusal of some of the biggest clubs in Europe to take part, the timing of its birth, the insulting half-hearted attempt to involve women's football, the furious reaction from fans, governments and media, the apparent unwillingness of anyone in this country to publicly own it, even the amateur-looking branding, kind of summed it all up: it was an ill-conceived and shoddy venture from start to finish. And it survived barely 48 hours before it died.
One thing is for sure, UEFA, the various national associations – including our own – and Europe's domestic leagues – including the Premier League – must rapidly update their various regulations to ensure there can be no repeat of this type of behaviour ever again.
There should also be clear and punitive sanctions should there be any kind of future assault on the tradition, history and integrity of our sport. And, where necessary, the football authorities should also seek support from governments to fully protect what, for most countries across Europe, is the national sport, loved by hundreds of millions of people.
Right now, in our country's case at least, it is for The FA and Premier League – not us, the other 14 clubs – to determine what regulations may have been breached and what punishments those responsible should receive for their part in the events of the past two weeks. Imposing sanctions, should the authorities opt to do so, is always tricky as inevitably most forms of punishment in football end up impacting players, coaches, staff and fans, who in this case have played no part in the scheming and who were just as likely to be as aghast and distraught by the plans as the rest of us.
Coming so soon after the rejection of 'Project Big Picture', from which you might have thought at least some lessons might have been learned from the reaction to secret meetings, these past two weeks have, yet again, been as unedifying for football as they have been embarrassing for all those involved. Once again, our sport's reputation has been tarnished by a small group of people who chose to meet behind the backs of the rest of us for many months believing they know better than everyone else. The reaction of football fans everywhere, including their own, would suggest they really don't – and should simply stop doing it.
We certainly respect the right of clubs to build and protect their businesses. And of course we have a responsibility to do the same for ours. But we must all accept this can't be done at the expense of football's traditional merit-based structures or its wider financial eco-system. Yes, we know that our game has its challenges: it's far from perfect. And yes, we will need to find answers to ensure that football in our country is sustainable for all of us for at least another 150 years. But if the Project Big Picture and European Super League episodes have taught us anything, it’s that solutions for football’s future must come from open and transparent dialogue involving all clubs and stakeholders and not just a self-selected few.
So, looking ahead, we must be pragmatic. We do want and we do need the six English clubs involved in the failed European Super League breakaway to still be part of the Premier League. This may sound hypocritical, but they remain an important part of our game, they are all illustrious names in our sport, and they are important to our league's value which helps to feed the wider game.
But, in turn, they need to recognise and show more respect for the narrative and value the other 14 clubs contribute to the competition as we’re not in this league just to make up the numbers! Healing the wounds and rebuilding trust is very likely going to take some time, and relationships may not ever be quite the same again, but ultimately we will need to set our differences aside for the good of football in this country.
Turning back to the football on the pitch, and the business of completing the current season, we know we still have work to do in our last five matches – starting this afternoon with the visit of Leeds United. Last weekend's disappointing loss at Sheffield United came on the back of an excellent away point and clean sheet at Champions League challengers Chelsea. As the games turned out, we might well have run out winners in both, but our return of one point from a possible six means we must go again with renewed vigour and intent today.
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Ironically, however, if ever more proof was needed, our last two results have also helped to demonstrate the inherently intense competition that is the Premier League. A draw away to a club at the top end of the table, and a narrow loss to one already relegated, doesn’t just happen in a COVID-affected season. It's the kind of jeopardy and unpredictability that makes this league so compelling every season, and sadly it’s also why a small number of our colleagues were rushing to find a way to create more certainty.
Maintaining that competitive balance, ensuring the wealth gap between the bigger and smaller clubs doesn’t become unbridgeable, and ensuring clubs and fans can continue to dream, remain absolutely key. In our opinion, there’s much more longer-term value for all clubs, and for football generally, in this far more unpredictable system.
Finally, thank you to you, and to football fans everywhere these past two weeks, for your great ongoing support for our club and for our national sport. As if the pandemic hadn’t already underlined the fact, football at every level really needs the support of fans.
And the top of the game is certainly no exception. Enjoy today's game and the remainder of the season. All being well, we look forward to welcoming some of you back to the Amex for Manchester City’s visit in our final home match.