Come in Number 39. Your Time is Up?

A Football Blog. @All_Blue_Daze looks at when Scudamore posed the question of the 39th Premier League game.


Any film buffs among you will remember the closing scene of Hitchcock’s film ‘The 39 Steps.’ Based in 1914, the film centres around the murky world of espionage. At its denouement, the hero, Richard Hannay after surviving a series of escapades, is in a musical hall. On stage is ‘Mr Memory’ an act who can recall myriad facts at the drop of a hat. Questions are fired at him, and he replies accurately. Hannay however knows that the man’s memory is being used by a secret organisation of spies – called The 39 Steps – to smuggle secret formulas out of the country.  Hannay calls out a question. “What is The 39 Steps?” Aware that armed members of the gang are in the theatre, Mr Memory hesitates. Hannay asks again and again. Mr Memory eventually gives way to his professional pride and reveals the secret, at which he is gunned down by an unseen assailant.  All very dramatic, I hear you say, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with football. Well, yes and no. And the reason why lies in a few numbers.

At a recent pre-season tournament in America, for a spurious trophy no-one will remember the name of in a couple of years’ time, Manchester United lined up to play Real Madrid. Always a big game, I suppose, but the key number here is 109,318. This is how many fans crowded into the Michigan Stadium to watch the game. Do you want another number?  Let’s try 750,000,000 for size. That’s the number in pounds sterling that American motor manufacturing company Chevrolet paid to sponsor United’s famous red shirts for the next ten years. And there’s one more. I’m going for 39. There are 38 games in a season for Premier League clubs – and then you add one. And that one is where the rub comes in.

Back in 2008 Peter Scudamore, head honcho of the Premier League, decided to stick his head above the parapets and raised his hand. “Guys,” you can almost imagine him calling out. “I’ve got an idea!” Every pre-season, clubs were jetting around the world for foreign tours to the Far East or America in order to drum up more sales for replica shirts and promote their brand to a willing and receptive audience.  Seeing this, Scudamore, adopting a very Baldrick-esque approach, and seeking to feed more money to the voracious appetites of the clubs within his organisation, had a cunning plan. Why not extend the season by one game, and play that game abroad.

Now, on the surface, you can see the rationale. Take a game abroad to promote not only the Premier League inflate even further the potential fees for selling overseas broadcast rights, but also allow the clubs to promote themselves and thereby gain new fans. Or, to put it another way, sell more merchandise. Brilliant, eh! Well, no, not so much as it turned out.

The 39th step was not universally well accepted. In fact quite the reverse. Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, ever keen to secure the votes of his followers, sorry, that should be ever keen to protect the interests of the members of his organisation, was not enamoured of the prospect. Having imported Premier League clubs coming out to countries with less-developed league structures would only diminish the domestic game in comparison. Blatter was not having that.

In fairness, the idea didn’t even find much favour with the Football Association. FA Chairman at the time, Lord Triesman remarked that “We haven’t got what I would call a sustainable plan in front of us. The whole of the process requires some fresh thinking and some substantive answers to the questions I’ve posed. If the Premier League have other proposals, I hope they come back with them relatively quickly.”

The peer who was later to leave the organisation under a bit of a cloud, shall we say, had raised the questions he referred to, in Parliament. Citing an already congested fixture list, he also warned of the folly of ruffling Fifa feathers. England were bidding to host the 2018 World Cup, and upsetting the world organisation may not have added to the prospects of success. I’m not too sure that it did the venture much good in the final analysis anyway though! He also added that there would inevitably be a measure of iniquity in the proposal as to who played whom and where, thus unbalancing the season, which I suppose was fair enough. With no-one to support his idea, Scudamore hastily dropped it, and walked away whistling quietly and hoping no-one would notice or remember.

A couple of years later, during an interview on Radio 5, he was asked again about the prospect. At the time, the then Blackburn Rovers’ manager, Sam Allardyce had offered it fairly tepid support. Not quite using the phrase ‘over my dead body’ however, Scudamore sought to build a wall around the offending concept, with it on the inside and him on the outside. “It’s not anywhere in our sights. We have moved on. We have just done a fantastic renegotiation of our international TV rights. There is no economic need to do it. We always said it was about generating money for the other clubs because it would be distributed evenly – international rights have done that. We understand. We got the hairdryer treatment from public opinion and therefore we kind of backed off it. I don’t see it in our sights at all.” Job done, then. Killed that one off, stone dead. It’s out of here. I’ve washed my hands of it.

Now, that’s all well and good as far as it goes. Let’s return to the present day however, and those numbers keep coming back; plus there are a few more things now to throw into the pot as well. Whisper it so quietly, but the question is being asked about whether casting the 39th game as a step too far may have been a big mistake.  Get the wrecking ball and knock that wall down again. ‘Come in number 39, your time is up!’ The problem may be of course, that in the interim, other things have happened, and instead of being ahead of the curve, the Premier League may well running a little behind it – trying to catch up. Here’s some more numbers to illustrate the point.

Nine will be the number of successive years the NFL has played fixtures at Wembley when the Dolphins take on the Raiders later this year. Three is the number of NBA games that will have been played at London’s O2 arena, when the Bucks and the Knicks visit the capital early next year, after the previous two games drew sell-out crowds. Three is also the number of times Serie A has taken their version of the Community Shield to Beijing in the last five years, and one represents the debut for the French Ligue 1 version that also debuted there recently. The 65,000 plus fans that packed the stadium in Miami as United played Liverpool in the final of the ‘’whatsitsname cup” is a slightly lower number than the masses in Michigan, but would represent a record attendance for most Premier League clubs.

The 39th game, as a competitive league match, with points at stake may still be some way off, but the Community Shield seems ripe for a tour of the world’s major cities starting any time soon. On the subject of travels, journey back with me for a moment to that musical hall in Hitchcok’s film. Richard Hannay comforts the dying Mr Memory. Before he loses consciousness however, he needs to know that he had given the correct answer – professional pride and all that. “Am I right, sir?” he asks. “Quite right, old chap,” confirms Hannay. Mr Memory smiles slightly. “Thank you, sir. Thank you. I’m glad it’s off my mind. Glad.” With that he expires. Nobody had a gun pointing at Peter Scudamore half-a-dozen years ago when he first answered the call of the 39. The mere clamour of opposition was enough to quell his enthusiasm.

Perhaps if he had stuck at it, asking again, as with Hannay, the present scenario would have been different. It may have cost England the chance of hosting the World Cup – oh no, hang on, scratch that – but the Premier League may well have been a more cosmopolitan competition by now. Is it a good idea? I’m still not so sure, but it seems a far more likely prospect than it did in 2008.


Photo by @tdysports

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