Another set of half-baked proposals from the Football League

Posted by on May 20, 2016 in Uncategorized | 10 Comments
Another set of half-baked proposals from the Football League

Two summers ago, I stood on the stoop of a pub in Oxford and was interviewed over the telephone by the We Are Going Up podcast about the proposals to introduce reserve teams of Premier League clubs into the Football League.

Met with a volley of outbursts and snorts as it was, the idea was given short shrift in most quarters (aside from Mark Warburton – a man who knows a thing or two now about ‘big’ clubs operating below their natural level) and we have heard little since. Yesterday, however, the Football League announced a new set of points for discussion.

To quote the Football League’s website:

Under the proposal, The Football League would become a four division competition below the Premier League, including a new League Three, with 100 clubs competing across the professional game. In addition, the League Cup and League Trophy will be retained with the latter potentially having a revised format include a group structure of three games before becoming a knockout competition thereafter.

It’s my natural reaction to meet such announcements in the manner I would welcome a new single from Travis or a speech from Michael Gove but I’ll admit to being initially seduced by one of the major points made.

A reduction in the number of midweek matches per division to 1 – while a somewhat dramatic lessening compared to the current 9 in the Championship, does, on the face of it, seem like a good idea.

I speak primarily as a consumer and it’s long been a real sense of anguish to me that it’s impossible to attend a distant midweek game in England because there are no trains or other forms of public transport back after the match. Even within a region, it can be a real effort getting home at a godly hour.

This factor seems to have been continually ignored by a phalanx of supporters for midweek fixtures including hotel-abiding journos and car driving Clarkson admirers. True, I find as appealing as anyone the attractions of a game under ‘under the lights’ but I’ve been denied trips to Brighton two years in a row now and when a soon forgotten FA Cup run led to a match at Middlesbrough being served up on a Tuesday night, is it any surprise that the away support struggled to get into three figures?

The number of deadening games seems to have become larger in recent years and, along with the tendency to schedule a full programme at mad times of years such as early December, the impact of the play-offs which for a time seemed to allow every team to have a cause to fight for until very close to the end of the season, has lately been impaired. I am also inclined to agree with the Football League that 24 teams in a division is an unnaturally high number.

But on twitter yesterday, esteemed journalist Michael Calvin had this to say:

Let’s judge the FL leadership on their record. Bought off by the PL when convenient to the PL. Unconvincing on ownership issues. Hardly reassuring.

Is this fair? Is this a thin end of the wedge that will see us undertaking away trips to Bournemouth reserves in a few short years? Is the whole concept of ‘The 92 Club’ out the window – will Converse serve an injunction to ban usage of the phrase ‘The 100 Club’.

Sadly, probably.

The proposals do, I’m afraid, reek of FA and Premier League pressure. Next season is a key one for the Championship in particular and one imagines huffiness at UEFA headquarters that Newcastle may face Leeds in a televised fixture on the same evening as Gent versus Wolfsburg or, let’s face it, the approximate 197th meeting between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the past 3 seasons. As my fellow blogger Lloyd tweeted this week – he longed to be watching Accrington against AFC Wimbledon rather than Liverpool’s failed bid for Europa League glory.

There’s also that B team spectre again – one of the cited reasons for the proposals is that they will bring ‘increased importance of reserve team football’ – how exactly? I can only see this being true if the floodgates were opened an inch and the Trojan Horse of Premier League under-21 sides allowed in. That whole suggestion of Stoke or Manchester City’s reserves competing in a league with the first teams of our clubs remains a reason for boycott to set alongside the 39th game, the Qatar World Cup and Robbie Savage’s continuing deployment as a pundit.

The League also suggest there will be an ‘increase in the sale of season tickets due to the reduction in midweek game’.

How so? Will clubs be forced to bring down the price of season tickets? There is already massive variation from club to club and a drop in match day revenue from 23 to 19 matches has already been voiced by club owners as a reason to resist the proposals. If the idea is that TV money will fill the hole in revenue that remains, then who remembers ITV Digital?

It’s for this last reason in the main that there is a fair chance the proposals won’t succeed despite the ‘in principle’ support of executives (does anyone else immediately picture the well fed face of Wolves’ Jez Moxey in their mind at this point?).

There has to be 65% support for the new four team format and while another mooted reason – a reduction in squad size – might please club finance officers, they are free to do this anyway given the precariousness of contracts and record numbers of players being released. On the flip side of this, the Professional Footballers’ Association won’t welcome a lessening of its membership.

Central to the plans is the idea of no relegation in the 2018-19 season – a ‘readjustment’ perhaps but words that are likely to be jumped upon by executives of struggling clubs as evidence of a precedent that could be introduced more permanently to suit the wealthy. The League is at pains to state that three up, three down will exist as a principle with the Premier League but, quite frankly, it won’t be up to them if someone tries to change this.

While a degree of change is to be welcomed and there are certainly things that need altering about a structure that can serve up an alarming degree of unexciting matches, that 65% requirement seems likely to leave the plans, if not in tatters, heavily modified by the time they become reality.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

10 Comments

  1. Steve Rumble
    May 20, 2016

    Rob, so that’s 20 Prem clubs plus 100 FL clubs in 4 divisions. Or does the 100 include Prem and FL is 20 per division?

    Reply
    • Rob Langham
      May 20, 2016

      I think it includes the Prem, Steve – still marooned about 20 short myself!

      Reply
  2. Rich Russell
    May 20, 2016

    If a so called Champions league fixture is less attractive than a Championship fixture, what needs to be fixed?

    They are losing viewers because their competition is boring. Screwing up our leagues is not the solution.

    Reply
    • Matt Rowson
      May 20, 2016

      Completely agree with this. Appreciate that this is just a “proposal”… but frankly, as a Watford fan the thing I miss most about the Championship is the number of games. Particularly, the number of midweek games (we had one at home this season).

      I don’t give a stuff about the Champions’ League, and resent the ongoing suggestion that the rest of the world should be inconvenienced to accommodate it.

      Reply
    • tim
      June 4, 2016

      Couldn’t agree more.

      Reply
  3. Danny
    May 20, 2016

    Dover could finally make that leap into the football league. For that reason I’m in.

    Reply
  4. John Lish
    May 20, 2016

    If anything these proposals suggest that something more radical is in the pipeline.

    Financially if we exclude more ‘solidarity’ payments from the Premier League, the only division capable of sustaining a 20 team league would be the 2nd tier as more exclusivity could be sold as a better product for television. For teams lower down the tiers, matchday income remains the basis for the bulk of their revenue. Reducing the number of matches would seriously stress their finances.

    The current marketing of the Football League is FL72 reflecting the 3×24 clubs in each division.

    The ‘compromise’ to be made is I suggest is that there will be four divisions in the Football League as currently proposed but that they will consist of respectively 20 clubs, 24 clubs, 24 clubs and 24 clubs. That would make 92 clubs in the Football League. FL92? Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

    So instead of pushing numerous clubs down a tier (relegating 14 clubs from League 2), this can be sold as creating a ‘new’ tier between the 20 club Premier League and the 24 club Championship.

    Such a ‘compromise’ would require bringing 18 additional clubs into the Football League plus the two current promotion spots from the National League. That’s a lot of capacity to be filled. Does anyone think they would all come from the existing pyramid?

    This is why the current mood music includes the Scottish Daily Record reporting that Rangers and Celtic are possibilities in this reorganisation. A ‘new’ 2nd tier of 20 clubs would slot them in at a level where they both would be comfortable. It might be possible to take more than just the two Glasgow ‘giants’ from the Scottish game in this scenario but whether they would want to is another matter.

    It would also create the opportunities for B teams to take some of those slots. It would create a tension between the clubs in the National League and the National League itself because you would question the viability of the National League if most of its members were absorbed into the Football League. The words being used of “respecting the pyramid” are open to interpretation here.

    This initial suggestion of four divisions of 20 clubs is the opening gambit. What comes next as a proposal will be the real goal for reorganisation.

    Reply
  5. Sven
    May 20, 2016

    One of the tensions is between national and regional competitions.
    As some, including National league chairs, are already saying, there is already too much travel in the National/Conference around the entire country to face small crowds.

    Restructuring is an opportunity to regionalise, but the FL’s proposal
    goes in the other direction, adding a new league that would require more national travel with fewer games.

    Reply
  6. Drabman
    May 20, 2016

    Man – the Premier League/Big clubs are good. 20-odd years ago they managed to convince the Football League and the FA to cut their own throats, on the basis that the England Team would benefit hugely from the establishment of a semi-autonomous jamboree of empty glitz and glamour with its members enjoying a huge imbalance of resources and profile vis-a-vis the poor bloody infantry.

    Of course this promised improvement in the fortunes of the national team never actually materialised (since that was never really the point at all). However as always, things went exactly according to plan for the powerful and their Supersoaraway Premier League is now awash with TV cash and the dirty/blood money of oligarchs with truly alarming backgrounds and human rights-abusing dictators, the key to creating a series of financial glass ceilings which have killed the dream for most of the hoi-polloi in what was once “the 92”.

    In the process a once-envied top-flight fan culture has been corroded to the level of the queue for Buckingham Palace and the Hard Rock Cafe, with tourists entertained by empty games of “Our Billionaire Is Bigger Than Your Billionaire” and the majority apparently having lost sight of the huge social value of football and the ethos that there is more to a football club than league position.

    The contagion is now spreading even beyond the confines of the Premier and Football Leagues themselves – witness the farcical sight of Ecotricity Marketing FC (a.k.a Forest Green Rovers) a club that could only take 4’000 fans to Wembley for the biggest day in its history (and even then amid claims of employees of the owner being bussed in) but which has a bigger budget than many clubs in League 1 – along with a multi-million pound debt bankrolled by their hugely wealthy owner.

    Given the way in which VIncent Tan was rightly lambasted it’s funny how said owner and his club are given such fawning coverage and goodwill, when he has not only changed the clubs strip and badge to match his company’s image, but is moving them to a different town ( to a stadium which the club won’t own). Contrast the attitude towards Ecotricity Marketing FC in England and the widespread opprobrium heaped on the equally odious Red Bull Marketing FC (aka RB Leipzig) by German fans and you begin to see just how warped things have become in this country.

    Now that part one of the Big Club/Premier League mission has been accomplished, the next stage of All Power To The Powerful is set in motion – again ostensibly in order to “help the National Team”.

    In a spirit of noble self-sacrifice those outside the elite are to once again help the elite – sorry, “the country” – by scrapping things they’ve long held dear and which in some cases are even vital to their existence – evening games, Saturday FA Cup ties and cup replays.

    While all this is going on the David Blaines of the Premier League and elements of the Football League are managing to convince some people that reducing the opportunity to reach the Championship (the holy grail for many small clubs now that the daydream of entry to the top-flight – a la Carlisle etc – has been effectively barred) by reducing the number of clubs that can get there and potentially increasing the hurdles/promotions necessary, is actually a good thing.

    Of course its a complete accident that the huge and probably ever-increasing Premier League parachute payments, allied to a smaller second tier, will take us towards a de facto closed shop even more quickly than before. Never mind – at least for a time it will also make the big clubs outside the Premier League in the Championship, and those egregiously financially doped clubs alongside them, more secure in what is likely to be an equallly semi-closed, revolving-door second tier – no wonder moneybags Brentford are so happy. Looks like Premier League 2 wasn’t so dead after all eh?

    The only consolation is that those of us who can see the eventual PL breakaway/Superleague coming in the death of a thousand reorganisations, financial restructuring and manipulative rule-changes will be laughing at those big and financially doped clubs who ended up being too clever by half and found themselves locked out with the rest of the great unwashed.

    Reply
  7. Drabman
    May 20, 2016

    “the Premier League and elements of the Football League are managing to convince some people that reducing the opportunity to reach the Championship…by reducing the number of clubs that can get there and potentially increasing the hurdles/promotions necessary, is actually a good thing”

    Should read – “by reducing the number of clubs that can play in the Championship AT ANY ONE TIME, rather than get there per se.

    Reply

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