By Jason McKeown
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Premier League. Expect to hear lots of backslapping about the global success of England’s top division, the usual re-runs of Keegan’s I-would-love-it rant and memorable footage of the undeniably huge talents of Cantona, Zola, Shearer, Bergkamp, Henry, Ronaldo and Suarez.
But don’t expect much mention – at least from the Premier League press office – about how, back in 1992, the biggest clubs in English football sold out everybody else by breaking away, in order to keep all the previously shared out TV money. How the vision of setting up the Premier League was originally communicated upon the premise that it would help the England team (it hasn’t). And how, since 1992, around half of the Football League clubs have experienced severe financial difficulties, often meaning they are lucky to still be here.
The rest of us, who were not invited to the original Premier League party, have regrouped and moved forwards. The Football League is a genuinely fantastic product. The strength of interest in the English lower leagues is unmatched anywhere around the world. We’ve survived in spite of, not because of, the Premier League. Happy to be largely left to get on with it.
Only in recent years, it increasingly feels like they won’t leave us to do just that. That the huge compromises that were made aren’t good enough for those who have taken so much. That we should restructure our own divisions for no other benefit than the the game’s elite.
(Much of it, laughably, hidden behind more vague commitments to aid the England team.)
It began with mutterings, several years ago, from Rafa Benitez about adding Premier League youth teams to the Football League, like they do in Spain. In 2014 the FA’s Greg Dyke turned that idea into a concrete proposal: one that was widely ridiculed. Dyke’s concept went away, but there is talk of allowing B teams to enter the JPT next season.
And now this. On Thursday, the Football League put forward groundbreaking proposals to restructure and expand the three-tier system into four – titled ‘A whole game solution’. In other words create a fifth division, with the existing three leagues slimmed down from 24 to 20. It would all begin in 2019, just three years from now.
There is no huge mention of Premier League B teams, but it has been strongly suggested that the eight extra spaces the restructure would cause might be taken by B teams (we can guess which eight clubs would be allowed to do this, and I bet Leicester wouldn’t be one of them). Alternatively, they could be taken up by National League teams. Presumably no one at the Football League is worried about wrecking the level below them.
However misguided they are, I really, really hope that these ideas are truly the Football League’s own; and not the result of pressure from, or secret meetings with, the Premier League. But if the Premier League were given a free hand to restructure the Football League to better suit their interests, you suspect that what they’d come up with wouldn’t be much different to this Football League proposal. Rightly or wrongly, their fingerprints seem to be all over this.
And that is worrying, because when the Football League put forward ‘A whole game solution’, whilst simultaneously discussing compensating clubs, you know that even they know these ideas are not in their members’ best interests. So understandably, the likes of Mark Lawn and Accrington’s Andy Holt have hit out at the proposals. Their comments are spot on, and suggest that the Football League’s intention to get near-universal approval will fail.
The views of the 72 clubs are hugely important of course, but so too are that of us supporters.
It is said of the new Premier League TV deal that every club can let their fans in for free next season and they will still make more money than this year; so there is nothing to stop top flight clubs ignoring their fans. Football League clubs do not have such a luxury. Our custom, and our money, matters greatly.
The Football League probably won’t ask us lot what we think of ‘A whole game solution’, but I’m going to feedback on them anyway. Here is my view of each part of the idea. This is from a run-of-the-mill, reasonably long-standing lower league football fan.
“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.”
Straight from the start, this seems like a terrible idea. There is something fantastic about the four-tier structure in England, and as a Bradford City supporter who has seen his team play in all four divisions, I like the differing quirks and levels of ability that charactertises each league.
But adding another tier doesn’t enhance this, it weakens it. Right now, if you’re in League Two and you get promoted to League One, you’re just one level away from the Championship and playing against really big teams. It is a promotion that means a lot. It would be very hard to be excited in the same way about being promoted from League Three to League Two. You would still feel such a long way down the pecking order.
Far worse than that is the reduction in games. The Football League suggests slimming down each division to 20 as “The congested fixture list remains one of the game’s biggest concerns with insufficient dates available in each season to sensibly accommodate both League and Cup fixtures without significant clashes” and that the new system would “maximise the number of weekend/Bank Holiday league fixtures”.
I have never heard any lower league fan or club complain about the number of fixtures we play, or that the 46-game season is too long. For sure, some relegated Premier League clubs, struggling in the harsh realities of the Championship, bemoan the relentless schedule and talk about it being a marathon. But overall it works and works well.
I remember when City were in the Premier League and we would often go weeks without a home game, due to the lower number of matches (38) and numerous international breaks. At our level, home fixtures are the club’s lifeblood and to reduce this revenue by making games more infrequent would add to the financial pressures rather than improve them.
And it is somewhat insulting to suggest that compensation to clubs could make up for this. Does the Football League really want to prop up its own members, no doubt with the help of the Premier League? Why create this kind of hand-to-mouth reliance? To make us weaker to the whims of the bigger clubs? It feels sinister simply because it is so illogical.
“If implemented , the proposal would The number [sic] of midweek matches reduce from next season’s nine in the Championship, seven in League One and six in League Two to just one in the Championship, League Two and the new League Three and none in League One in 2019/20.”
This is another curious concern raised – the idea that midweek fixtures are bad. I love going down to Valley Parade on a Tuesday, and I enjoy a midweek away trip. What’s more, I know of a lot of City fans who can’t go to games at weekends due to work commitments, so only go to midweek matches.
Of course, attendances are reduced slightly for midweek games, and that is a dilemma. Up until a few years ago, local away fixtures would almost always be midweek, and long distance games on a Saturday. City, for example, were always at Rochdale on a Tuesday. That has changed of late, you suspect because clubs don’t want to see a reduced away attendance by welcoming a team with a large fanbase on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday. Some fixtures seem to be written off in that respect, and you often see Tuesday night games between clubs hundreds of miles apart.
Take last September. City went down to Colchester on a Tuesday night (and later in the season welcomed Colchester midweek), and then a few days later travelled to Rochdale on a Saturday (and, similarily, played Rochdale at home on a Saturday). Logic suggests these fixtures should have been switched around, but clubs are clearly pushing for this type of arrangement. Perhaps, also, so the team can travel there and back in a day without the cost of overnight accommodation.
But still, this isn’t enough of a reason to try and abolish midweek games.
“Potential to reduce squad size” and “Enhanced recovery time/match preparation”
Shaun Harvey has spoken that a bigger gap between fixtures will mean clubs can have smaller squads, and thus save costs, because there is more time to recover from injuries. Again, this makes no sense as injuries can occur at anytime. It also seems depressing of the Football League to suggest employing fewer footballers. Why is an industry that is largely working so well proactively looking to downsize?
“The importance of each individual fixture will increase”
This also makes no sense. League tables and football seasons are about maths, and that doesn’t change if there are 38 games or 46. The highly competitive nature of the Football League, with play offs and relegation, means there are very few meaningless games anyway.
I remember watching City lose 2-1 at home to Macclesfield in the 2009/10 season, when there were seven games of the season to go. That fixture was the only one of 12 League Two games that day where neither team had anything to play for. The Football League is full of important fixtures and all times of year.
“Increase in sale of season tickets due to reduction in midweek games”
It is hard to believe people don’t buy season tickets due to midweek games. If they say this, they’re probably looking for an excuse not to buy one. And they would just as quickly refuse to get a season ticket if the number of home games goes down from 23 to 19.
“Increased profile on League One, Two & Three at different stages of the season”
How? This is a meaningless statement.
“Increased importance of reserve team football”
In what way? And does reserve team football really need to be considered more important?
“Opportunity to standardise promotion/relegation”
What does this mean? Is anyone really upset that there are three relegation places in the Championship, four in League One and a couple in League Two?
“Statistically greater chance of promotion (and relegation)”
Perhaps, but right now few lower league fans start the season not believing they can get promoted. No division is a closed shop. At the end of the day, the same number of teams will go up or down.
“Different formats for the Football League Trophy available”
It has been suggested that there they will introduce a group stage (which is how the JPT worked back in the 90s, where there were groups of three teams and, shockingly, it led to meaningless games that no one wanted to pay to watch).
Another idea mooted is to play JPT games on Saturdays when international breaks occur. This contradicts so many other points made. Clubs are supposed to lose four home games per season, and replace them with a Saturday afternoon JPT game. I think they’d all much rather have a league match with a bigger crowd.
Equally, international week is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Leagues One and Two, and Sky TV often cover two or three games over that weekend. What would be the point of not playing a league match over this weekend? Most clubs don’t have enough internationals to warrant calling their game off.
“Avoiding a ‘problematic’ fixture clash with UEFA Competitions”
This one falls under the Premier League and FA’s objectives, and stems from the fact that UEFA fines football associations who allow top flight/cup games to take place on the same night as a Champions League or UEFA Cup match. It was for this reason that City’s FA Cup quarter final replay with Reading, last season, was ludicrously played on a Monday evening.
Nothing must take away attention from UEFA’s competitions and the TV audience, apparently, but why Football League games on the same night is an issue is something I don’t understand. Is it really a problem if 18,000 people in Bradford watch their team play on the same night as Chelsea face Paris St. German in the Champions League? Why should we stop what we’re doing to watch two teams we don’t care about?
Especially when the UEFA Champions League and Europa League are shown on BT Sport, meaning to watch it we have to pay around £20 a month or become a BT broadband customer. If you are that desperate for us to watch your precious elite competitions, don’t hide them behind a paywall. Why are we forced to change our ways to boost UEFA’s profits? It’s time the FA challenged this.
“Retaining the value and status of the FA Cup Competition”
A noble cause, until you read that these proposals would allow discussions to progress on abolishing FA Cup replays and to result in some rounds of the FA Cup being scheduled for – wait for it – midweek instead of a Saturday. So in other words, the Premier League clubs who can’t really be bothered with the FA Cup anymore want to downgrade it even further, by clearing the lower league fixture schedule so they can shunt cup games to midweek.
Imagine if Chelsea vs City had taken place on a Tuesday night instead of a Saturday? Actually don’t, it would have been nowhere near as good or as lucrative for Bradford City.
“Increasing the prospect of success for Clubs in European competitions”
What’s that got to do with us? Oh right, B teams…
“Increasing the prospect of success for England Teams at all levels”
You’re fooling no one.
So now then…
There is a growing danger that the wishes of the elite are disproportionately listened to, and screw the rest of us. People supposedly in charge of the game’s heart and soul, like UEFA, are more concerned with making sure we watch Manchester United on TV than Accrington Stanley in the flesh.
This is not right. And we, the lower league clubs, who are largely ignored, should be left to enjoy our football. We are not the answer to the problems of the Premier League. We are not a threat to the success of the Champions League. Leave us alone, stop trying to fix what isn’t broken.
And that message should go loud and clear to our own: the Football League, who are supposed to put our interests first. No one should get complacent, but the Football League’s three divisions are largely well-supported and generate lots of attention. The ideas mooted only downgrade the quality of the product, and suddenly there is a real risk of alienating your core audience.
And that is something that no lower league club can afford to do.