By Jason McKeown
We lower league football fans don’t ask for much. We’re happy to be left to our own devices, engrossed in our own ups and downs that are a world away from the bright lights of the Premier League.
Those at the top voted to break free from us 25 years ago, so they could retain the vast majority of the eye-popping wealth that has come their way through lucrative TV deal after lucrative TV deal. It has resulted in a Premier League that is hugely watchable, with some of the world’s best players gracing the very best English stadiums. But down at our end, our own successes and failures are no less relevant or worthy to us.
We get on with it happily, and with little complaint.
But rather than leave us alone, in recent years the Premier League has been looking more closely at our set up and what we could do for them. B teams exist in the continent’s lower leagues, as nursery outfits for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. And their national teams are pretty handy too, certainly better than England, which has got worse as the Premier League has got richer. To paraphrase HG Wells, they look on us with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against us.
Premier League B teams would work nicely in the Football league – at least they would for Premier League A teams. It would give them much more competitive fixtures to test their young guns in, which would undoubtedly make them better footballers. This would benefit the clubs and – at a stretch – the England national team. And all we in the Football League have to do is roll over, kick out some of our own to make room for Manchester United juniors, or failing that expand from three to four leagues.
It feel as though no one cares what us – the lower league supporters happy with our own world – think. Greg Dyke, the former chair of the FA, certainly didn’t – unveiling a version of the B team idea in 2014. Even more worrying, Shaun Harvey – the Football League chairman – doesn’t exactly come across as fighting out own corner.
And this week sees the B team battle take a step closer to coming into being, with the very real and very depressing spectre of Premier League B teams in the Football League Trophy. Bradford City will play Stoke City Under 23s on Tuesday in what will be a socially historic occasion, albeit one that won’t be witnessed by many people. Elsewhere in the country this week, you can catch Rochdale vs Sunderland, Sheffield United vs Leicester City, Bristol Rovers vs Reading and Millwall vs West Brom.
The fact that Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have declined the invitation to take part in the Football League Trophy is very interesting. That Championship side Newcastle United – managed by the person who started this whole B team debate several years ago, Rafa Benitez – also turned down the chance to enter speaks volumes.
As the Football League unveiled the new format of the Football League Trophy over the summer, the Premier League was launching the Premier League 2, which replaces the much-derided Under 21s Premier League that was central to this debate. Richard Scudamore, Premier League executive chairman, said about the new competition, “This is the beginning of the end of B teams – this is it. That’s the whole point of it, to be honest. We are absolutely consistent on our view about no B teams in the Football League.
“We can console all these worried Football League clubs’ supporters. This isn’t the thin end of the wedge, this is the block. It’s the beginning of the end of it.”
All of which sounds very reassuring. Yet the big unanswered question is why the Football League ran with this Football League Trophy competition idea in the first place, having clearly not secured the behind-the-scenes buy in of the top, top clubs,. Does the plan complement or even rival the Premier League 2? The Football League seemingly weren’t railroaded into revamping the competition by the Premier League, and it’s hard to believe they thought it would be a crowd puller (if they did, they clearly know very little about lower league football which would be hugely worrying for different reasons).
You suspect the new Football League Trophy format was meant to be a pre-emptive strike in view of the bigger battles ahead, and that a failed Premier League 2 would see the debate return. With the pressure to accommodate B teams likely to get stronger over the next few years – and the opposition to it for that matter – the Football League might have seen this as a good compromise that could stop the movement. Give a little, but don’t sacrifice the core product of lower league football.
That’s why it’s worrying that top clubs have turned this down, because on their list of reasons for doing so I doubt ‘risk of devaluing lower league football’ was amongst them. Those who want to drive the B team change clearly want more than for their young charges to play some Football League Trophy group games on a Tuesday night in front of sparse crowds, they want much more. If Premier League 2 is as unrewarding as the Under 21 version (and there is little reason to suggest it will be radically different) they will come again demanding it.
For many the answer to the Football League’s dilemma is obvious – tell the Premier League to do one. But unfortunately it’s not that simple, and the reason why is depressingly simple: money.
This season has seen the start of yet another record-breaking TV deal, the vast majority of which is shared out amongst the 20 Premier League clubs. But over the last few years the Football League has benefited to – and that will be increasingly the case.
This season, each Championship club will receive a payment of £4.9 million (up from £2 million), League One outfits £729k (up from £360k) and League Two sides £486k (up from £240k). That money matters. For a small League Two club, it probably affords them five extra players a season. At the top of the Championship, it’s a key factor in why players are being bought for millions these days.
In the intensely competitive Football League, where money is often tight at the bottom end, the Premier League’s solidarity payments make a huge difference.
And as the saying goes, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Because of its ‘generosity’ the Premier League has a lot more power in shaping the ground beneath them. They can ask for certain things in return for the millions they give away, and the Football League is not in the strongest of positions to say no. After all, if those solidarity payments were to be withdrawn, some lower league clubs would struggle to survive. There’s a dependence on that money now, which has got us to this big crossroads for the Football League.
Another important factor is that one-third of the voting club members – and the biggest recipients of the solidarity money – have even less reason to go against the Premier League. Why would a Championship club with ambitions of getting into the top flight care about Leagues One and Two becoming infested with B teams, or entering the Football League Trophy? If standing shoulder to shoulder with Torquay and Morecambe risks those solidarity payments getting switched off, then it will be even harder for Championship clubs to compete with relegated Premier League clubs boosted by parachute payments.
Leagues One and Two, you’re kind of on your own with this one.
As fans we need to be ready to fight our corner, and that of our clubs, but we must do it smartly and in an organised manner. After all, it’s forever quoted that the three divisions are amongst the best supported in Europe – no other country has a lower league structure as strong as ours – so we can be a powerful voice. It’s a power we need to use wisely by coming together.
Which brings me on to the boycott talk of this week. Expect one of football’s biggest talking points over the next few days to be woefully small attendances at games like the Bantams vs Stoke City. All over social media there are people declaring they are boycotting these Football League Trophy games and strongly urging others to do the same. I understand the reasoning and the principle – I really do – but I’m not convinced it will cause the right damage. So I’ll still be watching City vs Stoke City under 23s this week.
The problem we – the lower league fans – face in boycotting the competition is we will kill it. The Southend United chairman explained over the summer that this revamp was a chance to revive a competition that always struggles for attendances and interest. If people don’t do go this season, it’s highly unlikely the competition would go back to the old format next season – there wouldn’t be enough incentive to do so. Shaun Harvey stated a few weeks ago, “The competition needed to change to survive.”
If this goes wrong, the Football League Trophy will disappear from our fixture list. Some will shrug their shoulders at that prospect, but I’m not one of them. I like the Football League Trophy, and over the years I’ve missed only a handful of City games. It’s different, it’s interesting in its own way, and there’s a big prize at the end.
Last season 59,230 people went to Wembley to watch Barnsley beat Oxford United in the Football League Trophy Final. If City reached the final this year, we’d take thousands to the national stadium. You don’t start the season dreaming of Football League Trophy glory, but we are hardly such a majorly successful football club that the silverware we could lift from winning it would be no big deal.
Yes, the early rounds get ignored and that’s not brilliant if you’re a chairman of a Football League club, barely achieving a profit from hosting such fixtures. But many of us do make an effort to go and enjoy it for what it is. We like football, and we like watching our football team. The two major cup competitions generally only offer fleeting glimpses of success, this is another opportunity.
A boycott hurts our own clubs first and foremost. City have to incur certain matchday costs this week, and without a paying crowd it will result in a loss. That’s why it will be easy to scrap the competition completely if it doesn’t work out. Another consequence of clubs’ gate receipts going down is that their reliance on the solidarity payments will go up further. And that gives the Premier League a stronger hand for pushing B teams into the Football League.
I’d personally be in favour of smarter protests to the competition’s odd new format. Staged demonstrations at games, or something akin to the Liverpool fans’ 77th minute walkout against Sunderland last season. That protest – against Liverpool putting prices to £77 – was really impactful and it succeeded. Portsmouth fans are planning a walkout in this style and that looks a much more meaningful way to make your feelings known.
We could do something co-ordinated at games across the country this week or at the next round of fixtures. We could collectively mount a campaign that goes straight to the Football League, so they know how we really feel. We can be vocal in ways that don’t financially hurt our own club or risk disengaging ourselves from the bigger arguments. Voting with our feet is powerful and I fully respect those who do it, but we’re not talking about going from sell out football matches to one man and his dog. The impact of a boycott will be very limited.
And I’m not sure it will solve the larger battles to come. The League Three idea, the need to address yet another wretched England campaign at a major tournament, the growing influence of managers from a background or country where B teams are normal pushing for this change – these and other arguments for ripping up the Football League, to further the causes of the elite, require constructive dialogue and a strong opposition campaign from us.
I don’t think killing our own cup competition through boycott is going to stop this movement in the long-term, because it’s evidently not the answer the Premier League was looking for in the first place. It does not hurt Stoke City in any way for us to refuse to watch Bradford City play their under 23s tonight, but it does hurt Bradford City, and ultimately us supporters.
In the Premier League we are up against a very powerful – and very wealthy – enemy, and there’s a danger we are too much in their pockets to stand up to them on the bigger things. The Football League Trophy format is a compromise that didn’t have to be made, and it needs to be undone without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
So I’ll be at Valley Parade this week because first and foremost I’m a City supporter, and secondly I’m a lower league supporter who enjoys our weird quirks and our tinpot competition. If someone’s going to try and wreck our way of life, I’d rather be in the room to fight them.