League football in England has some serious problems. These include, in no particular order: the generally poor financial state of the clubs; the chasm between the Football League’s revenues and those of the Premier League; numerous rogue owners; increasingly uneconomic academies; a lack of investment in grassroots facilities and coaching; unaffordably high ticket prices; and glacial progress on fan ownership and safe standing.
It’s quite a list. If not existential challenges for the League, these are at least the kind of issues that demand visionary, strategic thinking. It’s dispiriting then that the two largest initiatives from the Football League in the last twelve months have been a rebranding exercise and a proposal to introduce a new division with extra teams.
This is modern Britain; a place where people in leadership positions can no longer tell the difference between what’s real and what’s a marketing gimmick. Look north of the boarder. If reorganising the divisions solved anything, Scottish football would be the most successful in Europe.
And so, while the Premier League is squeezing the life out of English football – dominating financially, using EPPP to round up and then ruin young talent and flirting with a European Super League – we get the appalling bully Shaun Harvey and his plan to tinker with the divisions.
The Premier League conducting negotiations.
Go back to my original list of issues. Add a few of your own that I missed. And then see how many this grand plan addresses. Even a generous interpretation would have to admit that it will only really tackle them in a tangential way. Nothing on safe standing or community ownership. No reformed owners’ and directors’ test. Nothing to drastically boost club incomes or the League’s popularity. Nothing on coaching and academies. Possibly slight cost and price reductions. No new money extracted from the Premier League for declogging the fixtures calendar.
It is the grandest plan for accomplishing next-to-nothing since Frederick the Great gifted the Moon to someone as a thank you over two hundred years before the invention of space travel.
Watching the League’s leadership grapple with a scheme this half-witted might have been entertaining in the days when football’s administrators, still acclimatising themselves to the new commercial environment, were trying to figure out the ROI on fireworks, cheerleaders and half-time penalty contests between primary school children.
But that’s not where we are now. We’re precious close to an unbridgeable gap being opened between the Premier League and the rest of the divisions.
And so the sheer inadequacy of the Football League’s ambitions isn’t comical, it’s catastrophic. With a terminally hidebound FA, the future of English football depends on the League doing far, far better than this.
The twenty-eighth of April 1994 is the date of what’s probably my most fondly remembered football match. It took place not at Old Trafford or Anfield, Goodison or Highbury, but at Edgeley Park, Stockport. Bear with me; there’s a reason I mention this.
Reading, as they had been for much of the season, approached the game as leaders in the Second Division (what was then the third tier below the Premier League and Division One). Our opponents, Stockport County, had been neck-and-neck with us for the first two-thirds of the season but, as winter ebbed, they’d been overtaken by Peter Shilton’s Plymouth.
When the teams met that Thursday night, there were just three games to go. A win for Reading would stretch their lead over Stockport to nine points, all but sealing promotion. A defeat, however, risked us being dragged back into the dream-dustbin of the play-offs in the final week of the season.
I took the day off college and a friend drove us the four hours up. With characteristic panache, we stopped in a motorway petrol station for an early dinner. I served notice that this was a big occasion by eating an entire tube of Pringles, only to find myself troubled by my meal’s unreasonable saltiness. Evidently touched by big match nerves, I vomited the Pringles back up on the forecourt and we drove off. That’s how we rolled back then.
The game itself was a tense, bruising encounter with a side that remains perhaps English football’s greatest ever long ball team. Directed by the wonderful Danny Bergara, and with the double-giant strike force of Kevin Francis and Andy Preece up front, no ball was left unhoofed, no throw in unlaunched and no throat unelbowed. For 90 minutes I did nothing but cheer and wince.
After dark is when the magic happens.
In a contest of outstanding ugliness, Francis – an unsurpassed headerer and bundler of goals – put Stockport up in the first half. Reading fans brooded at halftime on the painful inevitability of our team blowing it yet again, only for the Royals to cap an outstanding second half of sustained pressure with a 78th minute equaliser.
There are few things more glorious than standing on a small, unroofed concrete terrace making, with a few hundred fellow away supporters, a noise that drowns out the 6,500 home fans. Long after they had departed, we celebrated our team and, through pats on the back from random strangers, acknowledged our shared contribution to the game.
We – the fans and the team – had done it.***
Delirious and unequipped with a map, we got as far as Liverpool on the return journey before realising we’d missed the M6 turning. We didn’t get home till nearly 3am.
It was an utterly magical night. Just the kind that Shaun Harvey would like to see fewer of.
There weren’t many people there, but it’s games like those that help bind fans to their clubs; help ensure that season tickets are renewed unquestioningly for decades.
And so, before we agree to sweep them away as an uneconomic inconvenience, we ought to be clear that there are compelling reasons for doing so; clear that here is a plan that’s going to help not just change league football, but save it.
Because fans will make sacrifices if they are convinced that this is a once-in-a-generation plan for a better, fairer, more sustainable football.
I don’t think that these proposals are the ones we’ve been waiting for, though. Because, in his roadmap for the Football League’s future, Shaun Harvey has identified its biggest problem as this: playing too much football. It is the need to address this, apparently, that could herald the greatest change to English football since the Great Schism of 1992.
It will entail cutting divisions from 24 to 20 teams, ending FA Cup replays, having fewer midweek fixtures, more Saturday 3pm starts and a winter break. It will also leave a space in the League, of which more later, for eight new teams.
Now, the proposals aren’t all meritless. 46 league games is a hell of a lot and, speaking only for myself, I think a winter break is a good idea. Other people may think differently. Reasonable people can disagree.
To Harvey’s credit, it takes a bold leader to propose cutting the number of games for clubs whose income depends so vitally on game receipts and match day concessions. How are already cash-strapped clubs to replace that money, let alone increase revenues? Will season ticket prices remain static and already cash-strapped fans receive a per-game increase?
A comprehensive and sustainable plan would surely try to make the case for how a streamlined Football League and FA Cup would be a money-spinner, increasing existing revenue streams and opening new ones.
But no. In interviews, Harvey argued that, with fewer games to play, clubs could offset the loss of gate receipts by having fewer players. There would also be a reduction in travel costs to away games.
Now, I’d be very interested to see if the League has actually done some modelling to show how many players each team would have to cut to offset income reductions. You would certainly hope it has, because clubs have a wide range of fixed costs irrespective of how many times they open the turnstiles each year. My worry is that there might very well be no meaningful difference in the number of players you need in a season with 38 rather than 46 league games.
In the absence of proper projections it’s possible to imagine, quite remarkably, that all this upheaval may actually reduce the per-club income in the Football League. The beneficiary, as it so often is, could the Premier League, who’ll now have additional midweek slots in which to televise its wares (and more European games).
It’s at this point that the whole idea begins to smell fishy. The proposals, oddly, included as key considerations a list of FA and PL priorities. Which might explain why, while many Football League owners were sounding-off angrily about proposals they’d not been consulted on, the Premier League and FA had already ‘backed them in principle’. Fans, needless to say, hadn’t be involved at all.
Football League owners meet to discuss the latest PL-backed plan for the English game.
That’s how English football works these days.
Instead of doing the hard graft of consulting stakeholders and gradually finding something everyone can get behind, something that faces up to the game’s myriad problems, we see the PR man’s trick of announcing something eye-catching and trying to bounce people into supporting it.
Time after time, in almost all aspects of policy making – whether it be EPPP, B Teams or a Rooney Rule – the FA and Football League have become subservient to the Premier League. Client states having their strings pulled from Gloucester Place.
Call it Stockport Syndrome: a psychological condition where lower division English football has been held hostage by the Premier League for so long it has come to identify with it. It is no longer necessary for Bill Bush or Richard Scudamore to issue formal diktats; instead, in a direct reversal of their duty, the broken-backed bureaucrats of the FA and Football League direct their efforts to trying to sell to fans and clubs policies primarily beneficial to the Premier League. No reciprocal reform, meanwhile, is ever forthcoming from the Premier League, who as recently as last year rejected a request from Greg Dyke to drop down from 20 to 18 teams.
The Football League has no obligation to help a Premier League that takes ever more from English football, and yet it seems focused on the utterly irrelevant goals of helping the Premier League win more in Europe and maintain its financial pre-eminence.
The hateful eight
And what of those extra spaces? How are they to be filled?
Well, the Football League spent a busy afternoon equivocating about that. The formal announcement, puzzlingly, made no mention of where the extra teams might come from – even though the only reasonable answer is ‘teams from the lower leagues’. (Fittingly, this could benefit Stockport County by making it easier for the club to return to league football, following their relegation from League Two at the end of 2010/11.)
In interviews to support the launch, though, it seemed that the League is leaving open the possibility of B Teams or the Old Firm in much the same way that Mrs Doyle isn’t ruling out a cup of tea later.
Shaun Harvey: “Ah, go on now…”
To invite the Old Firm to join – not a merger, note, with the Scottish league, but rather a one-off allowance for two teams who’ve ruined Scottish football – is simply mindboggling. The clear expectation for all parties is that both clubs would rapidly ascend to the Premier League, thereby reducing in perpetuity the number of Harvey’s own members who could gain promotion. (Remember too that part of the supposed justification for the reforms is reduced travel costs…)
I’d like to believe the Old Firm idea is the Football League doing its Scottish counterpart a huge favour by breaking the tedious competitive and administrative deadlock at the top of the Scottish game. But those are the kinds of unearned favours the Football League reserves solely for the Premier League, who might very well welcome the Glasgow giants. At the very least it would bring more eyeballs; long-term it could be the first step to founding a European League run by the Premier League’s big teams.
As to B Teams, we are told that, for now, they are only being considered in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. But, as I wrote here, this is a non-starter for a very simple reason: it just won’t provide enough games. Last year’s JPT winners, Bristol City, played just six games. Only seven teams played four or more matches and more than three-quarters of teams actually played two or fewer games.
There’s only seven slots in the football calendar for JPT fixtures, so that’s the maximum number of games any one team could get, and that could only happen if you converted the entire tournament into a league, which of course you can’t with 40+ teams in the competition.
In other words: letting B Teams into the JPT could not possibly have any meaningful impact on young player development. Given that, I can see only one purpose to such a proposal: to establish the principle of B Teams prior to full league entry further down the road. Probably after England fail at a major tournament.
To me, a Football League administrator who would even contemplate admitting Premier League B Teams or the Old Firm to any part of the reformed set-up does not understand his job and is unfit for office. He should actively oppose the idea, not be open to it. He should threaten to resign if clubs push for it, regardless of Premier League pestering, promising or bullying.
It is, I contend, a simple matter of fairness that no club should be allowed to have two teams in the league. To concede B Teams is to convert the existing financial inequality into a permanent state. It’s to say that Chelsea – four league titles – are bigger than Huddersfield Town or Wolverhampton Wanderers – three each – not just now but bigger for ever.
Consider it that way and you’ll see that neither club owner nor football administrator – not Harvey, not Scudamore, not Glenn – has any authority to approve it. It would be to attempt to alter football’s unwritten constitution.
Only the fans have the power to do this. It is there that ultimate sovereignty lies.
If Shaun Harvey – or anyone else – wants to do it, let them submit it to a referendum of Football League season ticket holders.
With luck, it won’t be necessary this time. The proposals require 90% approval and the early signs aren’t positive for the yes camp.
Bradford’s joint chairman Mark Lawn told the Press Association that the proposal were “ridiculous”. “They certainly haven’t come out and consulted with all the clubs because this is the first I’ve heard about it,” he said.
The next step is for clubs to discuss them at the Football League’s annual conference in June. There won’t be a vote until the middle of 2017, though, when, if good sense prevails, they’ll be dropped.
And what will that mean?
Another year wasted without meaningful change in English football. No effective challenge to the Premier League’s ambitions. No plan for a sustainable future for league football. The game still administered by people with no feel for its soul.
How many more years can we afford to wait?
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
*** The draw was enough to allow Reading to clinch the title less than 48 hours later at home to Brighton. And while, on the night, it felt like a defeat for Stockport, it edged them back up into second place. (They couldn’t hold Plymouth off, however, and their season ended in a play-off defeat and the first double sending off at Wembley. Preece was snapped-up by Palace to partner Chris Armstrong while Bergara and Francis lasted only one more year. Reading went on from there to finish second in the First Division the next season, being denied promotion due to league reorganisation and an eviscerating play-off capitulation to Bolton. On such fine margins do club histories and player careers turn.)