[This piece was updated on Tuesday 02 May to include a section exploring what the EFL decision to suspend ticket sales to Orient fans tells us about the future of the league.]
Yesterday Leyton Orient fans called the league’s bluff. But it turned out the league wasn’t bluffing, it really does only care about one thing.
Some people are on the pitch… (Image Neil Kellyn)
No one can have any illusions any more. This week has shown the EFL really is as ruthless as it is negligent and incompetent. We’re all so used to Shaun Harvey’s brand of pig-headed bungling that, when the EFL put out a press release admitting it had neither the power nor the inclination to control rogue owners, the natural response was, “they can’t really mean that, can they?”
It is important that supporters understand who the EFL serves.
In trying to damp down the furore about its inaction over Orient’s plight, it looked like the league had unwitting exposed itself as a powerless project manager for English football’s lower-tier asset strippers.
After a season of doing all the right things and still being profoundly ignored, the response of Orient fans was admirably direct. “You say you only organise football competitions. Right, organise this.” And so onto the pitch they came, and stayed.
What they – and the rest of the football world – hadn’t banked on was that the EFL was serious. Deadly serious. The EFL conspired with the police and match officials to lie to fans, sneaking the players back onto the pitch to finish an already ruined game. And they did this, they announced, in the name of ‘the integrity of the competition’.
The words that will haunt the rest of Shaun Harvey’s time running the EFL: ‘The Integrity of the Competition’.
So there we have it. As I’ve written before, the EFL really doesn’t care about your club. It doesn’t matter how old, how grand, how well-supported, the on-going existence of every single club in England rests entirely on luck. It doesn’t matter how good your current owner, the one who comes next may run you into the ground, either by incompetence or malice. And, if they do, no one who is supposed to be running football, not the FA nor the EFL, will come to your rescue.
Even if a wealthy owner is refusing to pay players and staff, even if they are pushing the club to the brink of administration by leaving payable debts unpaid, nothing will be done. The fans of any struggling club are alone. The league won’t lift a finger. It is literally the case that the only thing it cares about is seeing those games are played so that the money rolls in for owners. And, if you try to prevent that – if you try to get its attention in the one way we now know works – it will even take the dangerously irresponsible route of using the police to lie to you to get the game played.
So, this must be a turning point for football fans. We need to recognise that the EFL isn’t just dysfunctional, it’s isn’t good-hearted but amateurish. The FA, while hopelessly mired in its own red-tape, at least professes to want reform. The EFL has made clear it does not. It is not going to listen. It is not going to reform. It is nothing but the lapdog and carnival barker of its owners. As should’ve been clear when it destroyed the integrity of the EFL Trophy for a few quid from the Premier League, the league does not serve, nor intend to serve, the interests of fans.
And so it must go. Fans of Orient, Coventry, Charlton, Blackburn and Blackpool know it. The only way the number one issue in football – rogue ownership – is going to be addressed is if fans come together to smash the EFL apart.
Yes, we need pressure on the FA, sponsors, broadcasters and members of parliament, but the time has come to consider something bigger. Direct action. A football strike.
Yesterday the EFL told fans that only playing games matters. That’s all it’s there for.
Ok, then. So we know how to break it. In trying to shuck off criticism, it has revealed its weak point.
The end of the season is coming. The best possible chance to show the people who run football that things have gone way too far and that we want the game back.
The EFL showed fans its true self yesterday. It’s time for fans to put aside club loyalties and come together – well and badly run clubs alike – and say that this isn’t acceptable.
If football is to be run without any thought at all for fans, then we need to ask ourselves if we should allow it to be run at all.
***UPDATE: 02 May 2017***
I wrote this piece before the EFL announced that it was doubling-down on its reckless behaviour at Brisbane Road by suspending ticket sales for Leyton Orient’s final league game. Due to play at Blackpool, another club that has withered under rogue owners, the EFL says it needs time to review ‘matchday safety and security arrangements’, the implication being that some terrible, violent disorder may occur. And yet, as journalist and Orient fan Tom Davies has pointed out, “The last person to assault anyone on the pitch at Brisbane Road was Francesco Becchetti, deemed a fit and proper owner by the EFL.” Blackpool fans, meanwhile, have repeatedly demonstrated that the greatest danger they pose is that they’ll yet again humiliate the despised owners of their club.
This is not about safety, it’s about panic. Panic at the EFL that two of its teams may not be able to finish up their programme without wide-spread protest. Panic in the Blackpool boardroom that it may not be able to keep fans off the pitch. Panic at Orient that owner mismanagement may dominate the back pages for yet another week. They’re all so busy running around, waving their hands in the air and yelling that they appear not to have stopped and asked themselves this question: “Why is it that so many fans are so unhappy?”
This time last week, the EFL was the organisation that proclaimed its only responsibility was to put on matches. By its own admission, it had one job. Ironically, with its actions at Brisbane Road, it now can’t even manage that.
It is the league that’s unable to organise a game that fans can attend.
All of which further underlines my point: the EFL aren’t just not-the-good-guys. They are ruthless and incompetent. The only difference between the EFL and the Premier League, other than the size of their wallets, is that the Premier League is actually good at this. You would never see Richard Scudamore put out the ill-considered, inflammatory, typo-ridden nonsense that’s regularly rushed out of EFL headquarters.
And, when you look at it this way, so much becomes clear. Why is one of the most popular leagues in the world so short of cash? Why does it have to prostitute one of its competitions to Premier League B Teams? Why does it bat its eyes at the Old Firm? Why does it waste money on a rebrand when its members are struggling? Why does the TV deal look weak? Why can the leadership not produce a plan for the future that the clubs can get behind?
Answer: Because the EFL CEO and his leadership team are simply not up to it. They do not know what they’re doing. They lack the basic skills and experience to run one of the most vibrant sporting leagues in the world.
Every few years, Richard Scudamore stuns football with the size of the new TV deal – and that’s even though we all knew it was going to be big. What’s amazing about it is that he unveils a deal bigger than even analysts had thought possible. He keeps his job, despite his Neanderthal views of women, because he exceeds expectations. The EFL, meanwhile, is run by people who can’t even meet them.
It’s not just clubs with rogue owners who have no future under Shaun Harvey’s leadership. It’s all clubs, even the ones he professes to want to serve.
So the time has come for fans to unite and get rid of the EFL as it currently exists. Call it solidarity with Orient and Blackpool and Charlton and Blackburn and Coventry. Or call it insurance against your team being next. Or call it an investment in the future. It’s all of these things and more.
Because the EFL needs to be run for the benefit of fans and the long-term future of their clubs. The idea that only putting on games matters is so shameful that everyone, regardless of their affiliation, can see that can’t be allowed to stand. And, thanks to the EFL, we now know it will never happen through persuasion alone.
So we must tear down the EFL and replace it with an organisation with much broader horizons. And, crucially, with a leadership team who can make the EFL the massive success it should be.
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.