Phil Gartside, The Old Firm & The Premier League
Summer is coming, the evenings are getting longer and some football chairmen are giving every impression of having too much time on their hands already. This week’s insane plan comes from a repeat offender – the Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside. Gartside, you may remember, was shot down in flames last year over his brilliant idea to introduce a second division to the Premier League with – you guessed it none of that irritating promotion and relegation business, to save him from having to deal with the hoi polloi. This plan came to nothing, but Phil has evidently spent the last month with an abacus, a colouring book and some felt tip pens, and now he has come up with an even more awesome plan.
His new plan involves, wait for it, a second division to the Premier League. So far, so much like the idea that he had last year. This time, though, he’s got another trick up his sleeve. Brace yourselves, because it’s a big idea. He wants to invite Celtic and Rangers to join as well. Nothing has been said yet about promotion and relegation from Premier League 2, but it’s difficult to imagine that it would be much of a priority in the bum rush to make even more money. If this plan (or a modified version of it) were to come to fruition, it would ruin several fundamental tenets of British football. It would spell the end of the remaining dregs of continuous meritocracy of English football (for all that has changed within the English game, the league tables still look largely the same as they did fifty years ago), the likely resignation of Celtic and Rangers from Scottish football and would issue far more of a hammer blow to separate home nations at international level than a Team GB at the 2012 Olympic Games ever could.
The biggest problems with Gartside’s plan would seem to be two-fold. Firstly, he has to persuade the Old Firm that this is a good idea. It may seem obvious that they would jump at the idea, but the truth may turn out to be somewhat less clear. As things standard, Celtic and Rangers are guaranteed Champions League football every year, and it is far from certain that they would be happy to give this up. Also, Celtic and Rangers have no guarantee of success. They may have to go for years without European football altogether.
The second big problem is persuading Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool of the merits of his little plan. Gartside may think that he has this covered by advocating an eighteen team Premier League, which would give these four extra preparation for Champions League matches, but he overlooks a couple of key factors. Firstly, any sort of division of money based upon thirty-six clubs will inevitably lead to a reduction of income for those that make the most money under the current set up. Secondly, it may only be two matches per season, but these are worth a lot of money to the biggest clubs. Arsenal and Manchester United both earn seven figure sums from each home match. Finally, considering the English domination of the Champions League over the last few years, it seems unlikely that the biggest clubs even need more rest time between matches.
The affect on the international teams can also not be overlooked. If, as is widely believed, there is an undercurrent of feeling amongst many FIFA members that the existence of separate teams for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is an anachronism, then the presence of Scottish teams (and, in all likelihood, a Welsh side in the form of Cardiff City) strengthen the argument for United Kingdom football team in the eyes of many. Against this background, it seems difficult to believe that the FA or the SFA will be particularly supportive of Gartside’s proposals. In fact it’s pretty difficult to find anyone with any significant influence that is likely to support the proposal in anything like its current form.
Why, then, has Gartside come up with this plan? It’s difficult to get away from the fact that his club, Bolton Wanderers, would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of it. Premier League club owners must have spent this season looking in horror at the bottom of the Championship table, with the three relegation places all taken up by former Premier League stalwart. The parachute payments that clubs receive upon relegation don’t seem to be enough. In their desperation to buy shiny new players, clubs often seem to overlook the finer details of contract signing, meaning that they often get lumbered with a wage bill that they can’t afford upon relegation.
The other problem – and this is a problem for the Premier League generally – is that TV revenues seem likely fall over time, rather than rise. Television is, in the long term, a dying medium and football has mortgaged itself silly on the understanding that this money would continue to rise, but it is now far from clear that this will happen. Everything is okay for now but, come 2013 (when the next set of television rights are on the table) the levels of money made available for football clubs to fritter away may simply no longer be there. Ultimately, though, the problem with football clubs is that they spend more money than they should, and most of it goes down the drain on wages and transfer fees. Until clubs rein in their spending, finances will be a problem for some, if not many.
These, however, are truths that clubs don’t particularly want to acknowledge. They want their piece of the pie, and they want to keep hold of it indefinitely. If you want confirmation of this, consider the haste with which managers put out (and supporters accept) the fielding of under-strength teams in cup competitions to safeguard that seventeenth place in the Premier League. I can understand what the clubs get from it, but I have long wondered what Premier League supporters get from that perennial struggle against relegation when it comes at the cost of having a chance of winning a cup.
Ultimately, the calibre of this reorganisation plan can be summed up by the fact that the papers had to drag out the rent-a-quote Crystal Palace chairman owner Simon Jordan – a man that looks like the living embodiment of the main character in that old joke about a man that sits in the corner of a bar licking his own eyebrows – to tell the Old Firm that they should pay £100m to join the Premier League’s second division. Along with Game 39 and Garry Cook’s hopes of a ten club Premier League with no promotion or relegation, this idea is yet another manifestation of the management of the biggest English football clubs playing an elaborate trick. These plans will doubtless be dusted down, maybe slightly watered down and marketed as “football’s new revolution”. You can be almost certain that this revolution, when it comes, will be of little benefit to you and we should continue to resist it where possible.