Small wonder that Ian Watmore’s brain-child of “reforming” the FA Cup senseless was leaked to the press at the weekend. No more than forty-eight hours after the story broke in the press (with more or less no fanfare anywhere other than in The Times, which broke the story), the Premier League comes up with its proposal to jazz up the end of the season. Their answer, a play-off for the fourth Champions League place, is an act of evil genius so simple that one is almost tempted to stand and give grudging applause. And let’s make this absolutely clear, this idea has nothing to do with evening things out or redistribution of money. It’s about the Premier League snatching the end of the season away from everybody else.
The redistributive aspect of it all will doubtless be pushed hard over the next few months. Look at us, they will say. Look at how brave we are. We’re going to address the problem of the stultification of the Premier League by taking one of the Champions League places away from the Champions League Four. It will give money to clubs that desperately need it, like Manchester City. It will be exciting, and it will be a fitting climax to the end of the season, they will say. All of these points have some merit to them, but they are only part of the story. For one thing, there are no guarantees that the play-off place will go to anybody but the team that finished in fourth place anyway. This argument could be spun on its head – in the unlikely event that Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool finish outside the top four they will get a second chance, so long as they finish no lower than seventh.
Then there is the issue of exactly how redistributive this would be. Fulham, in tenth place in the table, are only three points further from relegation than they are from seventh place in the table. The truth of the matter is that much of the bottom half of the Premier League remains cannon fodder, on the whole. The Champions League Four will be turned into a Champions League Three Plus One From Three. Of course, there may be a way for the clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League to try and have a shot at getting into these play-offs – to overspend wildly in the hope of scraping into seventh place in the table. Some may consider it cynical even to consider such a concept, but football and financial prudence have hardly been going hand in hand of late, have they?
There is the small matter of collateral damage to consider, as well. One feature that the Premier League as an organisation lacks is a climax. The last day of the season can be a crowd-puller, but this is by no means guaranteed. The end of the season belongs to the Champions League, the FA Cup and, of all people, the Football League, whose end of season play-off matches (in particular the Championship) brings the sort of end of season excitement that the Premier League lacks. The Premier League will steamroller through much of this (apart obviously, from the Champions League final), achieving what one could reasonably assume to be one of the Premier League’s fundamental aims in rendering the FA Cup almost obsolete for bigger Premier League clubs overnight – the sort of contempt with which the biggest clubs hold the world’s oldest cup competition would be able to spread endemically throughout all Premier League clubs and, in addition to this, supporters would be further fed the barely even subliminal any more message that the FA Cup shouldn’t matter to them, because it’s all about the Premier League.
There is, however, an ironic danger inherent in this proposal that may even cost the Premier League its fourth Champions League place. The fourth Champions League place is certainly not the Premier League’s birthright. It is an extra place allowed to the league because of the strength of its coefficient in European competition. A couple of seasons of the fourth placed team getting beaten in the two-legged qualifiers for the group stage might even start to jeopardise that fourth Champions League place. The voting structure of the Premier League (fourteen of the twenty clubs involved would have to be in favour of it in order for it to be approved), however, would mean that those most likely to miss out – the current top four – could comfortably be out-voted. Could they find another three to take their side, and what would it take to bring them around to their point of view? And then there is the matter of extra fixtures at the end of the season. Considering the amount of complaining about fixture congestion that goes on, an extra three (at an absolute minimum) unnecessary fixtures would seem to be palpably absurd, but worries about player fitness seem to magically disappear whenever money appears on the horizon.
Not that we should expect the Premier League to care about such considerations. If they really, seriously cared about redistribution, they would address the imbalance of prize money within the competition. If they cared about fixture congestion, they would but the number of teams in the Premier League to the number that most other European leagues have in their top divisions – eighteen. This isn’t about sport, though. Of course it isn’t. It’s about money. The Premier League has doubtlessly been fulminating over the widespread derision and ridicule that they received over the Game 39 proposal. The problem with that proposal, from their point of view, was that there were other meddling organisations (UEFA and FIFA, for example) that could kill it stone dead. This time, though, the only thing that can kill this proposal is if there is a groundswell of opposition from home.