Greed Or Unity: The Football League Must Decide
Amongst the fulsome tributes offered in the direction of Fulham over the last twenty-four hours or so in the wake of their Europa League win against Hamburg, it was mentioned more than once that they were in what is now League Two as recently as 1997. Even though Fulham’s ascent was largely funded by Mohamed Al-Fayed (and other such rises, as well as more numerous less successful attempts at emulating likes of Fulham) have more often than not been funded such money, such tributes tell a fundamental truth about the inner beauty of English football. In principle, the sky is the limit for any club, anywhere. It is one of the glories of our version of the game but the the door has been slowly closing for many years since the formation of the Premier League, and now the final push to close it altogether could be upon us.
When the likes of Manchester City’s Gary Cook and Bolton Wanderers’ Phil Gartside put forward their proposals for a revolution in the organisation of the top of English football (both of which, coincidentally, specifically benefitted the exact circumstances of their clubs at the time), they were rightly laughed out of court. Now, however, the Premier League is, with the willing assistance of twenty-three out of twenty-four clubs in the Championship, trying to force through a change to the financing of football that will almost certainly have the same effect as Cook and Gartside’s heavy-handed attempts to pull up the drawbridge. The proposed changes, and the haste with which the Premier League is demanding that they be pushed through, threatens to come slose to severing the ties between the richest and the rest.
The offer on the table from the Premier League seems, on the surface, to be a generous one. Rather than the current parachute payment of £22m over two years, clubs relegated from the Premier League would receive £48m over four years. There would be small increases in the amount of money paid to clubs in League One and League Two, but these would be dwarved by the money being given to clubs being relegated into the Championship. The Premier League claims that the new deal has to be in place within the next three weeks, and twenty-three of the clubs in the Championship, unsurprisingly, support the proposal. The clubs of League One and League Two, however, have voted unanimously against it and this is where the fault line lies.
The key to why the Premier League is so keen to hand out this money is in the detail. It would benefit the Premier League to hae a little more equality at the bottom of the table. The relegation places are almost certainly decided with two games of the season, while Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday play out a crucial relegation six-pointer live on the BBC on Sunday lunchtime. It would also nullify some of the criticism of the imbalance within the Premier League. Footballing reasons might not necessarily be the only rationale behind this move, though.
The Premier League will insist on what it calls “standardisation” of the rules between the Championship and the Premier League. The Championship, which has created its own very successful identity over the last ten years or so, will effectively become a shadow of the Premier League. Should anyone decide that football clubs need tighter regulation – for example, a salary cap – the Championship will go with the Premier League and continue down the route of the fundamentally discredited wild west free market model. Over time, it will become almost impossible for clubs in League One and League Two to compete in the Championship, and that suits the clubs of the Championship just fine. They don’t want a level playing field. Football clubs, like many other businesses would in anything like a similar situation, only bleat about there not being a level playing field is when said playing field isn’t balanced in their favour.
In addition to this, if there is to be a power struggle within the game between the Premier League and the game’s authorities, it would benefit the Premier League to have the biggest forty-four clubs on their side rather than just the biggest twenty. This may seem inconsequential, but there is a general election next week and change is in the air. Even the Conservatives, who may seem at first sight to be the natural allies of the Premier League but, in their election manifesto promise to, “reform the governance arrangements in football to enable co-operative ownership models to be established by supporters”. A more unified front against any change to the comfortable cabals the currently exist in the ownership and governance of the game – especially with Sky Sports hovering in the background – may make it easier to lobby for a watering down of any meaningful changes that any incoming government may, in the heat of an election campaign, momentarily believe to be a good idea.
The notion of “meaningful change” is key to any discussion of parachute payments, because this is exactly what they dissuade. Parachute payments reward failure and perpetuate competitive imbalance within the game. Expanding them only further accentuates the difference between the haves and the have nots, and may even prove to be too much to resist for clubs in League One and League Two, some of whom will be tempted to gamble on trying to jump across before the moat becomes completely impassable. It would, of course, be more sensible, for football clubs to live within their means and divide their money more equitably, but the likelihood of this ever coming to pass has receded year on year for much of the last two decades. It would perhaps even be wiser to give the parachute money to promoted clubs, but even this is unsatisfactory.
Thw worst case scenario would be a complete severance between the Premier League and the Championship and the rest. The new chairman of the Football League, Greg Clarke, has to try and hold the disparate interests of his seventy-two clubs together and if he can manage this, it will he an auspicious start to his time in charge there. Clarke claims that there is “no appetite” amongst Championship clubs to break away, although how he can reconcile this with, according to the Daily Telegraph, “a determination among Championship chairmen to ensure that the deal is pushed through within a month” is at best debatable, and at worst a complete contradiction in terms. The members of the Football League have been backed into a corner by the Premier League with the short deadline and, much as we might hope that political proposals might create a more equitable future for all of England’s football clubs, it is now down to its members to avoid something approaching civil war. Whether this is possible with the Premier League dangling the sort of carrots that they are in front of the chairmen of clubs in the Championship remains to be seen.