The English Football League: A “Whole” “Game” “Solution”, Part 1

by | Sep 7, 2016

So the sealed envelopes are in, supporters groups probably haven’t been consulted with that much, and next spring we’ll find out what they’ve managed to cobble together. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of anything substantial from the Football Association since their “blue sky thinking” it seems to have fallen upon the Football League to arrange a “Whole Game Solution” for English football. Now, it’s probably reasonable to say that few people are expecting anytime positive for supporters from all of this. Professional football in this country long since crossed the Rubicon of being entirely set up to benefit those that make money from it rather than those who pay to watch it, after all.

Criticism, however, is easy, even when it’s comparatively constructive. Those that will defend the Football League against allegations that their merely acting as stooges for the Premier League by disseminating the worst instincts of its id into the public realm may well say, “Okay, keyboard warrior, what’s your solution to whatever it is that needs solving? You can sit in your ivory tower all day, pontificating and ruminatings, drinking champagne, but where’s your answers, eh? EH?”, so here’s our attempt to answer that, umm, question.

Now, there are some who might argue that, with the Football League Championship being the fourth most-watched football league in Europe and financial management governance having been put in place which at least seems to have stemmed the worst of the financial troubles that lower division clubs seemed to have been having so regularly just a few years ago, there might not be much about the Football League that particularly needs reforming at the moment, in a structural sense. But we know better than that. Sean Harvey is certain that it does, and if he says it does, then there can surely be absolutely no question that it definitely does.

Firstly, though, a few ground rules. We’re going to try to balance the best interests of players, clubs, the governing bodies themselves, and supporters, but where there are clashes in this respect, we’re almost certainly going to come down on the side of supporters. After all, there are millions of us, and we pay a lot of money, both directly, through season ticket sales and cable television subscriptions, and indirectly, through acting as walking billboards for sponsors through wearing replica shirts or through talking about it so much, which keeps the whole thing turning. Consulting us and then ignoring us isn’t really an option,if all of this is as important as the Football League seems to believe it to be.

Secondly, we already know that almost none of our very helpful solutions will actually come to pass. Those concerned are more than welcome to pleasantly surprise us – and if they institute all of them, I’ll find a way of hosting the episode of next season’s Match Of The Day in the underwear of anyone’s choosing, somehow – but we’re not optimistic about this in the slightest. But neither is this no more than a wishlist. If professional football in England is going to be reformed, then let’s at least have something out there that offers a degree of pause for thought. And while our tongue is planted firmly in our cheek in  this particular article to a point, there’ll be nothing here that breaks the laws of physics or couldn’t otherwise be put into place if the will was there to do so.

And this is the key message to be taken from all of this. Presuming that it is anywhere near broken in the first place – and that feels like an almighty stretch, from this vantage point – and that building a future for the professional game which will last for decades is important, then consultation absolutely must not be a box ticking exercise completed to fulfil some nebulous ideas of “fan engagement”. We’re not idiots, and the likelihood of either further boycotts or, worse, people just drifting away from the game altogether will be very real in the event that the Football League gets this wrong.

Our vision, our blue sky thinking, will come on this subject tomorrow. First of all, allow us to address the Football League’s proposals for change, which gathered pace at the end of last week – it could hardly be said that the Football League is trying to sweep this whole matter under the carpet – have already been made public and it picked subjects for clubs to respond over, so let’s deal with each of those in turn.

– A winter break: Winter breaks are often proffered as a panacea for an unspecified problem that usually includes some mumbling about the good of the national team. Criticism of a Premier League break is grounded in a belief that clubs in this division would not treat it as a break at at all, merely an opportunity to fly their teams around the world in order to make even more money. This criticism probably doesn’t apply to clubs in the Football League, but by the same token we fail to see what the point of a winter break in the Football League would be. Acceptance of one would – since it would clearly be unmanageable with a forty-six match league season – assume that other ideas that are being consulted upon, specifically cutting the size of divisions to twenty clubs, are a foregone conclusion.

– Playing the Fourth and Fifth Rounds of the FA Cup as midweek rounds: Now, the FA are plenty capable of shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to the FA Cup, but that this should even be mentioned by the Football League is somewhat odd, because the FA Cup is clearly not within their jurisdiction. The fourth round of the FA Cup is usually played at the end of January with the fifth following three weeks later. Now, if FA Cup attendances are struggling on Saturday afternoons, what, might we surmise, will be the effect of playing them midweek during the coldest time of the year? And what would happen to the inevitable postponements that would follow. This idea doesn’t really make a great deal of sense.

– Starting the Premier League season earlier: Again, this is not under the Football League’s jurisdiction, but let’s set that to one side for a moment. Premier League clubs now commonly use the pre-season for the International Champions Cup and other money-spinning friendlies abroad. And they make good money from them. So, the question is: what would the Premier League want in return for this? The concessions that the Football League would have to make would surely not be worth whatever the advantage of the Premier League season earlier could bring – something about the national team, probably – and in any case, what would be to stop clubs just scheduling more end of season international friendlies?

– Adding eight teams: The old “four divisions of twenty” argument. From a footballing perspective, there’s no issue with this. No other European leagues have twenty-four team divisions, and there’s a reason for that. There is a counter-argument, that it is a peculiar form of slog, football’s equivalent to the Grand National, and that we should cherish this peculiarity as an institution,both literally and figuratively. But I have one question. Who’s going to pay for this? Because lower division clubs probably can’t afford the lost revenue from four fewer home matches per season. Would they drop season ticket prices proportionally, or would we, supporters who are already over-taxed for our peccadillo, be expected to foot this shortfall? Ultimately, it all hinges on…

– Where these eight teams come from: It should go without saying that there must be no place for Premier League B teams, academy teams, Celtic or Rangers. We’ve been promised that that isn’t the case. The situation regarding Celtic and Rangers is a particularly complex one, which has obvious merits to clubs but to many crosses a line in terms of who plays who in a major European domestic league. It’s likely a deeply divisive subject, and it has been treated with kid gloves by the press, so far. Our choice would be stop relegation from League Two, and promote the top six National League teams, who would have been those automatically promoted and the four teams that finished in the play-off places anyway. It’s the only fair and meritocratic way if doing it. And meritocracy is one of the grandest traditions of English football.

– Regionalsation of the bottom two divisions: The experience of the Conference North and the Conference South would tend to indicate that north-south splits can be subject to anomalies. Both Gloucester City and Bishop’s Stortford ended up playing in the northern sub-division of what is now called the National League when neither are northern as most would understand it. There most likely is no happy regional solution. A north-south split would still mean, say, Bristol Rovers travelling to Gillingham, and east-west would still see Carlisle having to travel to Plymouth. Regional divisions would benefit some clubs, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of doing it? Surely any changes have to be to the benefit of all clubs, not just some, don’t they?

So, there’s a brief critique of what was recently thrown out there by the Football League, then. But we promised not to just criticise. It feels as though we shouldn’t necessarily try to freeze this moment as though in aspic and say that professional football should stay as it is now forever. And we don’t believe in trying to rewind to a mystical, romanticised version of the past which never really existed. So tomorrow there’ll be a follow-up post here with an alternate vision for the future of the Football League.

We don’t wish to suggest that we could “do a better job” than those currently running the show. That would be absurd. We merely wish to suggest that the future of the game is what we make of it, and that the direction hinted at by what we’ve seen and heard from both the Football Association and the Football League over the last twelve months or so isn’t the only one available. There’s nothing inevitable about anything that happens next, no matter how much some vested interests attempt to persuade us to the contrary. And if the sponsors and broadcasters get as much influence over the running of the game as it is generally believed they do, then why shouldn’t this little website at least scream into the void on the subject for a bit, too?

You can now subscribe to Twohundredpercent through Patreon. You’ll receive a free monthly e-magazine and will be supporting independent football writing. Interested? More details here.