A Deluge of Blue Sky
It’s been a lot to take in, this last few days, from the faintly ridiculous to the bordering upon Dr Evil. The life is slowly being squeezed of football below the Premier League at the moment, but nature abhors a vaccuum and so into its place has formed a miasma of thoughts, threats, and other various strands which have knotted together to form something that is starting to look distinctly dystopian. If this Titanic is threatening to list, well, it’s not so much that the rich are throwing women and children overboard… more that the terms of a place on one of the lifeboats could be close to usurious.
Manchester City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, has called for a rethink of the football pyramid to consider the inclusion of Premier League B teams and has described the EFL’s business model as “not sustainable enough.” Of course, Mr Soriano’s opinion are the thoughts of just one man, and presumably it would require a vote from Premier League clubs, far from all of whom are guaranteed perpetual top division football, or even a swift return should they fall, in order to get it sanctioned by the Premier League. And, of course, the EFL would have to agree to the terms. This isn’t quite a done deal yet, no matter how breathlessly it’s being reported.
The faintly ridiculous was in full evidence earlier in the week when it was announced that Arsenal had laid off their much-beloved mascot Gunnersaurus in the form of Jerry Quy, who had been earning £25,000 a year, on the same day as they triggered the release £45,000,000 clause to sign Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid. Of course, it’s more complex than it might appear on the surface. But it wasn’t a strong look from a PR perspective, with even the timing of the Quy’s departure hinting at a lack of focus behind the scenes at the club. And as if that wasn’t enough, of course, things took a turn for the weird when Mesut Ozil and the club was forced to respond, tutting that they’d be rehiring him when fans are let back in. The damage, however, was already done. “Arsenal sack Gunnersaurus” is better suited to people’s attention spans, these days. And anyway, laying him off was a shitty thing to do.
At the more severe end of things, it has been reported that up to ten clubs are looking at the possibility of breaking away from the rest of the EFL in the pursuit of greater television revenues. There is, however, already a growing resistance to helping out the Championship amongst Premier League clubs. The EFL’s reluctance to support the Premier League’s curtailment proposals, introduce salary caps and back their demands for unregulated access to foreign players have already left a sour taste in Premier League mouths, so consequently they are only willing to offer a series of short term loans to the bottom two divisions, totalling £60m, preserving the current structure of the EFL and thereby making a Championship breakaway more difficult. They’d have a stronger sway, amid chaos.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the introduction of Premier League B teams into the English league structure possibly being the cost of financial survival. What are the terms under which the EFL would accept any weakening of its own structure, never mind the ructions that would come throughout the rest of the game. We can be pretty clear what fans think of it from the extent to which they swerved Checkatrade Trophy matches before the pandemic began. How desperate would the EFL have to be to accept a loan on those terms? Any subsequent protest, of course would largely be online. Were fans allowed back into matches, the financial position of clubs right across the board may at least end up a little less desperate than it feels right now.
It’s easy to pick on the Premier League over this, but there is a counter-argument which suggests that blame could be attributed elsewhere, as well. In governmental spending terms, the amount of money that would be required to see EFL clubs through the next few months is a relative drop in the ocean, and it might well be argued that the government’s inertia over this has pushed all concerned towards this darkest timeline. The government paid out £1.57bn to the arts during the summer, and a bailout has been agreed below the EFL as well as for other sports. Both the Premier League and the government could justifiably stand accused of standing over the EFL, holding a wrecking ball. Or perhaps it’s no more than brinkmanship.
Regardless, the graspingly self-centred nature of almost everybody concerned in this over the last few months may well dull the emotions of some, once things do return to whatever approximates “normal” in the future. Others may not want to go back to large crowds again, regardless of whether it’s actually safe to do so. Crowds may initially swell and then tail off. It’s impossible to say. Should disillusionment at any changes explicitly benefitting the biggest clubs grow, though, the long-term costs to the game in this country could be serious. But how angry would any reaction to Premier League B teams or a Championship breakaway actually be? Would there be boycotts, and would they hold? Again, the only realistic answer is “Who knows?” The biggest issue of all, of course, is that this question needs to be asked in the first place.