The Football League’s Reorganistion: The Whole Of Whose Game?

by | May 25, 2016

Here we go again, then. No sooner had the Football League season come to an end – and with play-offs still to be played for the end of this season, we might well argue that the body isn’t merely warm but is actually still practicing recital of its famous last words – than that the League’s proposals for shaking up its entire structure were released into the public domain. There doesn’t seem to be any area of football that so clearly demonstrates the fundamental line between those who administer the game and those who consume it than these proposals. They only ever seem to demonstrate a game that has little to no interest in the interests of supporters, only in those who are already handsomely rewarded for their involvement in it.

The headline figures are that the Football League proposes to change from three divisions of twenty-four clubs to being four divisions of twenty, and that the League Cup and the Football League Trophy will be retained in some form or another. The proposals already have the “in principle” support of the both the Premier League and the Football Association, so there’s no need for the Football League to worry about what obstacles they may come across there. Supporters, on the other hand, seem fairly low on their list of priorities, as can be seen from their list of objectives from the entire exercise, which are listed as:

– To maximise the number of weekend/Bank Holiday league fixtures;
– To remove where practical fixture congestion and scheduling conflicts;
– To protect/improve financial distributions/income generation for Football League clubs;
– To maintain the Football League Play-Off Finals as the last event of the domestic season.

Whilst the priorities of the Premier League and the Football Association are listed as follows (although it’s difficult to believe that any of the below bar “Increasing the prospect of success for Clubs in European competitions” and “Avoiding a ‘problematic’ fixture clash with UEFA Competitions” would be of any interest whatsoever to the Premier League):

– Increasing the prospect of success for Clubs in European competitions;
– Increasing the prospect of success for England Teams at all levels;
– Retaining the value and status of the FA Cup Competition;
– Avoiding a ‘problematic’ fixture clash with UEFA Competitions;
– To achieve a fixture schedule where the FA Cup Final is played the week after the last round of Premier League fixtures.

The very first question to ask with regard to these proposals is that of where these extra clubs would come from. Sean Harvey, the Football League’s chief executive, has stated that there are no plans for Premier League B Teams to be allowed to enter into the Football League, though suspicions that this could well end up not being the case have been heightened by a curious comment in the Football League’s public announcement of the proposals that one of the listed benefits of the proposals is “Increased importance of reserve team football”, to which we can only reply by asking, “Increased importance to whom, exactly?” It’s impossible to interpret this as a reference to Premier League B teams – who, according to Harvey, are still are likely to be taking part in the Football League Trophy in the fullness of time – and their ongoing creep towards being allowed to enter into the lower divisions of the Football League.

Since the announcement has been made, the possibility of Celtic and Rangers being allowed to join the Football League – with, presumably, the ultimate goal of them taking up positions in the Premier League – has been raised yet again. Harvey’s comments on that subject were that, “The whole discussion can be had, but I suspect the wider this gets drawn, the harder it would be to deliver to our clubs and the rest of the stakeholders in the game”, which were predictably non-committal without kicking the idea into the long grass. Celtic’s majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond, remains “convinced” that it is “inevitable” that they will be allowed to join the English league system, but following a complete rebuffal from the Premier League in 2009 there still doesn’t seem to be any great support outside of Glasgow for this to actually come to pass.

Then we move on to the small matter of how these implementations would look in practice. Football League clubs would face the prospect of losing four home matches per season and, whilst this would be most likely be manageable for those in the Championship, the further one falls down the Football League’s food chain, the greater a club’s dependency on match-day incomes. So, unless clubs would be intending to keep season ticket prices at the same level – and there would be some who would argue that it might, in a gallows humour way, be completely appropriate for the most noticeable effect of these proposals becoming anything real to be for the cost of attending matches to increase – who, exactly, is going to cover that loss of income? The Football League has stated that clubs should py particular attention to the following when considering the proposals:

– Football League Clubs should be in a financially no worse, or preferably better, position as a result of any changes;
– Promotion to/relegation from the Premier League must be retained at three places;
– There would be no relegation out of The Football League in season 2018/19;
– Football League Clubs must support the final proposal.

It has been suggested that a key component of these proposals is the reduce the number of rounds of midweek fixtures that clubs have to play, thereby reaffirming the emphasis on Saturdays being the key day in the football week. But with the likelihood of future television contracts including fewer televised matches – which still have to played at a time other than at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon – than there already are being slim to none, exactly how this would be achieved is unclear, especially when we factor in the possibility of a winter break, which no-one seems to want bar the clubs themselves, and which would be unlikely to provide a great deal of rest to players, as clubs seek alternative means to earn themselves some money over the course of a couple of weeks off.

Harvey claims to have answers to the financial questions, but even these seemed based on leaps of logic that don’t seem based in reality: “Does playing less games mean they don’t need as many players? Does the importance of each game increase? I suspect there’ll be more season tickets sold on the basis there are fewer midweek games.” Well, there may be more season tickets sold if they are cheaper, yes. Quite where he’s pulled the idea that “there’ll be more season tickets sold on the basis there are fewer midweek games” from is anybody’s guess, but we might suggest that the clubs may be able to raise some money by ferrying travelling supporters to matches on the winged unicorns that inhabit the same universe that this logic inhabits.

There have been mixed reviews of the proposals from the clubs that have spoken publicly on the matter, and that might be sufficient to at least partly derail them. It will only take seven of the seventy-two members of the Football League to vote against the proposals to block them, and this already likely even before – and we raise this small matter with an eyebrow raised – any “fan consultation” takes place. Reaction on social media has been similarly negative, with the overall theme of the objections being the widespread belief that these proposals are little more than allowing a backdoor to Premier League B teams being allowed into mainstream competition and the costs to smaller clubs of the Premier League a division further away with the possibility of reduced finances from fewer league fixtures. If this is gap was, say, to be covered by “solidarity payments” from the Premier League… well… what would they want in return?

If the reaction to the Football League’s proposals have demonstrated anything, they’ve demonstrated the extent to which supporters don’t trust them to do the right thing for them. But why should they? The Football League has been reasonably successful in doing something about the worst excesses of financial basket-casery within its ranks in a recent – there have been no clubs forced into administration over the last couple of seasons or so – but they haven’t dealt with other issues relating to club ownership with a great deal of success. They’ve remained largely silent over what has been going on at, say, Blackpool, Charlton Athletic and Bolton Wanderers – to name but three – and their attempts to deal with Massimo Cellino at Leeds United have largely been led to them being given the runaround by somebody who should really have just been sent packing from English football at the first available opportunity.

But the ultimate facts remain the same. The best interests of supporters considered in the entire article amount to no more than a couple of sentences, and this represents a fundamental disconnect between those that administer the game and its clubs and those that file through the turnstiles every week. It is at times such as this that we are left with little option but to wonder aloud for whose benefit professional football is played in the twenty-first century, because there is little to nothing in “A whole game solution” which seems to benefit supporters to any great extent or to disavow us of the notion that the overwhelming majority of these proposals – or whatever they may come to evolve to – will be for the benefit of the clubs, and that any benefits for supporters will be no more than accidental by-products.