The Great Land-Grab: Next Up, The Johnstones Paint Trophy

by | Mar 20, 2016

The history of modern football in England has been one slow, steady process that seems to be irrevocably heading towards a singularity. In the 1980s, those who ran the biggest clubs secured a change in ownership rules which allowed directors to draw a dividend from them and a change in rules which ended the sharing of gate receipts for league matches. In the 1990s, the top twenty clubs decided that they no longer wanted to share television revenue with the remainder of the Football League and broke away to form the Premier League.

In 2011, they held a metaphorical gun to the head and instructed the Football League to accept the Elite Player Performance Plan, a scheme for the development of youth players which handed the development of young players so greatly into the hands of the biggest clubs that many smaller club were left with no option but to close their academies because it was no longer cost-effective to run one when the biggest clubs could just walk in and whisk them away in return for a nominal payment. They’ve manipulated the loan system to the point of destruction through building up squads far in excess of anything they could ever need and then loaning players out to smaller clubs. And still they want more.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. More or less every significant change to the ruling and governance of football that has been brought about over the course of the last three and a half decades or so has come about for the benefit of those who already have the greatest resources. There have been times when this great land grab has been stalled because the biggest clubs overstepped the mark and found themselves clashing too openly with a sea of public opinion, but the truth of the matter is that nothing about it has been called off. At no point has there ever been a meeting held between the twenty clubs of the Premier League at which the sentence, “You know what, I think we might have gone too far this time” has been uttered. All that has ever happened has been a decision, for PR purposes, to stop pushing on one particular matter, lest it damage The Brand too much.

The Johnstones Paint Trophy is not amongst English professional football’s most valuable prizes. This is not, however, to say that it doesn’t have a value. No club from the bottom two divisions of the Football League has ever reached an FA Cup final and play-offs are wrapped up in a different kind of tension. To give the clubs of the lower divisions a tournament of their own and an opportunity to have a day out at Wembley feels instinctively like a good thing, a small moment in the sun for those who spend most of their existences in the shade. Now, however, even that, that one small token sop towards doing something for smaller clubs is being forced towards being used as little more than a bargaining chip because those who already have the scales so ridiculously tilted in their favour that there’s a case for asking the question of why the rest even bother any more aren’t satisfied with what they’ve got.

This is being offered as a sacrificial lamb precisely because of the very greed that has blighted the last thirty-five years of English football. The tilting of the scales has made the squads of a number of the biggest clubs to become bloated with excess, and those clubs are now concerned that the young players that they’re hoarding aren’t getting the competitive football experience that will help them to develop into being the players that they potentially could be. No-one seems to have suggested the idea that maybe they should just offload these players to other, smaller clubs permanently, perhaps through limiting the number of players that a club may have registered at any one time. Why do that when you can force the Football League to bend to your will and further reshape the landscape of the entire English game even further in your favour? After all, the redistribution of money and power within the game only ever seems to be posited as a positive development when it benefits the wealthiest.

Troubled that they weren’t able to realise the maximum in benefit from their playing assets, the Premier League has started to look down the football pyramid. How can the Football League be utilised to further benefit the ends of its member clubs? At first, they put forward the idea of being allowed to play B teams in the lower divisions. Clearly one of the the biggest hurdles towards continuing growth was the inability to put out only one team every weekend. This was rejected by the Football League, but this idea has continued to resurface, zombie-like, because idea that benefit the richest never get forgotten about, only postponed and then re-proposed with some form of token, bolt-on compromise attached, and so we are left with the Johnstones Paint Trophy being offered like a pacifier to a screaming child. “Okay, okay, you can have the Johnstones Paint Trophy. Now, will you please let daddy get some rest?”

Like screaming children, though, this is highly unlikely to be enough. They’ll get bored with the Johnstones Paint Trophy soon enough, and the creep towards B teams in the Football League, or the National League, or wherever they can crowbar them in, will continue again. Familiar noises will be made on the subject of it helping the national team – because the formation of the Premier League in 1992, which was specifically sold to critics as being for the benefit of the development of the England team, has really, really helped to make them an international powerhouse, hasn’t it? – whilst all the time a small amount of blackmail money will be held out in return. According to the proposals put forward in the Telegraph this morning, “The Football League would permit the entry of the clubs in return for a payment towards the youth and development programmes of the 48 League One and League Two clubs to compensate them for the potential loss of missing out on a Wembley final.”

So, how much money is going to offered be from a body whose members will be making an absolute minimum of £97m each per season from their new television deals alone? A billion pounds? Half a billion pounds? They may seem fanciful, but these figures are both amounts of money that the clubs of the Premier League could amply afford if this matter was really that important to them. It’s considerably more likely, of course, that the figures will be a tiny fraction of that, quite possibly with a gun held to their heads that we are not aware of yet. They effectively blackmailed the Football League over the EPPP. Why wouldn’t they do it again over this?

None of this would be a major issue if we had any great faith in the leadership of the Football Association or the Football League and their ability to stand up to this further land grab, but both of these organisations have been woeful in their responses to this sort of behaviour for decades now, and there’s nothing to suggest that they have suddenly grown a backbone over the last few years. We wish that this wasn’t the case. We wish that either body had ever given us any idea of where the “line in the sand” at which the control of the entire structure of the English league system for the benefit of a small number of ultra-wealthy clubs might be. But they never have, and so it is that the boiling down of the wealth within the game in this country while grass-roots football gets run into the ground, the national team continues to look moribund and smaller clubs continue to face up to the reality of salary caps in order to protect them from themselves continues apace.

And they’ll never be happy, of course. It’ll only take a couple of injuries to the academy players of Premier League clubs before managers start complaining about the Johnstones Paint Trophy and arguing that all of this could be resolved if only Premier League clubs were allowed to play B teams in the Football League or the National League. The land grab will continue apace, and the entire fabric of culture will continue to be ground into the dirt by the wealth and power of the Premier League and the plutocrats who run its member clubs. Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The Football League and the Football Association seem perfectly happy to continue the process of reducing the game in this country to a singularity, in spite of all the warnings of the past.

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