Yesterday the Football League announced its latest proposal to revamp its structure and supposedly benefit the lower leagues and English football *cough* the EPL *cough as it struggles against the juggernaut of European football, the EPL and 24/7 televised football. Excuse me if I’m feeling a little jaded but reading through the proposals, this seems like another ill thought out attempt to appease the EPL and their captive prisoner the FA. Much like the much derided proposal roughly a year ago to insert EPL B teams directly into the Football League (which the current plan bears all the signs of being a reworked version of) and the plans for adding those same teams to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I can’t see this plan as being positive for the lower league game.
Let’s start with taking a look at the proposal. From a current Football League of three divisions of 24 teams, which has remained largely unchanged since the late 1920s aside from some regional rejigging, the League would expand to incorporate four leagues of 20 teams giving a grand total of 100 teams in the professional league structure, and 80 below the EPL. Details on how the extra 6 teams will be provided are scant at the moment although it has to be assumed they’ll come from the National League unless the Old Firm head south, which is a whole different can of worms, Rhyl FC fancy a return to English football or The New Saints while in a fevered state fancy a crack at English Football.
The Football League’s argument is that it will reduce the congested fixture list including a large reduction in mid-week games and that the Football League teams will experience no financial loss, season tickets rising as a result. Also intended is to maximise Bank Holiday matches, protect the Play-Off Finals as the last event of the domestic football season, standardise relegation processes across the leagues and other minor stated aims. Rather bafflingly also stated is that reserve football will increase in importance – I fail to see why this is a goal for the Football League, reserve team football is designed to bring players back to fitness, blood youngsters and keep fringe players fit. The importance of the struggles of reserve team EPL teams is an issue for that league and its clubs not for the Football League.
Let’s look at the problems with the proposed league structure to begin with. The first issue that springs to mind is the problem with inserting an extra league into the structure, this will have a negative impact upon forwards thinking clubs and those enjoying their brief moment in the sun. Would a team such as Burton Albion, who have steadily advanced their way through the leagues through savvy management and now facing the enticing prospect of matches against Newcastle United and Aston Villa next season ever have reached such heights if they had to progress through an extra league? The amount of things that could have gone wrong during that extra season are numerous and may well have stolen from Burton’s fans the frankly unique experience they’re going to enjoy next season. Likewise, but perhaps less romantically, the amount of local football fans that invest millions into their local clubs in order for them to have a brief period in the spotlight (Crawley, Fleetwood etc.) will surely drop when they face the prospect of another year’s competition amongst equivalent sized clubs to get to that level of football. While some may argue that the game is better off without these flash in the pan clubs, it’ll certainly be less interesting and the great stories that people tell in thirty years’ time will die away to a degree.
Likewise the reduction in league sizes will stratify the leagues to a greater extent. As they currently stand with 24 team leagues there are always a number of teams playing above their level and getting the opportunity to face much larger teams. Burton Albion as previously mentioned, Rochdale in League One, Yeovil in the Championship the season before last. During recent years when my hometown team Torquay United were in League Two, we played against teams such as Bradford, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Luton etc. We beat Portsmouth at Fratton Park, less than six years removed from them winning the FA Cup and playing AC Milan in the UEFA Cup. This kind of opportunity will be much reduced under a system of 4 separate leagues, the chances of fallen giants falling down another league is lessened, likewise the chance of being promoted up another league for small teams. Instead what you’ll get is League Three containing the lower end of League Two and upper part of the current National League with major teams finding their way down there few and far between. League Three will become a glorified limbo zone between the old Football League and National League, which may be ripe for the insertion of EPL B teams further down the line as English football culture is further eroded at the hands of TV and commercial logic. If I was feeling particularly cynical I’d suggest that this league is being set up to struggle along, in order to help revive the B teams discussion further down the line.
Another of the League’s stated potential benefits, the standardisation of pro/rel is worrying. I can only assume this will mean 3 up/3 down in each league, scrapping the 4 up/4 down between League One and League Two. The reason this structure exists is to increase the mobility of teams in the lower league structure, mixing it up and giving those teams the odd glamour fixture that sustain their fanbases through 20/30 years of suffering, the new structure will limit this movement. Interestingly it doesn’t mention standardisation of this system with the National League but more of that later…
Moving on to the ideas of fixing the congested fixture list. This smacks of the EPL’s continued search for a solution to their millionaire players complaining about playing too many games and to the FA’s desire to incorporate a winter break into the game to help the underperforming national team (here’s an idea guys – how’s about actually giving youngsters a chance in EPL teams?). The FA’s lack of interest in the lower league game has been blatantly shown again and again in their suggestions to incorporate EPL B teams into the lower leagues and the current plan to bring them into the Football League Trophy (a little less offensive).
One of the things that contributes mosts to the Championship’s legendary unpredictability is its long season. Most Football League teams cope fine with the calendar as it is, indeed their most precarious time is during the summer where they have no income, and the intensity of the schedule gives young players their opportunity. Teams towards the bottom of the league structure rely upon the money the extra games bring in to keep functioning, is the EPL really willing to increase their solidarity payments enough to cover this loss in revenue? Because season ticket sales aren’t suddenly going to spike at Morecambe because mid week games are eliminated. Past history and the current morsels on the table suggests not. There is no benefit to this proposal with the possible exception of the reduction in squad size stated by the Football League but then this reduction will be a necessary if you remove four games and the income from that from the calendar. Furthermore it could also have a negative impact on youth players being given their chance in the first team, something that is already in critical health further up the football pyramid.
The reduction in games seems custom made for the EPL bringing in a winter break of some kind but in concert with the entire league structure, so that the Football League doesn’t gain greater exposure during the break and god forbid some of the EPL’s compliant customers actually take a greater interest in their local clubs. The ones they actually have a community link to. The FA have pushed for this on many occasions and it will happen within the next ten years, if the EPL is the only league that incorporates it due to the concentration of England players within that league, then it only stands to reason that the Football League will benefit greatly in this period if it continues playing. The side mention of the potential for a revamp of the Football League Cup’s structure, including the introduction of group stages is laughable, group stages were tried for that competition in the 80s and scrapped because they didn’t work. Football League Cup matches are the worst attended matches during the season, in the early stages of that competition at least, because of the lack of interest in it, adding more matches isn’t going to help. Especially cutting League matches to do so.
As previously mention the one thing that the League’s proposal does not reference is the idea of a third pro/rel spot to the National League indeed even the retention of the two existing slots, while taking great pains to mention the EPL spots. As the plan likely assumes that the absorption of the best 6 teams from the National League, leaving the National League and non-league football weakened, taking most of its professional teams away, it probably believes this is not need. Which calls into doubt the future of promotion from the National League and the potential for developing clubs such as Eastleigh and Maidenhead being locked out of the club as was the case until the 1980s. Furthermore the way the 6 extra teams will be picked is perhaps as worrying. For teams like Tranmere, Wrexham, Torquay or Lincoln, historically much larger than the other teams currently in the National League but sometimes struggling, for the Football League to absorb the top 6 placed teams of the National League in one particular year while leaving them behind despite their greater fanbases could be fatal. A lot of thought will need to go into how to pick those teams, which will be contested bitterly leaving behind a lot of disgruntled fanbases.
There are benefits to the proposal such as the reduced long distance travel for fans but the fans that often make those journeys are the hardcore, the ones who revel in the glories of a Torquay-Carlisle journey and antics in a M6 service station. Would they really want to give up such experiences? Experiences which are in many ways the attraction of being an away fan.
Accrington Stanley and Bradford City have already come out against the proposals and with a need for 65 out of 72 current league teams to vote in favour, it can only be hoped that the proposal is rejected and thrown out forever and the Football League teams move instead towards the real battle of the next 5-10 years. Not reducing their fixture list and kowtowing to the EPL as usual but instead leading the fight to gain much greater solidarity payments from that particular league. The frankly ridiculous amounts of money flowing into the EPL these days, going straight into the pockets of the players, their agents and the foreign club owners must end. While the grassroots of the game, vital for its continued health, need to stop being ignored. Enough is enough, it’s time for the Football League to start looking after itself rather than begging at the EPL table.
The Football League has worked in its present structure since 1958 and it works. It doesn’t need radical change. For the league that needs radical change and to reconnect to its community you need to look up not down.