I like to give my readers what they want: early indications from the poll I set up last week are that people want more opinion pieces from this blog. I will however stress that much of the general content will remain as fair and balanced as possible outside of ones like this, which will be clearly indicated by the tags they are given. Additionally, none of these posts will be to stir up controversy for the sake of it or playing devil’s advocate: they will all be opinions I hold to be true at the time of writing with the small caveat that my mind can be changed by convincing arguments to the contrary. This first one is something I’ve believed for some time…
The EFL’s ‘Whole Game Solution’ is unlikely to revived in any form for quite some time, if ever. However, the recommendations the governing body made to its members were deeply flawed but still chimed with me. The original matters clubs were asked to take into account are as follows:
Football League Objectives:
– To maximise the number of weekend/Bank Holiday league fixtures
A joined-up approach to midweek games doesn’t exist in the UK: it’s very rare for trains to run outside of London for long after 22:00, let alone any form of public transportation. Travelling on officially chartered club coaches tends to be quite expensive and the fabled fixture computer rarely seems to take distance into account when programming the schedule, even if you are be able to drive there yourself. I’ve been to plenty of midweek matches in my time but like many fans, the geography of them has been severely restricted as a result. There is something to be said for retaining a small handful but they should be confined to local affairs to retain as much of the potential attendance as possible.
– To remove where practical fixture congestion and scheduling conflicts
I have felt for a while that the ubiquity of football matches are actually detrimental to the sport, particularly to the fans in financial terms and players because of fatigue. The en-vogue thing to say is that they’re only running around for 90 minutes twice a week at most and in one sense, that’s absolutely true. On a more scientific level however, the body goes through a lot in that time period and as a consequence, the overall quality tends to decrease significantly (the normally hectic Christmas and New Year period springs to mind first and foremost) and that benefits no-one.
– To protect/improve financial distributions/income generation for Football League clubs
Of course, there are many ways that the Premier League as an institution could help more with this side of things but its clubs are reluctant to redistribute more of their income to teams below the top table outside of current channels of parachute payments and forcing the collective hands of Football League clubs to accept EPPP. That leaves them searching for more innovative ways of generating income and increasingly, they are unrelated to matchdays, particularly in the case of teams who have moved to new stadia in the past two decades and something even clubs like Bury are having to seriously consider.
– To maintain the Football League Play-Off Finals as the last event of the domestic season
Whilst Bury have an exceptional poor record in the play-offs, the concept and implementation of them into the Football League system has been hugely successful, reducing the number of games towards the end of the domestic campaign with nothing riding on them and maintaining interest to the very end in most seasons. They deserve continued prominence and few would question that fact or the format as it is difficult to envisage a better solution.
The Football League believes there are any number of potential benefits for Football League clubs in reducing the number of fixtures, the importance of which will depend on a club’s individual circumstances. In all circumstances clubs should not be disadvantaged by the proposed changes. Benefits include but are not limited to:
– The importance of each individual fixture will increase
In purely mathematical terms, the above is correct. The original proposal was for five tiers of 20 teams and therefore offers fewer opportunities for any sides to have prolonged dips in form and still achieve success in a given season.
– Reduced travel costs to four games which are often at a distance
It is unclear who would implement that and when; also, if the total number of purchased tickets didn’t reach expectations, who would bear the brunt of that?
– Potential to reduce squad size
With eight fewer domestic games (coupled with the possible abolition of FA Cup replays), there would certainly be a lesser need for most sides to retain the squad sizes they currently have, particularly when coupled with longer intervals between matches for injured players to recover. There would of course be a knock-on effect on the players themselves, with the likely outcome of some of them disappearing from the playing side of the sport altogether (as is seen very regularly under the age of 21) to trickling down the football pyramid.
– Increased importance of reserve team football
No, I don’t see how that would be the case. If anything, it would decrease. The system of reserve team football in England is currently unfit for purpose and coupled with reduced squad sizes, the changes would probably preclude more EFL clubs from having Under 23s in a league system. It would inadvertently place more emphasis on products from the academy systems.
– Increase in sale of season tickets due to reduction in midweek games
I’m unsure whether that particular point would have causation and not just correlation; season ticket sales would be likely to increase because they would hopefully be cheaper, with at the very least four fewer home games (although there is a high likelihood of clubs with larger stadia/fanbases to lose out financially).
– Increased profile on League One, Two & Three at different stages of the season
A nice thought but the reality would likely be very different. There is no shortage now of sneering from some quarters that there’s “no real football” to be seen when an international break occurs (which is definitely a topic for another post). The reduction of both midweek and total league games played would more than likely ‘obscure’ the bottom three tiers even more than is the case below the Championship today.
– Statistically greater chance of promotion (and relegation)
Whilst no-one relishes a relegation dogfight, reducing the teams to 20 would indeed make this the case, which might even mean Ipswich and Oldham eventually change divisions!
– At least six new Clubs (30%) to play each season
This is already the case now (but with a lower percentage).
– No relegation out of the Football League in 2018/19
One of the major reasons these proposals failed is because they didn’t take into consideration the National League and the tiers below the current step five. A number of solutions (such as having a ridiculous number of promotions from the NL in a single season) were mooted but lacked both elegance and forethought. The reality is that the number of full-time professional clubs outside the top 92 is increasing and as a result, the gap between the fourth and fifth tier in terms of quality is generally decreasing. The National League as an organisation would not brook either their ‘access’ being cut off even for a single season, nor being another step away in the pyramid. Had these changes been mooted before relegation and promotion from the top tier of ‘non-league’ was automatic, they might have enjoyed a bit more traction.
– Different formats for the Football League Trophy available
I’ll discuss this in another future post as, contrary to what EFL CEO Shaun Harvey might believe, this season has not seen a successful change to the format.
– Opportunity to standardise promotion/relegation
This is where the real controversy of my post probably is. Promotion/relegation is already standardised in the first two tiers and wouldn’t take too much tweaking to harmonise the subsequent two. However, I think there should be a League Three… but rather than it being its own step/tier, it should sit alongside the current League Two in the fourth tier. Further to that, I also believe the following changes should be made:
- Rename the present League Two ‘League 2A’ and League Three would be ‘League 2B’.
- Both leagues should retain their nationwide scope – any team entering A or B via relegation from League One or promotion from the National League would be randomly drawn into either division, much like how current cup fixtures are decided. If all the ‘A’ slots are filled first, the remaining clubs would all go into ‘B’ to ensure equity of numbers.
- As with League Two now, there should be two relegation places from both A and B to the National League.
- As for where the extra eight clubs would come from, they would come from the best current Under 23/EDS sides. The reality is that the current reserve system, even at Premier League level, is not fit for purpose. The clubs with the biggest finances stockpile players and/or favour sending them on loan for senior competitive experience, which is a trend that might reverse to a certain degree in this scenario. I can’t see FFP becoming much tougher anytime soon, so this would at least give those players who are unlikely to break into their ‘A’ teams real experience.
There are of course problems associated with this approach – as an example, how many people would watch say, Yeovil Town vs Man City B? But if it’s closely monitored and governed, it could prove the many doubters wrong. Of course, restrictions on promotions would apply if it meant being in the same division as their first team and the ‘new eight’ could regularly be swapped out if they severely under-performed to keep things interesting and also to reflect future trends. They also couldn’t enter domestic cup competitions to prevent conflicts of interest occurring. ‘B’ sides are in numerous continental domestic leagues with very mixed opinions on their presence.
Ultimately, any future changes should be primarily focused on fans and players; fans from a financial point of view in particular and players from being able to perform at their best more often in a less crowded fixture list. Seasons shouldn’t feel like slogs to anyone with an interest in the game and even though the Whole Game Solution was rejected, something else is bound to take its place and the status quo will not be sufficient for much longer, with fans being priced out of the game and players having increasingly long spells on the sidelines and little time to recover in the calendar.