One of the more derided slogans/hashtags in football as of late has been the EFL’s adoption of ‘Every Game Matters’, particularly in relation to the much-derided current guise of the Checkatrade Trophy. If you ever think the phrase might ring more true if there were actually fewer matches, then read on…
Since 1951, at least one of the divisions in the English professional game has seen each side contest 46 fixtures, but the way the sport is played, the culture that surrounds it, and how it is consumed, are all so far removed from the early post-war years. In the seventh decade since four clubs joined to make up ‘the 92’, the sport has transformed, and not necessarily for the better in every instance, with some of the elements that have built up alongside it completely alien to any supporters who are still following their side all this time later.
Many issues are present in 2018; some are unique to the domestic setup, but most are universal in nature. I will explore a handful of them below, with the potential impact of reducing the ‘football footprint’ discussed at length. The method will take up the rest of this post.
One of the most immediately apparent problems for many fans is simply the price of admission to a match itself, even before taking into consideration other associated costs, such as travel, food, a programme, merchandise and/or memorabilia.
Take as an example my local side, Bedford Town. After a series of relegations in the past decade, they now find themselves down in the Southern League Division East, the eighth rung on the pyramid, their all-too brief stint in the Conference South a distant memory. Even so, they still charge adults £10 for league matches, which even on Non-League Day, is probably sufficient to make supporters of other sides baulk. That’s not even meant as a criticism of The Eagles per se, but it does make you wonder how exactly that policy has come to be, and been retained in the face of demotions and a 2017/2018 average of just 229.
Regularly heralded (and regarded with no small sense of jealousy) as the league to look to for sensible pricing and the prominence of safe standing areas, a ticket for a Borussia Dortmund home game in the incredible atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion can cost as little as the equivalent of £15, which does come with a small surcharge for the derby against Schalke 04 and Der Klassiker. Although not without problems of their own, they are minute by comparison to the sky-high fees at their contemporaries in the Premier League, and still relatively pricey quite far down the divisions.
Suppose though that the number of home games suddenly fell for EFL clubs from 23 to 15. Would you immediately expect huge discounts? No, that doesn’t seem likely, but there are cases at the present moment where putting on matches actually costs the hosts more than they take in from gate receipts. This can happen for a number of reasons, including footing the bill for policing.
If done sensibly however, I believe that higher attendances are possible. In my proposal, there would be fewer midweek matches for a start, but they would not be eliminated completely; they retain a special place in many people’s hearts, and should be reserved for games contested between local teams. The EFL launched an ad campaign two and a half years ago to boost crowds, but failed to address two of the major sticking points within their sphere of influence: the fabled ‘fixture computer’, which has deemed Exeter City against Stevenage to be a sage choice for an early autumn Tuesday night encounter next week. The visitors have, as you’d expect, advertised the availability of streaming for the match, making more than a subtle nod to its incredulity.
As I said in my previous article, the logistics involved for fans to make long journeys come with their own barriers, even before the price of a ticket. In this vacuum, streaming will continue to become more prevalent and possibly start to erode overall figures. A greater proportion of the slimmed down calendar falling on Saturdays could reverse that growing trend, but it would need to be in line with other measures to have a real impact.
Squad Sizes & Injuries
In the era of seven substitutes being standard, it’s no surprise that overall squad sizes have vastly increased, even from when I started going to games in the mid-90s. Back then, there used to be just three, and the quandary for many managers was whether to risk omitting their second choice goalkeeper to maximise their other options, which tended to consist of at least one utility player, expected to cover almost every outfield position if called upon.
The EFL, as it always seems to, then followed the Premier League’s lead, gradually increasing the number up to seven across all the domestic competitions. With the greater exposure to different tactics and formations that the game has seen in the past decade or so, spurred on by the proliferation of YouTube videos, analytics and social media, the era of the utility player has come again, but now instead of the role being isolated to a single individual, almost everyone is now expected to perform at least two different roles, sometimes in multiple positions. The increased flexibility demonstrated by most managers, coaches and players alike has not gone hand in hand with keeping the training pitch from swelling, however.
Without a FIFA-imposed limit on player registrations, we now have a situation where an elite club like Chelsea can send 40 players out on loan. They, of course, are far from alone in this ‘stockpiling’ practise, but by far and away have the largest squad, and the loopholes afforded to them and other top-tier clubs regarding home-grown players (HGP) and the quota of 25 named individuals ensure a higher degree of flexibility than you’d derive at first glance of the current rules.
A reduction in the number of teams in each league, along with the proposed loan limit by FIFA, ought to avoid the hammer blow anticipated by some owners and managers further down the divisions if the Council approves the changes. Without a significant cutback in the schedule, clubs with tighter budgets, which are usually more reliant on the trickling down of talent from above on temporary deals, would invariably be carrying fewer players as a result. According to Transfermarkt, the average squad size in League Two at the time of writing stands at 27, rounded to the nearest whole number. It’s difficult to foresee that still being the case, should the overall match count be reduced by a third.
Additionally, with games spaced further out, it would allow injured personnel more opportunity to get back fit, as well as the recovery time for those who do feature to increase. Far too often, teams are expected to fulfil fixtures within 72 hours of each other. There have been many scientific studies into this, and even if you don’t buy that argument, I do think the quality on the pitch suffers. Although it might go against some people’s perceptions somewhat, I don’t think professional footballers have it easy in terms of their ‘work’. You also have to keep in mind that the levels of fitness and athleticism required only seem to be going in one direction.
Crucially, this measure could also have the effect of ensuring young players have more gametime. In line with a strict quota for each age category, it should ensure that the reduction in matches doesn’t actually impact minutes so much. Without these limits, it would be counterproductive.
Heavily dependent on which level of the game the side you follow is (and in Bury’s case, their beyond woeful record in my lifetime), domestic cup competitions can be the highlight of a campaign or utterly unwanted distractions from the league and European quests. As alluded to in the previous section, the packed schedules and lack of importance placed on the FA Cup and League Cup especially, are reflected in the stands. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, particularly when considering deep, unexpected runs – Rochdale and Lincoln City are prominent examples of this phenomenon; the Imps managed to reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup in 2016/2017 under the Cowley brothers, which did wonders to reinvigorate local interest in the club, and they are still reaping the rewards from this success now.
Imagine though if more of the elite clubs felt that they could put XIs out closer to their first choices. I don’t think giant-killings would suddenly become things of the past, as the mentality and tactical approach to one-off knockout matches can, and do, vary wildly from the league. The reduction in the ‘bread and butter’ fixtures would not, I envisage, be reflected be in the domestic cups. The main change apart from potential team selection would be the increased emphasis and focus on the games, and it could reinvigorate both competitions; with more gaps in the calendar, League Cup matches could be moved to weekends, and the EFL Trophy group stage games could serve as the final ‘warm-up’ ties for participating clubs in pre-season, each encounter played a bit closer together than the season proper to ensure match fitness is the main result yielded from them. Interest in the competition has always been relatively low, not helped in any shape or form by the organisers bending over backwards in permitting Category 1 academies to field U23 outfits.
In theory, UEFA competitions only affect several clubs in England each season. A reduction in the number of matches played in the Champions League and Europa League is next to impossible to envisage, and with a third competition being (re)introduced in 2021, that’s even less likely to change. The financial incentives increase with each passing year, as does the imbalance between the haves and have-nots, both in terms of the clubs plying their trade in the ‘Big Five’ leagues and on the continental stage to the nations further down the coefficient, to those who miss out on Europe altogether.
Again though, the easing of the tight domestic schedule would allow more time to recover for the players, and potentially make it easier/more affordable for supporters to travel overseas. These changes would work best if reflected across all of the countries affiliated to UEFA, as well as where possible, the synchronisation of calendars. It makes more sense for the leagues in Germany, Spain, England and so on to start and finish at the same time, especially when considering the international scene…
Currently, there seems to be a fudge regarding the scheduling of nations’ games and the domestic schedule. In England, some clubs actively seek to rearrange their games so that they don’t coincide, even if the gap is mere minutes, as the broadcasting invariably affects attendances. Ideally, it would be much more prudent to simply avoid a clash altogether via one of two methods: allowing the national sides a free run during the year, or, much more preferably, for FIFA (and UEFA in turn) to realign the calendars around the world – not for the benefit of one continent in particular, but for better, more streamlined governance of the sport on a global scale.
These matches would then be played in tranches after the respective domestic seasons have finished. Take as an example qualification for the United 2026 World Cup, as even in this hypothetical scenario, it would doubtlessly take years of negotiations and staggered changes for it to be fully realised. Most European would probably play between eight and 10 matches in order to qualify for the tournament, and more time and focus being devoted, relatively speaking, to this could only benefit everyone involved – for example, managers and coaches working with the players for longer periods on all aspects of the game. The players themselves would also reap the rewards, as they’d be able to build more of a sustained team spirit, with more knowledge of what makes each of their compatriots tick both on and off the field. These instances shouldn’t be reserved for all-too brief encounters during the season, nor for just the major tournaments themselves.
This is probably not a concept that everyone will agree with me on, but one of the beauties of anything in life for me is that everything you enjoy doing is finite. There’s a beginning and an end to it. Perhaps without that, it would cease to have quite as much meaning.
Even in my 32 years, there has been a marked change in just how prominent football is from a cultural point of view, and no, it’s by no means all negative… but it’s quite hard to escape, even if you have no interest in it whatsoever. Front pages of newspapers are almost as often given over as the back to elite pros, complete with naked agendas. Social media is awash with ‘hot takes’, instant judgements on players and, as I’ve frequently been witness to, a ridiculous overemphasis of how important football is, with many people unable to make the distinction between the personal and the professional.
As much as I like writing about it, watching it, and even sometimes attempting to play it (badly), it does feel as though it’s now at saturation point – omnipresent, almost.
Reducing the number of matches played is not a silver bullet to assuaging that reality, but it would allow for more time to absorb and reflect on the events just played out, and for more critical, long-form analysis of the mores and idiosyncrasies of football to receive their due attention. As the beautiful game basks in this reflective glow, I maintain my view that it’s actually going to end up hurting it in the long run. The relentless scheduling and pace lowers quality and attention spans, the sport in turn becoming more of a product to be consumed without always being appreciated for what it is. It might just reinforce many people’s love of the game, if it’s allowed to breathe that little bit more freely. But how do we get there? Find out in Part 2…