Anyone who watches matches regularly would know that the proposal to stage shootouts at the end of drawn Football League games is a stupid idea. Which is why it’s alarming that the suggestion was made by the chairman of the League, Brian Mawhinney who, one would assume, attends matches regularly. If he does indeed pay attention at matches, you would think he’d be aware that shootouts won’t make them more exciting. They would in fact have the reverse effect – teams already inclined to play for a draw would have even more incentive to do so with the prospect of gaining an extra point.
Despite the predictable (and warranted) storm of criticism, Mawhinney claims that his “brainwave”, which will now be discussed by a working party, was prompted by responses in the latest Fans Survey questionnaires, which canvassed 40,000 followers of lower-division clubs. Fans, Mawhinney confidently declared, “love shootouts”. Supporters are excited when their team win one, because it means they have progressed in a cup competition or the play-offs. Few really look forward to them. Unless of course Mawhinney has in mind a whole new species – and that really is the right term – of fan, who might be drawn to games specifically by the possibility of a shootout. You wouldn’t want to meet anyone who’d fit that description, let alone sit next to them.
More offensive than the idea itself is the broader outlook that it exemplifies, that sees football as a “product”. This was demonstrated by the management-speak guff that Mawhinney used – “The chairmen decided to have a broader look at a range of ideas that might refresh our product,” he said, as though reciting from a think-tank memo from his time as an ardently Thatcherite cabinet minister. Suddenly we had been transported back to the dark days of the 1980s, when gates were at their lowest and when every week seemed to bring a new suggestion for boosting falling attendances – widening goals, reducing the number of players, awarding bonus points for goals, more points for away wins, even banning TV.
Some of the ideas were sound enough – three points for a win, for instance, has been adopted everywhere and, though controversy returns every time the third-placed team fail to reach the Premiership, the play-offs have been a success, too. But such changes were a reaction to a genuine crisis and need in football. We are sorry to return to the subject once more, but the fact is that the game at League level is enjoying a boom unprecedented in our lifetimes.
This season’s Championship is one of the closest ever. It could be that none of the promotion or play-off places will be decided before the final set of matches. Similar exciting finishes are looming in Leagues One and Two. Even at a time when those in charge of football seems to be doing their best to alienate the core, rational supporter – switched kick-off times, exorbitant ticket prices, gormless hoopla during matches such as playing music when goals are scored – the Football League “brand” itself is in excellent shape, with crowds at their highest levels in 40 years.
Far from seeking to meddle with his “product”, Mawhinney should be seeking to defend it from the dangerous interference of others. Such as Rafael Benítez, who has become the latest manager to argue that Premiership reserve sides should be allowed to compete in the lower divisions, as they do elsewhere in Europe. Such a scheme may suit the narrow interests of the Champions League elite, but threatens the competitiveness of the league and therefore interest in it.
As our report (WSC 240) on the introduction of reserve teams in the German league setup showed, few want to watch games involving players going through the motions as they return to fitness, while dramatic variations in selection penalise some “real” teams with impossibly hard matches or gift others points. This was bad for the game in Germany, but the numbers affected are relatively few, because attendances there, as in most of Europe, quickly descend to sub-Conference level once you leave the top flight. Benítez may be unaware of or uninterested in this, but if only another 53 people attended the City Ground regularly, then there would be a dozen lower-division sides averaging 20,000 crowds this season, as many as there are in the top flight in Spain.
Club chairmen put the boot into Benítez, echoing as he did the thoughts of Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho, but that was really Mawhinney’s job. Still, as he was pursuing his own madcap scheme, he was ill-placed to come out against someone else’s self-centred notion. The sudden desire of Conservatives to become radicals did a great deal of damage to the United Kingdom in the Eighties and Nineties. Couldn’t Mawhinney just have taken up gardening once he was out of office?
From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month