THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Roger Titford gives a unique insight into the proposals for league reform

On December 11th, the Football League Working Party On Structure published its report on the five options for the future structure of the League. By giving each name option the name of a planet, and adding in some extraneous guff about giving points for half-time leads, they attracted a huge amount of (largely) negative publicity and very little critical analysis.

The plan is for the club chairmen to narrow the options down to two in January and decide on the winner in February. Taken at face value these are very important months for Nationwide League clubs but the roar of the debate is not what you would call deafening.

Part of the silence must be due to the fact that these proposals do not address a perceived need. So what if 58 out of the 72 League clubs have an operating loss? It’s always been like that. Fans would have a case to be equally worried if the clubs were making big profits at their expense. Because of the soaraway financial success of the Premiership the Football League clubs appear in a relatively poor light. But attendances outside the top division are up 38% over a 10 year period, receipts will be up far more as ticket prices have increased disproportionately and there has never been so much TV and sponsorship money coming to the clubs.The real devil is not the lack of demand for football from the fans but the excess of the demand for money from the players. Take one club which finished in the lower half of what is now the First Division in 1986-87 and 1996-97 and compare the changes over the decade: gates up 33 per cent, turnover up 226 per cent, players and staff wages and costs up 486 per cent – and that’s the price of standing still!

Ultimately the game will face a choice in distributing resources between the Premier League and the Nationwide; whether there should be even more for the likes of Jason McAteer and his agents or whether there should still be first class football played in Northampton, Plymouth, Bristol etc etc. Sadly the League is not in a position to argue with Jason’s position in the queue for the trough so, as a last resort, has called in the management consultants.

The hand of Deloitte Touche, who are basically accountants, is behind some of the work in the proposals. Quite why accountants are best placed to instigate plans for such a completely irrational ‘non-business’ as lower division football is open to question: an impresario or a film director would be an equally valid choice to come up with ideas.

From the readership surveys in WSC and other research we know that what fans want from League football is: the possibility of progress through the divisions (doing a Wimbledon); independent clubs representing their local community which thus has a stake in the national game; fortnightly league football at home; play-offs but not silly cup competitions.

The five planetary options the Football League has put on the table come without any commentary or justification but they do not all seem to be solutions to the same problem.The most interesting, Saturn, seems to be based on the idea of increasing the tension, and therefore the attractiveness (?) of League football as much as possible.

There is a further twist they could give it. Rather than have the 44-game season implied, they could split the year into two mini-seasons of 22 games. So, in theory, you could play August to December in the Third Division, get promoted, then play January to May in the Second and get promoted again. Not only would it be impossible to be safely mid table on Saturn but it would also be extremely unlikely you could stay in the same division for two years.

Pluto looks like the Phoenix League or Premiership Two by another name, Mars is an amazingly unimaginative scheme, Jupiter appears very like something Sir Norman Chester himself came up with 30 years ago and Earth seems quite a sensible place to be.

It would be fascinating, and progressive, if the meetings that decide where the League is going were televised. It’s pretty unlikely too. Here’s how we would like to see it go. A few questions to be put to the League chairmen: 1. Is there really a crisis? 2. Can’t you cut your costs to match your (increased) income? 3. Is this just change for change’s sake, to fit with the mood of change? Then, after discussing the options and whilst recognising the sensible moderation of Jupiter narrow it down to an Earth v Saturn final. If Saturn should win, it should be on a three-year trial basis only.

As for the extras, the points for leading at half-time, points for big victories, penalty shoot outs instead of draws – forget it. They destroy the essence of football as we know it and like it. It might attract a few of those sullen, morally vicious 15-year-olds from the ice rink and their mums and dads who are so desperate to please but we, football itself, don’t want it. Football in this country over the last ten years is, in many regards, a success, but a success at the expense of some of its traditional supporters. Don’t chase the rest of us away for the sake of the gullible people in big trainers. 

PLUTO
In a nutshell
The rich clubs’ choice.

What’s the point? It creates a Premiership in exile for the leading Nationwide clubs. A Super League of the top 12 clubs presumably play each other 4 times a season (like the Scottish Premier). This should lead to a higher standard of play than in the current First Division and, crucially, more money for those clubs involved.

With three relegated there is reasonable access for the remainder of the League.

Threats to life as we know it
It’s bad news for the other 60 clubs who would be another division away from the promised land of the Premiership. For the bottom halves of current First and Second Divisions it effectively means relegation and a smaller share of any TV money. The 12-club Third Division looks like an afterthought with a short shelf life. For instance, it offers Darlington four fixtures a season against Torquay and a 5–1 chance of relegation to the Conference, which is hardly the answer to the Quakers’ prayers.

Distance from Earth Though Pluto is the planet furthest from Earth don’t be deceived into thinking this is the most radical solution. It simply puts the Premiership the greatest distance away from latter-day Barnsleys and Wimbledons. Pluto in this instance is short for plutocracy, government by the wealthy.

Chances of the Football League landing here Ought to be nil but it depends how much the likes of Wolves can put the “we’ll break away if you don’t” gun to the rest of the meeting. So it must have a chance.

JUPITER
In a nutshell
The sensible, democratic choice

What’s the point? This is the rational, streamlined option which addresses the ‘problem’ of too many League fixtures. It is offered in two versions, as shown above with 18 clubs per division and alternatively with 20 clubs per division. The latter means admitting eight more Conference clubs to the League, the only radical element to the option.

Threats to life as we know it
Low level of danger involved. However, Third Division clubs need to be aware of the last minute possibility of making the Third and Fourth Divisions regional, a decision which would also have big implications for the Conference. (This was the plan floated earlier in the year by Deloittes.) It resembles the pyramid structures favoured in non-League circles and does the most to extend that principle into the Football League with three up, three down to the Conference.

Distance from Earth
Like the planet Jupiter this option is relatively close to Earth, so close you wonder what real difference it will make. Perhaps there is a hidden agenda concerning part-time, regional football lurking around the dark side?

Chances of the Football League landing here By cutting the number of League matches played by each club by up to a quarter and possibly spreading the money more thinly amongst more clubs, it is difficult to see how, at face value, this addresses any of the central problems. Its leading supporters are likely to be Stevenage. Its best chance is as a compromise candidate if there is a feeling there must be change.

MARS
In a nutshell
The timid, cheese-paring option.

What’s the point? This one is in just for cannon fodder and PR purposes. It offers fewer fixtures to First Division clubs which might make their lives easier, if less lucrative. But no League re-structuring proposal can say to four of its clubs ‘there is no room for you, go jump into the Conference’, hence the unwieldy 26-club Second and Third Divisions.

Threats to life as we know it There is no significant danger from Mars. It simply creates more lower division matches at the expense of First Division matches. Fifty League matches per club per season either does not address the problem of too many midweek matches or it presages some form of summer football (again not mentioned).

Distance from Earth So small it might as well be the moon as Mars.

Chances of the Football League landing here
It will have been a lot of fuss about very little if this turns out to be the solution. In the exact form portrayed here, no chance.

SATURN
In a nutshell
The interesting, make-or-break choice.

What’s the point? This is the only radical option that could transform the League. At all times all teams would either be in a promotion, relegation or play-off place (note the relegation play-offs too). Saturn might be terrible, it might be brilliant. It’s based on the idea that fans want continuous excitement at the expense of all else, the footballing equivalent of Sky TV trailers replacing all TV programmes.

Threats to life as we know it
Where do you start? Coronaries all round and especially in the dug-out when, five minutes from the end of the regular season, you’re still in with a good chance of both promotion and relegation. With half the clubs going up or down each season divisional status will cease to mean much, which would be a good thing if League status is enhanced. Mountaineering metaphors will be replaced by references to snakes and ladders.

Distance from Earth A long way and it will need some clever marketing to get there safely.

Chances of the Football League landing here
If they really do think a revolution is necessary then this has to be the option. There is a genuine idea here (the ever-present possibility of divisional change), while the other options are just tinkerings on the old themes. Probably too dramatic a leap for the League to get there in one go but it ought to have a fighting chance.

EARTH
In a nutshell
The status quo

What’s the point? You sometimes wonder but hundreds of thousands go every week... No, it’s three full, equally-balanced divisions with plenty of promotion, relegation and play-off excitement for most teams up to the last four games of the season. It’s stood the test of time and there is no vocal movement among supporters for change.

Threats to life as we know it
With international call-ups and cup commitments the 24-club First Division is a little unwieldy and some of its promoted teams struggle (as they often did in the past). At the bottom of the Third Division there is an argument for some more new blood but this is gradually being supplied from the Conference.

Chances of the Football League landing here You can never write off the status quo when decisions are being taken by committees and there is a lack of a clear public view. Will be there or thereabouts at the end of the meeting.

From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month

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