19 May ~ It's been a season of few highlights and even fewer surprises across Europe's most vaunted leagues. Manchester United are champions of England yet again without ever having appeared to hit full stride, let alone captivate hearts and imaginations. AC Milan and Dortmund strolled to the Serie A and Bundesliga titles a few weeks back, having long since built unassailable leads. When Barcelona hammered their sole likely challengers Real Madrid 5-0 last autumn, only a severe crisis of form and injury was going to prevent them lifting the Spanish championship. It's been a dud year, and raises a simple question that is rarely posed: is league football overrated? Or, put another way: is it time to consider a change of format?
In European football circles, it's heresy to suggest that we should consider an American-style system of play-offs at the end of the campaign. God forbid that the season should end on a climactic note, with a big-game occasion. That's what the FA Cup final is for, isn't it? Yet look at what the Cup final has become – relegated to the second story of the day behind Manchester United's record number of title wins, and competing for attention with any number of Premier League relegation stories. But should Wayne Rooney's goal from a dubiously awarded penalty kick in a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park really be the crowning moment of a competition that's selling itself globally as the hugest, most entertaining domestic league ever?
Play-offs were reviled when they were first introduced for the final promotion spot throughout the Football League, but it's difficult to argue against their success in prolonging interest and motivation for mid-table sides up until the season's latter stages. In the top flights, there is no such motivation, and even the chance of a Europa League slot is a distant and not necessarily desired prospect. Below the usual Champions League suspects lies a morass of forgettable, also-ran mediocrity, packed with teams who start every campaign in a competition they know that they have absolutely no hope of winning. Don't even get me started on Scotland.
The case against play-offs centres on their gimmickry, and that if a team are champions over 38 games, then as champions they should be crowned. There's also the ostensibly strong argument for sticking with tradition. Not that the case for tradition stood a chance when the Premier League was founded and the European Cup was reformed, and those were both significant steps in creating the predictable, top-heavy leagues we see today (the Bundesliga, with its tight financial rules, remains an exception in throwing up periodically unexpected winners alongside Bayern's regular triumphs, though that doesn't guarantee an exciting competition). So, accepting that football allowed those changes to happen, that wealthy clubs will not easily relinquish their stranglehold and that Michel Platini's attempts to regulate the wealth of the Champions League elite will eventually be either watered down or circumvented, shouldn't we examine ways that we can make leagues more interesting, competitive and unpredictable?
Here's a football journalist scribbling on the back of a fag packet late one night, with a glass in his other hand. He pictures a 14-team Premier League. At the end of a 26-game season, the top two teams are given Champions League berths for the following season, but all top eight teams compete in the play-offs for the right to be champions. First place plays eighth, second plays seventh etc. They play a best-of-three series, with the higher team receiving home advantage in the first and, if necessary, third games. The four winners then compete over three games in the semi-finals, and in the three-game final series too.
There'd be Champions League spots for the two finalists, or next best teams if the finalists were in the top two league spots. True champions should be playing more competitive games against the other top teams anyway, rather than sleepwalking to endless home wins against hapless, hopeless opponents. Look at Manchester United's almost perfect home record this season, played out before massive crowds often silenced by the depressingly naked imbalance between the two teams playing below. Worthy champions? Maybe, by default, but not convincingly.
Back to my tab-end blueprint. The bottom six teams stage the same format three-game knockout relegation play-offs along with the sixth- and seventh-placed teams from an 18-team Premier League 2, the winners claiming or regaining a single Premier League place. The top five PL2 teams are promoted automatically, with Europa League spots for the top two. In the Premier League, simultaneously fighting relegation or clamouring to be in the Championship play-offs would be the norm. At the same time, although the number of games would be reduced, the fact that so many more matches would be meaningful would raise their sales value. With five or six teams promoted or demoted, relegation needn't seem like doom. And the FA Cup and League Cup could move towards regaining their status because they would no longer be regarded as clogging up a crowded calendar.
Feel free to discuss, deride and destroy. But whatever the flaws in any radical rethink, the current format is moribund, and involves too many teams in the top flight playing for safety, while the same dominant group of cash-backed clubs have largely annexed the top spots beyond the point of tedium. Without a more dynamic, imaginative restructuring of the competition, the Premier League will stagnate until it stinks, with most fans as indifferent to Manchester United's 90th title as we were to their 19th. Ian Plenderleith