Indecent proposal

Bolton chairman Phil Gartside is in favour of a new division consisting of teams outside the upper echelons of the Premiership. Unfortunately for him it appears he may be one of very few, as Roger Titford explains

Property developers and farmers with a couple of well-situated fields never give up looking for planning permission. Every so often they come back with yet another application. Footballing conservationists will feel the same way about the idea floated by Phil Gartside, the Bolton chairman, that Rangers and Celtic should be invited to join a newly formed 18-club Premier League Two in 2014-15. At the same time the Premier League would be reduced from 20 to 18 clubs. The scheme was unveiled in the Sunday Mirror on April 19 as the Beginning Of The Next Revolution although in an accompanying piece, columnist Michael Calvin decried it as a “morally bankrupt plan to take the money and run”. There was a similar response throughout almost all of the press coverage – “Gartside’s ideas are barmy and destructive,” said Mick Dennis in the Express – with the Guardian’s Lawrence Donegan one of the few to suggest that the idea should be taken seriously: “The truth is that the Old Firm would bring a great deal to English football, the most significant aspect of which would be a following that exceeds all but one or two of the current Premier League teams.”

It’s an idea that fits with the grain of modern thinking. UEFA want all top divisions to be no more than 18 clubs and its president, Michel Platini, has also floated (a wonderfully precise verb) the idea of amalgamating the Dutch and Belgian top divisions and of creating a Balkan League among the states of the former Yugoslavia. The timing of the launch of EPL2 is planned to fit in with a new Premier League TV deal that is increasingly acting as a kind of electoral cycle in football politics.

Ideas like these are said to float perhaps because they are not overly burdened with detail. It would be nice, for once, if a football reformer said: “I’ve really thought this through and you can read exactly how it might work on my website.” As it is the media and fans immediately ask the telling questions. Would the Old Firm still be able to play in Europe? Why should Championship clubs prefer 17 home games to 23? What effect would one-up, one-down to EPL2 have on the remainder of the Football League? Will four clubs have to be thrown out of the Football League? What would happen to the rest of Scottish football?

Football’s long boom is under real threat from the recession and what the economist Schumpeter called the “forces of creative destruction”. Ticket prices in England are going down in real terms almost everywhere, and 74 points have been deducted from League Two clubs for financial reasons this season. It is increasingly difficult to be optimistic about a fully professional 92-club structure while in Scotland there is little satisfaction with either the current or proposed divisional arrangements. Change is in the wind but Rangers’ assistant manager Ally McCoist may have given us a better clue to the future than Phil Gartside when he told Roddy Forsyth in the Daily Telegraph that, if the EPL proposal were to happen, Rangers should keep a presence (a team) in the Scottish leagues too.

The big philosophical divide among football supporters is between “town patriots” and “brand followers”, between local pride and constant glory. In the Premier League today there is still space for a few “town clubs” like Wigan, Middlesbrough and Bolton. Longer-term, with just 18 clubs including both the Old Firm, Gartside’s club would be among the more likely to drop down. Bolton have done really well to maintain top division status in a crowded local market and have worked hard to improve attendances. The strategic advantage to them of EPL2 is not very apparent unless it’s avoiding “doing a Leeds” in a few years time.

Undoubtedly the flow is with the brands not the towns. It’s the biggest clubs who are growing in support, especially from women and ethnic minorities, while anything local – local beers, newspapers, TV news – is suffering badly. As local pride diminishes the thirst for constant success grows and this gives big clubs the opportunity to “extend the brand”. Not just one Rangers, but two – one for England, one for Scotland, thinks McCoist. It’s already happening elsewhere with Harlequins now having a presence in rugby league too. A couple of years ago Rafa Benítez was promoting the idea of Liverpool Reserves playing in the Football League (as Real Madrid’s second string has done in the Spanish second tier). Women’s football, veterans football, football schools abroad are all brand extensions. In time the “feeder” clubs abroad such as Royal Antwerp could be rebranded (Belgium United?). It may even be easier to cross sport boundaries than football boundaries. Another idea floating by is the urbanisation of Twenty20 cricket. Instead of Surrey v Lancashire we could find ourselves gripped by Chelsea Browncaps v Manchester Red Devils.

The obstacles to Blackpool v Rangers and Celtic v Plymouth appearing on our coupons are considerable and probably more to with football politics and revenue-sharing than public order and transport. Keith Wyness, the former chief executive of Everton, says: “Every time it has been brought up at Premier League level, it’s been laughed off. There is absolutely no interest from the Premier League in getting the Old Firm involved and certainly no interest in a two-tier structure.” He claims Gartside is in a minority of one, and latest reports suggest the proposal “could be discussed” at the June meeting of the chairmen. Frankly it looks as though this idea has already ceased to float. But in five, ten, 15 years’ time those luscious Glasgow fanbases will still look ripe for harvesting by some football developer determined to unlock all that brand potential.

From WSC 268 June 2009