That’s entertainment

The Premier League recently rejected a proposal to introduce play-offs for Champions League places. David Wangerin explains what even its consideration tells us about the state of the game

You could be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing about English football this season is not who will win the Premier League, but who will finish fourth. To many, it’s a slightly surreal notion and one not easy to reconcile. Have we become jaded by the monotony of the same four teams jousting for English supremacy? Or is the Champions League casting an ever-larger shadow on the domestic game?

While the latest wheeze from Gloucester Place – a four-team play-off to determine who gets the final Champions League spot – has been shelved for now, the mere fact that it was even up for consideration is telling. The likes of the Football Supporters Federation may have condemned it as being driven by money (which is a little like criticising a heavy metal band for playing too loudly) but here, at least, avarice may not have been to blame. Instead, we are probably witnessing a tacit admission that the race for the Champions League – a theme which increasingly seems to define top-flight football – has become rather tedious.

The idea of such a play-off scheme is not new. And any questions over the merits of play-offs per se have surely been answered by the fact that the Football League has persisted with them for nearly 20 years, to the point where they are now an accepted part of the fixture list. That they have prolonged end-of-season excitement and presented a number of clubs with a memorable day out at Wembley is beyond question, whether they are intrinsically fair is another matter.

Yet the significance of fairness to big-time football is rapidly diminishing – and one of the most obvious manifestations is the qualifier-takes-all approach to Champions League cash. This success of the same four participants is, lest anyone forget, due to every other team in the division – if the top four clubs don’t think it’s right to share their financial rewards, they could always try playing in a league of their own and see how many are prepared to watch. Winners need losers more than football is prepared to admit.

Since the start of the Premier League in 1992, no team has finished in the proposed play-off places more often than Aston Villa (eight times if you’re interested, and yes, so have Liverpool). On the face of it, Villa fans – who have yet to sample the Champions League – might have been most excited over the proposal. Yet many of them are still infuriated by Martin O’Neill’s decision to bow out of last season’s UEFA Cup with a weakened team, particularly when winning the competition seemed entirely possible.

That Villa ended up sixth in the Premier League may have been poetic justice, but it was a nakedly calculated decision, even if O’Neill’s team stood no more than a fool’s chance of lifting the European Cup. It also seemed to confirm what many have long suspected – that it’s not so much the winning and losing these days but the company you’re able to keep. In spite of its new name, the Europa League is widely regarded as a competition for losers. Yet the same could be said of its more illustrious brother: since when do winners finish fourth?

It is rank inequality, rather than any perceived lack of suspense, to which football should pay closer attention. Spreading Champions League wealth more equally would do far more for the lasting competitiveness of the Premier League than any play-off (or awarding the fourth spot to the winner of the FA Cup, a suggestion some prefer). The same applies to UEFA. There’s no reason, for instance, why the Europa League can’t be subsidised with a proportion of Champions League revenue. Had that happened last season, Martin O’Neill might have fielded a rather different team in Moscow. Ipswich and Tottenham fans are justifiably proud of their UEFA Cup-winning teams – and in a list of their club’s major honours only the most jaded Liverpool fans would discount their three triumphs in the same competition. It’s a pity its successor is treated with such contempt.

Reassuringly, some clubs cited practicality and “sporting integrity” in voting against the proposal. Fixture congestion was also mentioned, though the eternal argument of whether the season is already too long seems increasingly to be settled by additional television revenue – and it’s three years before existing deals would permit any play-off. There’s plenty of time for more Game 39-sized ideas.

That the people at the wealthy end of the game continue to display such fevered imagination is probably a good thing for football. That they continue to misapply it so horribly is more than a little disheartening.

From WSC 278 April 2010