Offside, 13 August
The Football League's lick of paint doesn't hide the cracks.
A new message appears in my email inbox. It’s from Football League chairman Sir Brian Mawhinney.
That’s odd. How does he know my email address? Perhaps it’s one of those viral emails trying to get me to adopt an underprivileged Nationwide League club. (‘Please take pity on poor homeless Brighton and forward this message to five friends….’) Or perhaps it’s a new anti-football virus that makes my PC crash whenever I attempt to access a soccer website. Or maybe, if I click on a link, I’ll find myself in a hardcore animal porn site or discovering the life-changing possibilities of penis extensions. The Football League is in dire financial straits after the collapse of ITV Digital but surely a commercial tie-in with the sex industry is a bridge too far?
As it transpires the letter, which has been sent to football supporters throughout the country, is an introduction to the recently rebranded Football League. The tournament formerly known as Division One will henceforth be called the Coca-Cola Championship, while the second and third divisions become League One and League Two.
Some critics have suggested that the new names will be too confusing. I don’t agree. We will simply perform a mental calculation in our heads, just as many people still do with metric weights and measures. So we’ll know that League One is really Nationwide Division Two, which in turn is really the old Division Three. Simple really. The League Cup has gone through so many name-changes I’ve lost count but, whoever the sponsor, everyone knows that it’s the same old worth-nothing cup.
My initial instinct was to subvert the rebranding exercise by refusing to call the lower leagues by their new names. In the same way that gay activists ‘reclaimed’ the word queer, we could reclaim the leagues’ original names, perhaps with suitable strap-lines thrown in. ‘Division Four: shit ground, no fans.’ How’s that for a brand name that perfectly captures the essence of the product?
But on reflection there’s no need to subvert the rebranded league. If you browse fan message boards it is evident that most supporters already regard the new brand names as a joke. Do you think fans of Leeds United, relegated from the Premiership and mired in debt, console themselves with the thought that they are now competing in the Coca-Cola Championship? Of course they don’t. They’re travelling second class and they know it.
Probably the most risible proposal is the idea of a ‘Fans League’ whereby independent observers will be sent to league grounds to assess the level of noise made by rival sets of fans. This gimmick is supposed to ‘encourage vocal participation at grounds’ with the noisiest fans to be awarded prizes which, according to Mawhinney, will be ‘fan-focused’. What on earth could he mean by ‘fan-focused’? A year’s supply of Wagon Wheels and Bovril? Or better still a subscription to Sky Sports so fans can watch some decent football instead?
Actually, I reckon that the only way the Fans League would work is if promotion and relegation were determined by the level of vocal support rather than by results on the pitch. Now that would make things more interesting. ‘Drama here at Filbert Street where Leicester have missed out on promotion by five decibels! They’re not singing anymore – quite literally.’
Invariably, some think that that the Football League has betrayed its heritage. ‘There are many fans who would like to stick with tradition’, complained Malcolm Clarke of the Football Supporters Federation. ‘There’s a feeling that branding within the game and the increase in commercialisation has led to football losing some of its status and history.’
But preserving tradition for tradition’s sake is as absurd as giving a second-class tournament a grandiose new title. There are some traditions, like obscene chanting, which are worth keeping. But there are others, like the maximum wage or the restrictions on televising league games live, which have quite rightly been ditched.
The problem is not that the Football League has sold out to Coca-Cola but that the makeover amounts to little more than a new lick of paint. Brian Mawhinney claims that rebranding was needed ‘to make our matches more attractive to a wider audience…and…make our competition and clubs more attractive to commercial partners’. But while it’s easy to think up a new name or design a new logo, it is much more difficult to raise the quality of lower league football so that neutrals actually want to watch it.
ITV Digital collapsed because pay-TV subscribers were not turned on by Nationwide League football and therefore didn’t tune in. It’s not hard to see why. Having spent the past six years watching Division One games in a half-empty and often atmosphere-free stadium I can’t wait to see Premiership football at Selhurst Park this season. Yes, I’ve seen some edge-of-your-seat, nerve-fraying games, particularly when promotion was at stake, but I’ve endured far too much yawn-inducing mediocrity for my own sanity.
There might be a brand new label on the tin these days but the contents are still largely unpalatable.
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