Haves and have-nots remain leagues apart
To make English football more competitive requires a massive redistribution of wealth, not a fourth place play-off.
On a scale of one to 10, how excited are you about the prospect of play-offs to decide England’s fourth Champions League place? I’ll be honest with you, if you wired me up to a thrill-o-meter, the counter would be stuck at zero. Not even a tremor. In short: not thrilled at all. Next innovation, please.
Unlike FA chief executive Richard Scudamore’s universally derided idea to add a thirty-ninth game to the season (to be played overseas), which was seen as little more than a money-making exercise, the play-off proposal has received a mixed response. Some are open to the idea, others are vehemently opposed. It’s not hard to work out which fish might bite. Broadcasters are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a lucrative round of knockout games at the end of the season. Sixteen of the 20 Premier League clubs are reported to be ‘broadly supportive’ of the plan. The big four, unsurprisingly, are opposed; they have the most to lose. Mid-table Premier League clubs – the likes of Villa, Spurs or Everton – who don’t have the means to break into the top four are the clubs that stand to gain.
Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill has described the proposal as ‘quite interesting’. O’Neill told the Birmingham Mail: ‘I wouldn’t knock it on the head immediately, particularly if we finish seventh!’ West Ham’s new co-owner David Gold was also in favour. ‘I would welcome this idea’, said Gold. ‘The top clubs wouldn’t, of course, but it would broaden the opportunity for everybody else to make their mark and make the Premier League even more exciting.’ Gold did, however, temper his support by expressing concerns that pursuit of a play-off place might ‘rush clubs to the brink’ because club chairmen ‘simply can’t be trusted to run our clubs within sensible financial restraints’.
The play-off plan is designed to address the widespread concern that the Premier League has become predictable and the Champions League places a closed shop. The attraction to the middle-ranked clubs outside the big four is that it would be a much stronger incentive to finish in the top seven than the Europa League (the meaningless tournament formerly known as the UEFA Cup). In the longer term, it could also spread the Champions League wealth beyond the usual suspects. And while I’m not struggling to contain my excitement at the plan itself, I’ll concede that the play-off games themselves will be thrilling.
Invariably, the play-off proposal has met with howls of opposition from commentators who suspect that this idea violates football’s hallowed traditions in order to squeeze more cash from the footballing cow. ‘After the laughable proposal for a 39th game a couple of years ago… we look forward to the other innovations the Premier League will come up with’, wrote Rob Smyth in the Guardian’s Fiver email bulletin. ‘A play-off between the top four to decide who are champions? Away goals counting double if they’re scored from outside the area on a Tuesday? Football on ice? Each team required to include either Adrian Chiles or Christine Bleakley in the starting XI? A relegation play-off played in an airless cage with a marmot placed inside the jockstrap of each player?’
‘While there have been worse ideas – feature length episodes of Diagnosis Murder, patterned carpets, fascism – the flaws of such a plan are multifold’, quipped Rory Smith in his Telegraph blog. ‘It compromises the sporting integrity of the league, it adds an unnecessary layer of games to an already crowded fixture schedule, it may decrease ambition among clubs still further, creating a world where the comparative mediocrity of finishing seventh is satisfactory.’ The fear that an additional play-off round will simply compound the problem of fixture congestion is shared by Everton manager David Moyes. ‘I’m probably slightly pro, but I could easily be swayed in the argument that we already play 38 games in a season, so why do we have to play another three or four games at the end when everybody’s knackered and nobody wants any more games?’ said Moyes. On the face of it Moyes has a point. Or does he? Championship clubs have smaller squads, but still manage to play 46 league games a season potentially with play-offs on top. You don’t hear managers of clubs that reach the play-offs complaining that their players are too knackered.
Arsene Wenger, unsurprisingly, thinks that Champions League entry should be decided by league position alone. ‘It’s down to where you finish. You have to accept that the best four are in the Champions League’, said Wenger. The argument that a club finishing in seventh place should have no right to a shot at European glory might have some merit if the Champions League was exclusively confined to champions. But it isn’t. Last season, Arsenal finished 18 points behind champions Manchester United, but still qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth. Once you open up UEFA’s elite tournament to the runners up, then why not widen the net through a play-off?
I don’t share the concern that the play-off idea will be the start of a slippery slope to more and more absurd money-making gimmicks. Play-offs work well in the Football League so there’s no reason why they can’t succeed in the top flight. My objection is that the plan only scratches the surface of the inequitable wealth distribution in football. The Champions League wealth might trickle down to a few more clubs, but it won’t level the playing field. How will it benefit clubs who have come up from the Championship, but struggle to stay afloat in the Premier League? It won’t. The wealth gap has widened considerably since newly promoted Ipswich Town finished fifth in 2001/2 season.
Nor will the proposal redress the wealth imbalance between the Premier League and the Football League. Portsmouth FC, the Premier League’s bottom club, reportedly has a £60million wage bill. Compare that to my club Crystal Palace, who were in contention for a play-off place on a wage bill of around £6-7million until the club went into administration. This illustrates the huge financial gulf between the top flight and the second tier. The play-offs will do nothing to bridge this wealth gap.
If the Premier League clubs really wanted to restore competitive balance to English football they’d share out the TV money more equitably across all the leagues. But, of course, pigs will fly before that happens. For that reason I won’t be cheering a proposal which offers mid-table Premier League clubs a bigger slice of the pie, but would give sod all to the Football League clubs that the Premier League gravy train has left behind.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.