The Greedy Gamble

Last updated : 31 January 2003 By Richard Oldroyd

Play off winners on 1994 despite ending the season way behind in 6th place
After shifting teams around the country at their pleasure, suggesting plans to import foreign teams into the English league and contemplating doing away with promotion and relegation, extending the play-offs seems a bit dull. But we are informed that the authorities in their infinite wisdom would now like to see a third of the division involved in an end of season lottery.

Interesting. But why stop at that? I think they’re missing a trick here. We’ve got it at the top end of the division, so why not introduce it at the bottom. In fact, forget the idea of a league table altogether: lets divide the league into two halves come the end of April, and have two knockout competitions to determine promotion and relegation. Twelfth could go up; thirteenth could be relegated.

Sky could carry every match live, and we might as well go a touch further and divide the game into quarters. The Burnley Babes could prance up and down the touchline and celebrate each Burnley goal with their pom-poms. It could be family entertainment at its best.

Last season and the season before, it would have kept us in with a chance of promotion beyond the end of the regular season. We could have been plying our trade in the Premiership now. But of course, the truth of the matter is we weren’t good enough to get promoted, and we are still not. We might, in a knockout situation, have got lucky. But over 46 games – and in truth, by any other indicator you want to mention – we weren’t as good, man for man, as Birmingham or West Brom or Manchester City. For us to have gone up instead of any of those teams would have been a travesty.

Yes, it would make money. Grounds would have been full. I have said before that football thrives more than anything else upon the hard edge provided by competition; I’ve said also that I love the drama of the FA Cup. But there is a time and a place for that kind of drama. To extend the play-offs might not lead to the kind of Americanised environment that I have imagined, but it would devalue the concept that teams earn a place in a particular league upon merit, by consistently proving themselves against their counterparts in a particular league.

You might say that this only represents a logic progression from what we already have. I would argue that the structure of the play-offs as it exists is wrong, and I would actually cut a team out. Fourth and fifth could play each other for the right to play the team who finished third in the league. It is contrary to that natural justice I have talked about that we were able to get promoted in 1994 having finished so far behind Stockport.

As the football authorities search for solutions to their cash shortfalls created in the wake of the ITV digital affair, they need to remember a few basics. Football is already at saturation point. Spuriously creating more games in a plastic, false competition will serve only to force loyal fans to put their hands in their already light pockets to find a few more coppers to watch the game.

There are only so many occasions upon which I for one can afford to do that. Eventually people will get bored, switch off and turn away. What makes a few quid now might well end up eventually killing the goose which lays the golden egg.

The fact is that fiddling around with the structure of the game is not in itself going to make the difference. Some changes do make sense: regionalising divisions two and three is one such proposition. But superimposing new gimmicks upon a basic structure that has endured for over a hundred years is not the answer.

The other evening, I had the opportunity to attend an audience with Sven Goran Eriksson and David Davies of the FA. I have questioned in this column before the logic of investing grand sums of money in a national stadium at a time when the game as a whole is struggling for money, and Davies was unable to answer that question. The truth of the matter is that the game has abandoned the route which would make the most sense – namely interest free FA loans to help teams readjust to life in the post ITV digital age – in favour of tacky stunts.

So let me suggest my own way of sorting out this mess. The FA, as guardians of the game in this country, should set aside a pot of money to stabilise the finances of those who have been hit by ITV digital. Sort out the structure of the league in a manner which retains the essential ethos of the competition, but which makes more economic sense in the present climate. Forget, once and for all, the idea of parachuting teams into the league or shuffling teams around the country to find the ‘markets’.

Of course, we want fans to get behind their club and make a difference. But the game needs to stop treating them as fools who will unquestioningly pay out. Financially, the game in the Nationwide League has come back into the real world. It is a shame that the administrators have not come back down as well.