Monday, October 27, 2008

Is Gartside right?

Before you answer with an emphatic "no", just bear with me for a few moments. Leaving aside that this is just a cry for attention from a chairman who is having his club's thunder stolen by the likes of Hull and Stoke, this is not the first suggestion of a Premier League closed shop. The Manchester City Chief Executive has spoken recently in favour of a 14 team league run on a franchise system similar to the US model.

Phil Gartside, for those who have not heard, thinks there should be a two-division Premier League of 36 teams in total. While there would be promotion and relegation between these divisions, crucially there would be no demotion or promotion to and from the Football League. Essentially the great rags to riches stories of clubs storming through the leagues to the summit of the game would be over. Great footballing stories of Wimbledon, Nottingham Forest, Luton Town, Oxford United and of course Hull City would be no more.

To many, if not all, football supporters this idea strikes at the core of what makes league football special. Promotion is aspirational, democratic, romantic and exciting. To take away a club's path to the top is to take away the supporter's dreams. The idea, quite simply is an anathema to the spirit of the game. What's more, it is cleary self-serving on Gartside's part. He is only looking out for his club's own interest probably realising that relegation could lead to financial ruin. His way means Premier League clubs are free to make as much money without fear of failure. Everybody wins except those not invited to the club. So far, so bad.

That said and after a bit more thought about it, I'm disinclined to dismiss the idea out of hand. My reasoning for this is the Patrick Collins piece opposing it in the Daily Mail. My philosophy in life is that if a Daily Mail columnist think something is bad its probably good. I call it the Sky Sports Principle.

So as unpalatable as it may be, lets put aside the negatives and focus on the positive aspects of the idea, just for the exercise.

Chairmen like Steve Gibson will stay involved in the game

Boro may not be the most glamorous of clubs but in Steve Gibson they have a diamond. A chairman who gives his manager time, patience, money and understanding. Their academy has produced a number of good English players and may one day be responsible for the next Wayne Rooney. If clubs like Boro go down, guys like Gibson leave the game.

Income security leads to better governance and secures clubs futures

Part of the reason why West Ham are in the fiscal mess they are in stems from two seasons ago when they bought a stack of players for high transfer fees and high wages in a desperate (and successful) attempt to avoid relegation. This season, Alan Curbishley ended up walking because he was having players sold from underneath him by a club frantically trying to lower the wage bill. With a minimum guarantee, clubs will be able to plan their finances and better manage crises when they arise.

Isolation protects the other leagues from collapse

In other words they're a bunch of money grabbing eejits and if they become consumed by their own greed and go belly up at least they're not taking the rest of the game with them right? The Premier League is as successful as its last TV deal. If the money dries up from its commercial partners things could go spectacularly wrong for the clubs, some of whom are said to be spending well above turnover and borrowing against the market value of their players. That's the sort of woolly thinking that did for Leeds United. Football League clubs may be protected from this because they are negotiating their own deals and working to different fiscal rules. This brings me nicely to...

The Football League can set their own economies of scale unburdened by the pressure to gain promotion

I reckon one of the biggest reasons why clubs suffer financially is because of their ambition to succeed. Luton and Oxford both enjoyed the glory years at the top and are both down in the mire. Why are ticket prices so high in the Championship? Partly because clubs need to pay high wages to players who are supposed to take them into the Premier League at the end of the season. The knock on effect of high wages and high ticket prices can be felt all the way down the Football League. If that avenue was not open to them then in theory, the need to break the bank and charge unrealistic prices to spectators is removed.

Look at Bradford, who dared to live the dream. Where are they now? League 2 but enjoying a mini-renaissance thanks in part to cutting their ticket prices. I rarely make it to Selhurst Park because it costs far more than I believe is justifiable for a Second Division football match. The last time I went was a mid-season game against Wolves. My friends and I sat in the Holmesdale Upper Tier and I swear we were the youngest people there. The youngest of our group was thirty-five.

I don't know about you but my club playing in the Premier League is no good to me if its going to cost me an arm and a leg to go to the games. Furthermore, I'm not sure how many 16-25 year olds can afford to regularly pay modern professional football admission prices.

There is a part of me that says if the Premier League want to go off and play with themselves, let them. If they make it a success, fair play to them. Meanwhile, the Football League, unburdened by the constant need to chase a dream, can concentrate on getting their own house in order, focus on winning their own leagues and adjust their budgets accordingly. They would not need to pay such high wages, could lower admission prices and open the game and re-engage with its community.

The other part of me hates the idea of having the prospect of glory taken away or at least finds it difficult to imagine any satisfaction in settling for second, third or fourth best. However, the more I think about it, the more good I can see in letting the Premier League leave with their big TV deals and multi-millionaire players while the rest of us go and watch a game at 3pm on a Saturday.

What do you think? Are you swayed by the passion of my argument or am I a dangerous fool who should have his Blogger account disabled? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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