The Football League has seen precious few changes in nearly 130 years since it was set up with just 12 founding teams in 1888. A Second Division wasn’t long in coming, both divisions gradually expanded, and then there was a third tier, divided between North and South before ultimately amalgamating. A 92 team set up across four divisions survived even the arrival of the Premier League but now comes a plan where we add on a fifth division and all the leagues are standardised to 20 teams each.
By Dave Bowler
The idea that nothing can be improved upon in the lower leagues is a fallacy and the historic 24 team set up across the Football League’s divisions should not simply survive because it’s been around for a while, especially at the bottom end. But if you are going to change something so engrained in the culture, you’d better make sure it’s a good fix. So is this the right move?
The argument is that by reducing the fixture list from 46 to 38 league games, more games will be played on a Saturday, thus drawing in more fans than a Tuesday night game would. Perhaps. But for clubs who are living hand to mouth existences, that’s going to need to be proven and those additional numbers are going to need to be hefty to compensate for the loss of four home games across the season – crucial revenue that can be the difference between survival and otherwise. For a start off, you’ll have to cut season ticket prices – that’s not going to sit well with many clubs.
When you look at the motivation of football fans to go and see their team, it’s too easy to get caught up in the TV driven hype that they do so courtesy of unfettered joy that makes them desperate to be a part of an occasion. It might be that way at Leicester this season but at few other places.
Most fans go because it’s tradition, it’s tribal, they go because they feel they have to every but as much as because they want to, they go for fear of missing the one day in the season when it’s really great, they go on sufferance. The vast bulk of supporters – the ones on whom a club’s revenue relies – don’t pick and choose their games based on what day it takes place or the opponent. They just go regardless. I’m not sure how the new reorganisation changes that.
More than that, a sizeable chunk of football fans love midweek games. There is something special about watching the game under the lights. It also offers a nice diversion from and a welcome highlight in the midst of the working week. If you ask fans, by and large, they’d like more games, not fewer.
Another thing that history teaches us is that football clubs abhor a void. If you take a fixture away from them you can pretty much guarantee they’ll slot another one in to replace it. Change the divisional set up and you can be sure that before long, they’ll have invented a cup competition, perhaps a British Cup with the lower three tiers in Scotland, to replace it. Which will swiftly defeat the object of the exercise, but might be worth bringing in anyway.
The root of all this is, of course, television and, in particular, its relationship with the Champions League. Midweek football at the higher level is all but outlawed by the edict that you can’t play games when the Champions League is on, an idiotic proposition.
It is this that squeezes the calendar, not the number of games that need playing. For the benefit of three or four football clubs in each of the big nations of Europe, all the rest must suffer – and that suffering is likely to include the extinction of FA Cup replays before long too.
Rather than letting the elites dictate the agenda, the rest of the game would do well to band together and reject being told just when you can and can’t play games. We’ll play when we want to and when we can get fans in thanks very much. And if that means Manchester United have to play four games in a week at the end of the season, well, they and their ilk wanted the Champions League instead of the far superior European Champions Cup didn’t they? Suck it up.