Written by Andy Wood

It may well have gone under your radar but there are plans currently being discussed to make structural changes to the Football League that would see it undergo the most notable changes since the formation of the Premier League in 1992. At the moment the ideas are very much in their infancy, but this hasn’t stopped people finding the controversy in them. So what do we know so far, and what impact could these changes have on our national game?

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credit Ungry Young Man

What’s on the table?

The English Football League (EFL) have put forward certain proposals as part of their ‘Whole Game Solution’ that would come into effect at the beginning of the 2019/20 season. The main proposal that has come out of this is the expansion of the professional football league structure from its current format- 4 leagues and 92 teams- to one that accommodates 5 leagues and 100 teams. There have been various further proposals regarding where the extra teams will be sourced from, with the most controversial being the idea that Premier League ‘B Teams’ are added to the league pyramid. Alternatively it could be that certain teams currently playing at non-league level are drafted up to make up the numbers. Both of these solutions come with question marks over their suitability, especially the ‘B Team’ proposal that has already divided fans of lower league sides with their introduction into the EFL Trophy this year – so much so that there have been fan boycotts of the competition. It’s seen as a move that could undermine the value of the lower league competitions. Promoting certain non-league clubs could be fairer to some but it would raise the issue of how to select which teams come up- effectively it could make promotion/relegation for a season completely pointless.

Another major long term talking point is that a winter break could be implemented into the fixture schedule. This has been on the agenda for what seems like several years now, as many major European leagues have one of their own. The hope for this is that by reducing the pressure of an otherwise hectic fixture schedule on English teams during the regular season that it might benefit the National team in summer tournaments. How fruitful an idea this actually is, it’s hard to say – there are probably greater reasons for the failings of the international side – and the idea of taking away traditional fixtures such as Boxing Day and New Year’s Day might not resonate with regular going supporters. That being said, teams who would otherwise be playing 4 games in 12 days might like the idea of some respite during a 49 game minimum season.

 

Why is this happening?

The Football League has stated 4 main objectives as for the proposals:

-To maximise the number of weekend/Bank Holiday fixtures

-To remove where practical fixture congestion and scheduling conflicts

-To protect/improve financial distributions/income generation for Football League clubs

-To maintain the Football League Play Off Finals as the last event of the domestic season.

On the whole these objectives are uncontroversial from a fan’s point of view. As much as a Tuesday night fixture under the floodlights can be special nights, the overall practicality of a regular Saturday 3pm schedule is undoubtedly preferable for regular attenders. This is the same case for avoiding scheduling conflicts – over recent seasons we’ve seen the winter schedule heavily affected by adverse conditions postponing many fixtures at a time in the lower leagues. The resulting backlog of fixtures hasn’t been good for protecting attendance levels. By reducing the lower leagues from 24 teams to 20 – thus cutting 8 games from the regular schedule – fixtures should be able to stay on weekends for the most part allowing regular attendances to be supplemented at a high level. What is confusing though is that alongside this, the EFL have already made structural changes to their EFL Trophy to a group stage format – adding at least two extra matches on top of the schedule deemed in need of change.

This ties in to worries fans have about the influence of the Premier League on these proposals. According to the EFL website, the Premier League board has already offered ‘in principle’ support to the changes being made, as well as indicating their own priorities for the restructuring, mostly centring around avoiding FA Cup and UEFA competition fixture scheduling issues as well as increasing prospects for the national side at all levels. The subtext that fans will see from this is a method by which Premier League ‘B Teams’ are backhandedly infiltrated into the lower league system. As already mentioned, their inclusion in this year’s controversial EFL Trophy has led to fan boycott’s, and this is a result of fans believing that it is the first step to introducing them into the league system. This is seen as a major threat to the credibility and livelihoods of historic lower league clubs and will surely continue to be opposed at any opportunity.

Another questionable section of this list is where the Football League talks about protecting the financial distributions to lower league clubs. The idea seems to be that this will go hand in hand with protecting the attendance levels at clubs – revenue will organically grow the more people are attending fixtures. It’s hard for fans not to look at this objective with some scepticism though – after all the current financial ‘trickle down’ through the Football League pyramid is already seen by many as insufficient. Having an extra division to carry the split across to would need to be managed carefully to ensure clubs are not put into financial hardship. Really, this shouldn’t be a problem given that the overall central funding and prize money handed out in total across the 92 teams as it is stands at a huge total of money – Premier League teams are getting up to £90 million pounds per season just in TV rights income, with teams who get relegated somehow earning £64 million for the landmark. Simply looking at these financial brackets and smartly redistributing the money in a more balanced and reward driven manner would be a good start to upholding the financial security of the national game.

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credit Matthew Wilkinson

What’s the reaction been like

So far there hasn’t been much in this regard – the timescale for club’s consultation periods is currently June 2017, when the EFL board will hold its next AGM. At the moment most clubs are looking to gauge fan reaction to the current proposals to help shape their responses – therefore if you do support a Football League club and want to get your voice heard, have a look for how your club is involving their fans.

Some clubs have made early suggestions as to their thoughts on the matter. Some quotes taken from club websites include;

“…the detailed case for change as outlined in the ‘Whole game Solution’ remains unconvincing. City supporters, along with those from many other clubs, are vociferous in their condemnation of the proposed changes and potential wider outcomes for English football.”- Exeter City FC

Fans from lower league Clubs already see the distribution of funds within the football pyramid to be vastly unequal, therefore any ‘Whole Game Solution’ proposal must address this issue. It is a fact that Clubs operating in the Premier League and Championship are getting richer and Clubs further down the pyramid, such as Yeovil, are getting poorer each season. With this in mind, change is required, but we do not need a ‘Whole Game Solution’ that covers over this fact.“- Yeovil Town FC

“In summary, the case for change has not yet been made; the timescale for debate is too restrictive and the chances of a successful and constructive debate are severely constrained by the elephant in the room that is the issue of B teams in the EFL”- AFC Wimbledon

All this shows that there is still significant unease at the ideas being floated by the EFL. The issues ranging from financial security and the possible introduction of B teams in the lower divisions must be properly scrutinised and full engagement and clarity with affected teams is essential if the proposals are to get off the ground.

What are your thoughts on these potential plans? Let us know in the comments below!

featured image by Jon Candy