English football’s eco-system – cause for concern

THE LACK of true democracy in English football, which has long adopted a “survival of the fittest” culture, is an imbalanced class system that is surely unsustainable.

Although many people in the UK look at American sport’s structure and self-protectionism with some cynicism, we may have come to a stage where the governing bodies have to look at creative alternatives to introduce more competitiveness to the 92-club constitution.

The United States’ National Football League (NFL) is a competition that has a high degree of democracy. “The NFL is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Alex Fynn, football writer and lawyer. “Last season’s champions have the last pick of the draft”. This approach aims to make the NFL as competitive as possible, a way of protecting the brand and ensuring the product is entertaining and appealing to the public and TV.

The Premier League is the complete opposite, the whole is weaker than the league’s parts because the competition is overwhelmingly driven by the top six clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

Speaking at University of London’s Birkbeck college, Fynn believed England is 10 to 20 years behind some of Europe’s top leagues in creating a system that has better balance.

Fynn added that English football should be more than just 20 Premier clubs, but the problem is the Premier doesn’t really care about the rest of the system. “We have four divisions, but the structure fall in knots beyond the Premier. We call it a pyramid, but we do not have a pyramid. It does exist in non-league football and in other countries.”

Fynn called the Football League “useless”, an organisation that cannot look past the idea of “play more games, earn more money”, an ethos that exists down the ladder and into non-league.  Fynn said: “They cannot seem to grasp that less is more in this case. There should be no more than 20 clubs in a division and the structure needs reassessing, games such as Exeter City versus Carlisle United are an absolute nonsense at the lowest level.”

This hints at some form of regionalisation solution being reintroduced at the lower level. Certainly there seems little logic in clubs travelling the length of the country to play in front of a few thousand people. “At the bottom level, the stuff of life is local derbies,” said Fynn. “Greater rivalry, bigger crowds and an increase in local interest.”

Advocates of the 92 structure have stubbornly championed its depth and broad geographic representation as a key differentiator from other European countries, but Fynn believes this is misguided. “The system is faulty, because 20 Premier clubs cannot provide an accurate measure of a country’s football strength,” he said. “The more teams you have, the lower the quality.”

Fans are still taken for granted, largely because clubs have waiting lists and people clamouring for tickets at the highest level. “Fans have lifelong affairs with their clubs and therefore are very different from customers. Yet the clubs’ attitude is that they have plenty of people waiting outside and so they get away with not treating their fans as well as they should,” added Fynn. He concluded that fans are like extras on a film set and should be rewarded for their loyalty with clubs building relationships and offering fair ticket prices.

Clearly, English football’s 92-club constitution is struggling and dependent on businessmen and owners underpinning club finances. Bury and Bolton should have prompted discussions about the future of the system because there must be questions around the viability of a lot of clubs up and down the country.


Photo: PA

3 thoughts on “English football’s eco-system – cause for concern

  1. Football has always, on the whole, been miraculous in its ability to avoid market forces that are inevitable in any other walk of life. Why anyone would be surprised that the wheels are finally coming off is beyond me. If the EFL is sincere in its wanting to maintaining the current breadth of representation, the regionalization is the only sane option. That said, they also have to get serious about their definition of a fit and proper person for ownership of clubs. Their culpability in the case of Bury is especially bloody and obvious.

    1. On the face of it, Bury’s owner was probably ok. The problem is football at the lower level is unsustainable and fans/clubs expect owners/chairman to basically bail-out their financial inadequacies. He probably looked at the club’s finances and thought “crikey, this is a busted flush”. The same, to some extent, is evident at Newcastle – Ashley won’t just pour money in and that makes them uncompetitive in the current climate.

  2. Regionalisation on its own isn’t the answer. Carlisle United, are remote from every other EFL club and don’t have any real local derbies. In the football world as it now is they are an anachronism and have no chance of ever winning anything. However, relatively speaking they are well supported and well run. The level of change required to make the EFL sustainable would be very painful and clubs like Carlisle United may well not survive it.

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