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If It Isn’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

It’s been talked about in football circles on and off for years, especially since the creation of both the English and Scottish Premier Leagues; could adding two of Scotland’s biggest clubs into the English setup work?

The most popular topic of discussion for June’s AGM looks set to be whether or not splitting the English Premier League and Championship into two “new” divisions of eighteen teams, including Rangers and Celtic, is a workable idea. The EPL1 / EPL2, an idea thought up by Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, was first talked about in October.

Mr. Gartside was quoted as saying:

“…It would even everything out and make it more competitive. You could have 36 Premier League clubs split into 18 and 18 and that would also solve the problems of the winter break and supporting the England team.”

A selection of chairmen from clubs in the Premier League met today in London; however, Mr. Gartside’s idea was not raised. Instead, a general talk was held about the general setup and of the winter break proposal, possibly also including the much-hated 39th game proposal. So as it wasn’t talked about today by them, I thought I’d air my views on this much-debated topic.

  • Taking the Old Firm out of Scotland would be the cancer that kills Scottish football as we know it.

Here’s the gaping problem that Mr. Gartside appears to have overlooked: Celtic and Rangers ARE Scottish football. Some may argue that’s not a good thing – the almost total dominance of Scottish league and cup competitions for the last twenty years, the gobbling up of young Scottish talent from smaller clubs (sometimes for insignificant fees), and both with stadia almost 3 times bigger than any other club in the league system, but does that automatically mean that a jump to the English setup is the only solution? Outsiders like Mr Gartside will look at the Scottish league setup, of the recent history, and come to a conclusion that the Old Firm would be a perfect inclusion into an English setup, and that the other clubs can be left to their own devices, and make a more exciting Scottish fitba league.

With this idea in mind, let us have a quick quiz: tell me the winners of the last three seasons of the Welsh Premier League. Struggling? How about Marc Lloyd-Williams; does he ring any bells? It’s probably because the Welsh league setup receives about as much reception from outside the Valleys as S4C. The aforementioned Mr. Lloyd-Williams, perhaps one of the greatest strikers in recent Welsh league history, is nothing more than a forgotten bench-warmer to a handful of English lower league fans. As his career statistics clearly show, the ocean known as the English league was just too great compared to the Welsh league shallow end. Could this be a vision of how Scottish league football could look without the two Glasgow clubs?

Yes, ‘real’ football will still be played, talented stars like Andy Dorman and Ian Black might actually receive the end-of-season awards they deserve, but eventually TV deals will dry up, talented players for clubs like Hearts and Hibs will move on to find better deals (or in some cases, the same deals, just with clubs who can afford it) and bankruptcies will inevitably happen. It shouldn’t be forgotten that although clubs may not stand a great chance of beating the Old Firm when 50,000 home fans are cheering them on, but they do get a nice hefty slice of the attendance fee.

Thankfully, the two-tier stumbling block here is that neither the Old Firm, nor any of the proposed 34 other clubs would honestly want the move to happen. Why? well…

  • Football is all about the money, these days.

Lets take a dose of football reality for a minute; in club football, success breeds a larger fan-base. Even I’ll admit that a large percentage of Manchester United “fans” will have never been to Manchester, but follow them because they are the team that wins every week. They win every week because they have the best players, which attracts more merchandise sales, which helps increase the stadium, to get more season tickets sold, to get even better players. Its a vicious circle for anyone who supports anyone else, and helps spur on jealousy. It’s the same in Scotland; Glasgow, the largest and most populated city in Scotland also has two of the biggest football teams, and children will be brought up to support either one religiously, excuse the pun. If supporting your team was based purely on geographical location, then Clyde and Partick Thistle would both have a much more equal attendance every week to their city neighbours.

Back to my point – success breeds a larger fan-base; if the Old Firm were to drop down below the border, they will no longer be generating guaranteed Champions League / Europa League TV revenue, or prize money for winning leagues and cups; its one thing beating St Mirren week in, week out, but swap that with Aston Villa away, and suddenly both sets of fans will realise that being a big fish in a small pond isn’t so bad after all. I almost don’t want to say it, in fear I may receive a Glaswegian fatwa over my head, but just how many Old Firm fans would want to head down to Bristol City on a Wednesday night to see their team play in EPL2?

Back down in England, and all the clubs in the current top ten of the Premier League would also not be keen on seeing the Scottish invasion, as they would also see a loss in TV revenue, whilst any of the bottom half ten would be dead against having two outsiders replace them in the 18-team EPL1 setup.

Some other issues that seemed to have been neglected:

  • Using Cardiff and Swansea as good examples won’t help the argument.

The Welsh Premier League started up in 1992, before which there was no national league. Welsh teams prior to this, such as Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham, Merthyr Town (not to be confused with Merthyr Tydfil who also now play football in England) and Newport County were playing regular football as members of the Football League and financially (and understandably) cannot even comprehend a ‘homecoming’ to a smaller league made up of towns and villages, where match day revenue and monthly wage budgets revenue are designed for smaller clubs.

Pennydarren Park

 

Clubs such as Gretna and Berwick are examples of teams who are playing, or have played in countries that differ from where they are based, but these swaps must be considered small and insignificant in comparison to anything proposed by Mr. Gartside as far as the Old Firm are concerned.

  • The argument of it helping the [English] national side is non-existent.

I’m not quite sure of Mr. Gartside’s argument here; admittedly he did make subsequent comments about salary caps and foreign owners that I’ve purposely not discussed in fear of opening too many tangents for one column, if there is a positive side to EPL1 and EPL2 as far as the Home Nations are concerned, then I’m yet to think of it. The influx of foreigners over the last 20 years has diluted the Scottish game on a similar, albeit smaller level to the English game, so their national team won’t notice much of a difference if the move were to take place.

  • Sealing relegation from EPL2 would do more harm than good.

Mr. Gartside also raised the possible idea of no relegation from the 2nd Premier League, which would surely spoil the fairytale runs that fans of clubs like Fulham, Wigan, and Hull have all enjoyed over the last two decades. Spare a thought for AFC Wimbledon, who were established in 2002, have enjoyed 3 promotions in that time, possibly 4 depending on the last game of this season. What must they think if they can go no higher than the third tier of the league setup, and not have the change to play fellow Londoners Q.P.R., or Charlton?

However, drifting off that topic, the possible idea of having two Regional leagues below the EPL2 is a good one in my eyes, in a similar setup to how the English Conference North and South currently work.

  • With 18 teams in EPL1, EPL2 would just be a re-branded Championship.

You can name it English Premier League 2, The Championship, Division 1, sadly it’s still the second tier of English football, and it’s still Barnsley vs Plymouth, no matter how much revenue you think it could generate after a name change.

So some arguments end here, but this in turn opens up many more. Could we allow more than just two Scottish teams to play? Could EPL1 and EPL2 manage with 15 teams each? Could rebooting the tired and uninteresting League Cup into a competition that includes Welsh, Scottish and Irish teams make for an interesting change?

Then again, why must we make any changes at all?

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