Selling football's soul
It couldn't actually happen, could it? On Monday, the League Managers' Association chief executive, Richard Bevan, aired his fears over the possibility of abolishing relegation and promotion in the Premier League, warning that the growing number of foreign owners could see this scenario become a reality.
Bevan, who was speaking at the Professional Players Federation conference in London, revealed that "four or five" more foreign owners in England's top flight could see the idea move from the warblings of a Mad Hatter to existence - Premier League rules state 14 votes from its 20 members are needed to back changes, as well as from the Football Association.
The ideal stems from an American system. At present, five of the ten foreign-owned clubs in the Premier League have American ownership: Manchester United, Arsenal (Stan Kroenke is the side's majority shareholder), Liverpool, Aston Villa and Sunderland. The first four on that list have owners who oversee sports teams competing in the American major leagues.
Demotion in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League is a non-entity. Hence, the threat of relegation is an unfamiliar one. Indeed, rather than punish failure, the lowly teams get first pick when it comes to the end-of-season draft, where the exclusive rights to new talent are acquired. Theoretically, this minimises disparity for the next campaign, keeping competition afloat.
In the Premier League's history, however, the 'big four' of Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated in recent years only for, ironically, fresh investment to shake up matters - first seen with Blackburn in the mid 90s and now with Man City. Arguably, outside of the six 'stronger' teams around now, the remaining 14 are scrapping to, initially, survive. That remains their primary goal. Thereafter, it is baby steps in terms of looking upwards, perhaps sneaking into Europe or embarking on a decent cup run.
It is, of course, logical for an owner of a club to protect their investment. Ultimately, the side is a business for the investor and, as much as supporters loathe to admit it, it is a tool to make money. Relegation is a potential avenue for income to crumble, so from a business point of view nullifying a financial leech is a no-brainer. Of course, from a footballing point of view, the proposal is rank.
Such a concept would suck the competitive element out of the game, ridding sides out of contention for honours of motivation. Those heart palpations surrounding survival would evaporate. If a side accepts they cannot achieve the title but yet there is no penalty for sitting in the lower reaches of the division, then what is one playing for? Of graver concern would be the removal of promotion.
Imagine a sudden lockdown of divisions, the bolting of the gates on the Premier League, Championship, League One, etc. These sides, who fight to write new chapters of history, or, for some, look to return to the heady days of the 'big time' would be left abandoned, their fates frozen in time and their supporters left decidedly numb. Man Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson recognises this.
Ferguson, who won promotion from the Scottish First Division with St Mirren in 1977, said: "There are at least eight teams in the Championship at the moment with great history. What do you say to those eight teams, they can never play in the Premier League? You may as well lock the doors. It would be absolute suicide for the rest of the teams in the country, particularly the Championship."
It is hard to argue that this would not be the death of the Football League. And Ferguson is not in isolation with his condemnation of the proposal.
Reacting to Bevan's quotes, Stoke City's chairman, Peter Coates, told the Associated Press: "I'd be horrified to think that was someone's long-term agenda. Although it happens in America with franchises, our traditions are totally different... It would be an absolutely unthinkable thing to happen if we wanted to try and close that particular [relegation] door. It would be so bad for the game and would do it immense damage. You'd take away the thing that's so important: the opportunity to go up and down which creates a mass amount of interest. There's as much interest in the relegation battle as the title battle."
Serving as a caveat, Villa, owned by the American Randy Lerner, have since indicated their stance on the matter. The club's board stated in the Guardian: "If he intended this group to specifically include Aston Villa, as could be inferred by his comments, then we would ask him to confirm as much. We might also add that the founding of the Football League in 1888 was led by a previous chairman of Aston Villa, William McGregor."
That this talk follows the managing director of Liverpool, Ian Ayre, last week outlining the potential for clubs to sell overseas television rights individually, leaves football with a bitter taste in its mouth. The thirst to squeeze every penny out of the game risks starving it of its soul, the very thing that propelled it to such glamour in the first place. The concept of the "39th game" - a proposal to take the Premier League on tour abroad for a single game - was met with similar reservations in 2008.
It is worth flagging up that Bevan's words do not solely relate to the foreign owners' will as, two years ago, Bolton's Leigh-born chairman Phil Gartside, proposed the idea of a two-tier Premier League - an exclusive club with no relegation. Coates, among others, was then a critic of the plan, which was ultimately blocked. And it seems that these latest murmurings will also be stopped in their tracks, with the Football Association's say-so looking decisive.
Bevan, though, perhaps sums it up best, concluding: "You need to make sure that the FA is strong enough to ensure that the principles on which our clubs are run, if I'm an owner coming in, I must recognise and embrace the history, the tradition, the supporters, the community, the philosophy of actually how this club should be operating and not deciding my club should be taken abroad or whatever."
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