England’s proud football pyramid is crumbling and with it their 132 year old history
Early on in The Sopranos, the gang is sitting and counting cash - doing exactly what the audience expects mobsters to do and the TV is droning on in the back-drop. On it, is an interview of a former mobster alongside a police officer and something that they’re saying has irritated the great Tony.
He turns to Sil and says “Cheer me up, babe.” Sil, this being Silvio Dante, stands up and performs a damn near impeccable version of Al Pacino’s iconic Godfather 3 line. So iconic, that the mere mention of the line brings about comments or at least some mention of Sil’s name or the show itself but here it plays a bigger part. You see, this particular part of The Sopranos fits rather perfectly as a metaphor for the scene that plays out in English football on an almost regular basis. Silvio is the Premier League. Tony is the FA or rather the Premier League’s board.
The gang are various other members of the English football association and the TV that’s droning on with the mobster saying stuff that’s irritating Tony is the EFL screaming about their problems. Just as the TV starts irritating Tony again Sil gets up and performs the iconic line once again and Pacino would have been beaming if he'd seen it. But that is beside point and yet the point all wrapped into one fantastic couple of minutes of television. Because for a long time, the Premier League and its various clubs, league officials and others have ignored the problem of what’s going on down below them.
The problem that does indeed affect them but when the time comes to do something and solve said issue everyone instead opts to turn a blind eye and ignore the rest of their world. This global pandemic has simply magnified that issue and their method of dealing brilliantly and especially now that the League Two, unlike the Championship or the top tier, has opted to end their league season. Not completely, however, with them looking to end it via a system that includes the tables decided on a points per game (ppg) system. Not only that, but the playoffs for promotion will be played and the move has been ratified by the EFL and FA before being voted on by the clubs themselves.
Yet with the League One deciding on ending their season via the same method, problems have arisen and the EFL has recommended that will keep promotion and relegation in place for everything. That’s regardless of how a league-wide vote, across all three leagues (including Championship), goes. But that’s beside the point because the large and more pertinent issue is the fact that the slowly yet steadily the football world is going broke. It’s why the Bundesliga restarted their league and why the French league, despite opposition, opted to end theirs. Because one could afford to do that while the other had no choice but to resume play or face the consequences.
We are heading for a financial hole of about £200m by the end of September.
EFL Chairman Rick Parry
For the EFL and its components, things are getting dangerously close to going out of fashion especially in League One, League Two and the National League. Their financial situation before a global pandemic that forced everyone to stay put at home was scary and had them begging for whatever scraps they got. It saw clubs like Bury expelled after their owner recklessly chased after promotion and forced them into liquidation, with Sunderland, Charlton and others on the same stage. But they are just one example of what could happen for clubs in those leagues if they cannot find a way to get money somehow.
Huddersfield owner Phil Hodgkinson has admitted, "There is an absolutely real, stark probability that if something isn't agreed now within football to ensure all clubs can pay their bills and get through to the point where income is resumed, you will be looking at 50 or 60 clubs ceasing to exist.” Damian Collins, MP, and the infamous Charlie Methven, Sunderland’s co-owner and star of documentary Sunderland ‘till I die, have claimed that “In the next few weeks we could see five to 10 EFL League clubs going into administration.”
Manchester United legend and Salford City co-owner Gary Neville was the latest to chime in and he said "My understanding is that clubs will be ok up until June 30. The real problem will come where clubs rely on season-ticket sales for next season. The real issue will come in July, August and September if this coronavirus crisis persists. The clubs will really suffer at his point. I do believe the Premier League has the ability to do this. Football can sort itself out." But that's in one interview, in another Neville would also go onto say "That's what I'm seeing all over football. Everyone's looking at their own feet, and not seeing the carnage that's coming in the next three to four months. I wanted more from the Premier League from day one on this. I'm continually disappointed by them and their stance"
But to save them and the rest of the league, EFL owners and, reportedly, league officials have got together via a video conference and created a plan. In their discussions, the owners and, reportedly, league officials decided to regionalise the League One and League Two again to help them survive this crisis. Furthermore, they did not stop there and set forth another plan, which would see the League Two (fourth division) and the National League merge into the League Two North and South. And to say it has not gone down well with the clubs, fans and even various other critics is an understatement.
But shockingly the plan, on paper, at least is a solid one. It will see attendances boosted, it will save travel costs in the long run and might even create a few new derbies. Plus, it would mean no promotions or relegations for the next few seasons at least and clubs will be boosted by a new source of income and thus won't have to depend as much on matchday income. But it changes the English football pyramid back into a five tier stage for the first time in its history. That’s for the first time in 1888, which was when the EFL was founded, and that is where our first problem arises. Because if there is one thing that English football and their fans love is the fact that they have a six tier pyramid.
It’s the only one in existence with others stopping at four (Germany, Spain, Italy) and three (France, Belgium and the Netherlands). And the English are overly proud of their little system with it being one of the many reasons why the Premier League is so popular in this day and age. But not only that, it’s where the solution has to come from especially given its aforementioned popularity. The financial disparity between the top tier and its poorer lower league brothers and sisters has become overwhelmingly obvious and magnified in the world’s current situation.
That doesn’t mean that the Premier League doesn’t share it’s £8.65 billion wealth that they’ve earned from the current, 2019-20, TV deals. But out of that £400 million, 70% are parachute payments paid out to clubs relegated from the Premier League for upto three years. Add up the rest and the new money that the league has given out over the years and it comes to a measly 6.8%. Now for an ordinary man, that is a lot of money but for a league that has 72 clubs, it’s not enough to even help them survive a single season without matchday income. Which is the situation that clubs will find themselves for at least another six months to a year and that’s just an estimated figure which will change as the virus adapts and mutates, or so the experts say.
For the Premier League, thanks to aforementioned TV deal, it’s not that bad. But for the rest of the EFL and the National League, hell is about rain down upon them and the solutions provided so far have been nothing short of half-assed. The more simple, blatant, and rather obvious answer is to share the wealth which will help clubs survive. Not just the League One, Two, or the National League but even further down, all the way to the grassroots level. Because the money being handed out at just the top is downright ridiculously spent and could be put to use improving a 132-year-old football pyramid.
Not that the lower-league clubs have been run sensibly but if a few changes are made like a wage cap (across the pyramid), a proper ownership test and even improve the way the EFL governs them, it changes things. Maybe the probability of something like what Hodgkinson’s revealed may not be as high but it’s always going to be an ever-present threat. Because of the financial disparity that separates the Premier League and the EFL, not the Premier League and one particular lower league but the top tier and every lower league combined into one.
It’s why the Premier League players have still not agreed to a league wide pay cut, because the PFA’s statement admitted that they want “to find a way to increase funding to the EFL and non-league clubs in the long-term." That is a very smart move to add it to the negotiations but that plan worked out brilliantly. And looking at how pleas from various former players, club owners, Ministers of parliaments and other officials of various stature has gone down, it’s looking more and more likely that a merger is the only way of saving what is left of the English Football Pyramid. But in doing so, they will without a doubt in anybody’s mind slice out a massive piece of English football and dump it down the drain. So as Tony watches and, once again, gets irritated at the Tv, he turns to Sil and says “Cheer me up, babe.”