If we know one thing about the people in charge at Bolton Wanderers, we know this – Phil Gartside once proposed there should be no relegation from the Premier League. And here they are, playing Bristol City in a lower-table Championship dogfight in which they fall two goals behind after less than 20 minutes.
Hubris is a bitch, isn’t it?
Like most things which are just too poetically perfect, the above received wisdom isn’t quite accurate. Gartside didn’t propose a cut-off top tier – he proposed a cut-off Premier League One and Two. Thus introducing a second Lucre Line further down the league, splitting yet more clubs utterly away from fiscal survival and no doubt hastening the descent into part-time regionalised entities of such proud clubs as, say, Notts County, Preston North End and Accrington Stanley. Yes. But let’s get this right.
Still, since he wanted a two-tier structure with 36 clubs in it – and since he wanted Rangers and Celtic in there too, therefore reducing by two the number of English sides in his proposed elite – seeing Bolton start the day below 34th place in the Football League is pretty satisfying.
34 feels about right for Gartside’s purposes, as well. I’ve written before about parachute payments, and how they’re designed to ensure that the same clubs get promoted time after time. And how they’ve had to be increased since football’s still-semi-conscious anarchic spirit has magnificently overruled this particular bit of financial doping, giving the likes of Swansea, Blackpool and Hull their seasons in the sun. 34 unrelegatable “big clubs” fits with this, the 20 which happen to be in the Premier League at the time plus a further dozen or so to fight over the scraps. And this would be built into the system rather than left to the not-reliable-enough parachute mechanism to ensure.
To be fair, Gartside’s most recent revival of this charming little scheme was slightly different. This link is well worth a read for all fans of weasel words, poorly hidden agendas and outright lying. I like that he’s prepared, rather sweetly, to reintroduce promotion if clubs “meet standards of size and finance”, thus removing the possibility that promotion could be a way for a small club to become more competitive over time, like Bolton did. He’s also concerned, poor dear, about the “polarisation of clubs”. You’d think that proposing a “promotion license” system would increase, rather than decrease, polarisation, but you’d be misunderstanding. He’s actually worried about “the same few clubs continu[ing] to benefit from the huge additional revenues from the Champions League” as well as “a fear factor” concerning relegation to the Championship. Simply put, 2009’s Phil Gartside felt that raising the drawbridge was fine if he was on the right side of the moat, but terribly wrong if he wasn’t.
As far as I’m aware, that’s the last he’s said in public on the matter, probably because of the reception he’s received every time he’s made a proclamation, possibly because relegation has rendered his views moot. That’s slightly irritating as it means I’m hanging this blog on a three-year-old hook. But crashing on, I wonder if his views, for all that they’re motivated by naked self-interest and greed, don’t merit slightly further examination.
What he’s proposing is something that would turn the de facto divisions in football into ones that are de facto. The same teams would compete for the ludicrous, inflation-busting TV money, spread slightly further perhaps but guaranteed. By definition, in his most recent proposal, the rich would get richer. And I’m not sure how his system would break the Champions League cartel at the top of the English game – after all, for twenty years now the dreadful Premier League has claimed exclusive access to the money teat, and it’s been a long time since Newcastle or Blackburn have been in with a shout of the European Cup. So we can safely dismiss this whole “closing off the top divisions” idea as bloody dreadful. Fine.
What I’m more interested in is looking at it the other way round – ie Gartside’s nightmare scenario of the big boys vanishing into their own European Super League. This is nothing new as an idea, of course – it’s been kicking round for as far as I can remember, that likeable chap Charles Green most recently giving it his backing in comments almost admirable for their fuck-you honesty. Indeed there’s a sense of inevitability about it – Wenger certainly seems to think it’s going to come along, Clarence Seedorf is behind it, and Florentino Perez (they just get more and more likeable, don’t they?) would like to see the “best” (read “richest”) guaranteed to play the “best” (yep, still read “richest”) every single week.
You can see why these luminaries of football sense that the middle finger of history is only pointing one way. The current, bloated, nasty Champions League appears to have been born as a result of blackmail by the big clubs, who were prepared to walk out of UEFA altogether unless the competition was expanded so that they could all be in every year. And fuck the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup. What the wealthy bastards want, the wealthy bastards get, in football as in life.
So perhaps at some point this is going to happen. Unlike Gartside’s proposals, there seems to be sufficient precedent that it genuinely might. No promotion, no relegation – just Man Utd vs Real Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Juventus, every week until we all kill ourselves out of existential despair. Another few parts of football’s rich tapestry torn away for good.
But. But, but, but. Who gets left behind? Look at England. The giant clubs are the teams who adapted best to the post-1992 world order – not necessarily the likes of one-time Champions League semi-finalists Leeds, who are very much the Icarus of this story, but the teams who flew slightly less high but slightly more consistently. Arsenal, say; even Manchester United, who had an amusing spell of going out of the CL early for a few years but never failed to be there.
They were the teams on the right point of the oscillating wave of form all football teams go through when the Champions League rolled over the top flight like Jurassic sap, preserving everything in amber that it costs a vast amount to break into. The teams they left behind were the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest . Historic giants of the game with genuine European pedigree – far more, in the early ‘90s, than Chelsea, for instance. If they break away those teams will still be left in the English game. A game without the Champions League income, stuck outside looking in.
Good. To me, that sounds wonderful. Imagine Norwich v Sheffield Wednesday as a top-5 fixture, like it was in the early ‘90s. Imagine not knowing who’d be in contention for the league every year. Imagine a team like Clough’s Forest, nearly Clough’s Derby too, shooting through the top flight to win it as a newly promoted side.
We’re a European breakaway league away from having that back.
I know there’s a flip side. We wouldn’t have a selection of the “greatest players in the world” any more, I appreciate that. No more would Agüero, Vidic, Cazorla, Bale or Hazard play in the English Premier League. But then, what precisely would be the difference? If their clubs were all in the breakaway league, they’d play in exactly the same stadiums for exactly the same teams. They’d probably be on telly at exactly the same time. OK, fans at the Liberty Stadium or Upton Park wouldn’t see them in the flesh. But they’d see more competitive games, fewer thrashings and, who knows, maybe a title or two.
I say let them go. I say give us our league back. I say we can either put up with all levels of football being infected by the fiscal trickle-down of the Champions League, or we can actively hope for the final breakaway and enjoy the real thing we get back in return.
And if we could work out how to get Steaua Bucharest and Anderlecht into European Cup finals again, that’d be good too.