Sunday, November 15, 2009

Old Firm, new challenges

My post last week concerning proposals to bring Celtic and Rangers into a modified two-tier Premier League brought a very considered response in the Comments section from a reader called "Martin". This post is a part reply to him. It would appear, following the Premier League vote last week, that this "Anglo-Scottish League" proposal has been roundly defeated.

Martin says, "Having a two-tier Premier League would divide television revenue between 36 clubs rather than 20, and considering only two of those would be Scottish teams, 14 English clubs would be better off, increasing competitiveness at the higher end".

I think this statement presumes the television revenue would be fairly distributed and evenly granted between clubs. This presumption, under the new circumstances of an Anglo-Scottish league, lacks logic. The larger clubs, the "Big 4" of the Premier League, already command far more attention and television coverage than even those mid-table sides in the same league: it would be fanciful to suggest that Norwich or Hull or even perhaps Aston Villa would see similar benefits to a two-tier league than Manchester United or Arsenal. "Increasing competitiveness" could well be the end result, although not instantly; the special atmosphere between the "larger" clubs and Celtic or Rangers is often because of the rare European Cup ties between the sides, a relationship which would become lesser as the novelty of regular matches wears off.

Martin then lists a number of "cross country" examples, including the Welsh clubs which play in England (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, and Merthyr Tydfil), Monaco in France, and Derry FC in Ireland, amongst others. He is absolutely right to point out these examples. And he is right to suggest that "..[t]he only way that clubs from smaller nations will ever be able to compete with the financial monopoly of the big clubs is to play in their leagues, or form cross-country leagues."

With all due respect, Celtic or Rangers playing regular league football in England is not quite the same thing as Cardiff or Wrexham playing in England. That the Old Firm are "big fish" in a small nation is perhaps entirely a consequence of a mis-handling of the Scottish Leagues over generations. If something must be done, why not the "Atlantic League", where similarly sized nations could share revenues across borders without the wholesale negative consequences to England's footballing system?

Martin says that the Old Firm "leaving Scotland will improve the competitiveness of that league, and fill the ground two times more a season at every English club they play". I cannot agree completely with this all-done-and-dusted assumption. For sides already struggling in Leagues 1 and 2, the promise of expensive jaunts up to Glasgow twice a season to be roundly thumped in a stadium atmosphere completely alien to the rest of the League does not exactly glisten with gold.

Inventing traditions in football does not work. FIFA see this with their ill-fated World Club Cup competition, a globe-trotting failure completely disconnected from fans who have no attraction to watching unknown Asian clubs stretch out results against a seemingly never-ending rota of different African also-rans. There could be a great amount of financial benefit from introducing Celtic and Rangers into the English Premier League, not least for those larger clubs and more affluent fans for whom the lucrative profits would rush out of the gates and flood the club shop. Ultimately, however, the logistical difficulties and questionable benefits further down the leagues tip the balance against the proposals.

I would like to thank Martin for taking the time to respond to my first post. He makes a good case for the proposals, but ultimately I think the whole idea would do more harm than good.


Martin said...

You are right, I was presuming that the television revenue would be split sensibly between both tiers, perhaps in the manner of a 60/40 split. In retrospect this ignores the historical lack of common sense the football authorities demonstrate. There probably won't be any upheaval of the status quo until football's financial bubble bursts in the long-term, when viewers finally grow tired of the same clubs winning everything.

However, in this case I don't think that familiarity would breed contempt. Grounds across the country are filled by visits from Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United season after season and it would be the same with the Old Firm. The volume and passion of their fans livens every ground they visit and the chance to be part of that atmosphere twice each season would fill the ground and possibly sell more season tickets. Much as when Swansea and Cardiff visit English grounds, there is national pride at stake every time.

Scottish clubs would lose that extra revenue each season however, and if the extra competitiveness did not bring people through the turnstiles, then it would eventually turn into a backwater league like Wales or Ireland. The only truly fair proposal would be to entirely merge the English and Scottish league systems, which would probably be resisted for fear of losing independent national sides.

An "Atlantic League" probably sounds like the best solution on paper, but games such as Porto vs Celtic or Anderlecht vs Ajax would no longer be a novelty and would have no cultural relevance. Rangers vs Norwich or Hull, however ordinary it sounds to the neutral, would see two teams come together with a shared football and wider culture and history.

If the Old Firm were made to start in League Two, they would be in the Championship in a couple of years. So lower league fans would probably jump at their possibly only chance to visit Ibrox or Parkhead, even if it was to get thumped.

You are also right about the World Club Championship, its current form lacks the necessary quality to make it a spectacle. Done properly it could be wonderful, and that is where everything hinges: if it was done properly. Which, with money the main priority, it probably never will be.

And all, of course, a moot point for the next couple of years until it gets brought up again!

Liam said...

Thanks for your response Martin! I may return to this topic...if it ever gets kicked away from the long grass :)