Two years ago, the Premier League proposed one of the most ludicrous ideas I’ve ever heard – the expansion of the Premiership to thirty nine games, with the extra game being played at random locations around the world. The aim was to promote the Premiership brand far and wide, woefully ignoring the harm it would do the league.
For starters, we already play plenty of league games – more than many European nations – and given that the extra game would be the third time certain teams meet, there would always be an element of unfairness, which would soon lead to controversy as the season ended. Imagine if a team were relegated by a point after losing to Chelsea three times, while their surviving rival picked up easy points in their extra game. The whole point of a round robin league is that everyone plays each other an equal number of times.
So, the powers that be have moved on. Aware that fourth spot is one of the league’s prize positions (and in fact, the main target for those outside the Big Four), they are putting together a proposal to end the season with a playoff competition which would determine who takes the fourth and final Champions League spot.
The format is yet to be decided, but the likely approach would be similar to the promotion playoffs in the lower leagues – 4th v 7th and 5th v 6th over two legs, for a place in the playoff final.
Arsenal are refusing to back the deal, as are Chelsea, United and Liverpool. No surprise there, you might say, but you will also be less than shocked to hear that Martin O’Neill is all for the idea, and David Moyes considers it worth investigating.
Here is my problem with it – leagues are not cups, and in my opinion, should not ‘jazz themselves up’ by incorporating elements of cup competitions. Some sports decide title winners by means of a playoff – I hate that, as it can eradicate the achievement of going the entire season unbeaten. The best teams rise to the top of the league, but the best do not win cups.
That is why we have the Carling Cup and the FA Cup. The league is the league.
You might argue that the lower league promotion playoff system works, and I would agree with you. But it is different there – they are 24 team leagues with 2-3 automatic promotion spots and 3-4 relegation spots. So that means 16-18 clubs in the middle could have little to play for come the end of the season, were such a system not in place.
That is plainly not the case in the Premiership. In the final games, typically only those sitting 10th-13th have nothing to play for. The smaller league ensures that mid table is only safe when there are a couple of games to go, while the two tier European system means that there are Europa League spots available for those slightly higher up.
The second major flaw in the plan is that of logistics. The league season ends on May 9, with the FA Cup final the following weekend. The Champions League final occurs on the 22nd May. Where do you put the three extra matches? Teams near the top of the league are the likeliest to be featuring in the FA Cup final, and it is in no-one’s interest to force clubs to prioritise a Champions League playoff over that showpiece event. That is precisely why there are gaps in May – teams should be rested.
So do you cram the season even tighter, finishing the campaign in April? Or do you push the playoff end date back into June, where the World Cup belongs? Both options contradict the FA’s position of giving England the best chance in international tournaments – I doubt the media would deem the playoffs such a brilliant idea if a key player got injured.
The Premier League’s responsibility is not to attempt to determine who finishes where, and who gets what prizes. But that is precisely what they are trying to do – unhappy with the same four clubs repeatedly claiming the Champions League positions, they are trying to arbitrarily shake things up. But it is a false economy – would they be happy if Liverpool came sixth in the first season the plan came in, but then won the playoffs? I doubt it.
Football is a cyclical beast. In the early days of the Premier League, the likes of Leeds, Newcastle and Blackburn were finishing in the top four. Even Norwich and Crystal Palace had their moments. Chelsea were nowhere to be seen, and Arsenal also had seasons in mid table obscurity.
Given time, the same will happen again. A lot comes down to money, but Man City are surely going to break through at some point, while the more debt-ridden Liverpool are among the vulnerable. If the Premier League is patient, their vision will be realised by natural means, without having to resort to methods aimed at moving clubs around artificially.
The other reason why the Big Four are seen as such an issue is that the disparity of prizes on offer for fourth and fifth is huge. The Champions League is the top table, but the Europa League is almost embarrassingly brushed aside – witness Everton’s early evening kick off tonight, placed there to ensure it is ‘out of the way’ before the big boys get to play.
UEFA have created a ridiculous situation by having such a stark contrast in the value of their two competitions. By attempting to bloat the Champions League year on year, they have destroyed their secondary tournament.
If they really want to rescue it, they could halve the number of teams in the Champions League, resulting in the Europa League growing in size but becoming purely a knockout competition. And do away with teams dropping down from one competition to the other after the group stage – nothing devalues the Europa League more than featuring sides that have already played and lost six games in the Champions League (dropping down after the qualifying round makes sense though).
That way, both competitions would feature high profile teams, and qualification for either becomes a genuine reward. Teams finishing seventh in the Premiership might still play Milan or Bayern, and when the big boys fail to make the Champions League, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will wipe the floor with the Europa League.
It would create a fascinating mix of matches not seen for a very long time. It would give smaller teams the chance of a glorious day. And it would mean the Premiership could be left as a league.
In short, it sounds like a good plan. Which means it won’t happen.