Thursday, July 22, 2010

Us versus Them (part 1)

A new general name for a new season... Football will be back, in full force, very soon. I can hear the groans already. Barely midway through July and already they're playing Champions League and Europa Cup qualifiers. The hangovers in Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Valencia and Majorca have barely died away and suddenly everything is gearing up for August. The start of the new Premier League season is less than a month away; the rest of English football kicks off a week earlier and this Saturday, not only does the Scottish season get underway, but Liverpool will be gearing up for their first appearance of what could be a very long season for them.
Purists are calling for a winter break; to give our National team a better chance of being fresher for major championships and yet I seem to recall a time when the football season kicked off at the end of August and was all over and done with by the second Saturday in May. There were more teams in the top flight, the League Cup was a 2 leg affair all the way through until the final and FA Cup replays could go on forever =- no such thing as penalty shoot-outs. 40 years later and half of the clubs in the top flight play more games now than they did then. If Liverpool emulate Fulham's exploits of last season or go one better and do well in all cup competitions, they will play 38 league matches, and could play up to 19 Europa Cup matches, 7 League Cup matches, and 6 FA Cup matches (minimum). Without winning any trophies, they could play 70 matches in total in a season that would stretch from the last week in July to the last week in May. If they retain the services of their World Cup players, some of them will have played Football almost non-stop.
You can argue that they get paid shedloads of money and if we had the chance we'd jump at it; but because of the financial demands of the sport, we get too much football. Last Saturday night - 17th July - Spurs were playing San Jose in a pre-season friendly. It played out to a dull 0-0 draw, yet it was shown live on ESPN. Subsequent tour friendlies are also being shown, as are many other pre-season friendlies featuring top English clubs.
If you gave the Premiership a month off in January, it could backfire big time. Because of our peculiar country, the whole of January could be a mild and dry month, while February could be covered in snow and ice, meaning that while games could easily have been played in January, because February is a white out, there's a fixture congestion problem putting extra strain on the players to finish their games before the major finals take place. Can you imagine the Football League agreeing to a winter break in 2014, declaring that after the January 1st, there would be a 28 day break, with the season recommencing at the beginning of February, only for us to have a repeat of the winter of 2010? Yes, Premiership sides have ways and means of combating the weather to allow matches to be played; but Arsenal had to cancel games last season because of fears for the safety of travelling fans. The Football League cannot beat the country's lack of infrastructure.
A solution could be to change the format of the two main domestic cup competitions - but this would only really work for the 7 or 8 teams involved in a potentially long European campaign; and arguably it could work against them if they have any designs on winning either. I thought that if Premiership clubs were made to play at least 7 squad players during the League Cup that might work, but many of them do and if you get kicked out of the competition, you no longer have any of those games to play. Why do we see teams in danger of being relegated treat cup competitions like a problem rather than an opportunity.
Remove the European qualifying from the League Cup; make the Premiership clubs play Academy teams only; Championship teams can only use 4 non-academy or youth team players and the lower divisions can play who they wish. That would take that competition out of the major clubs equations (unless they are teams like Arsenal, who regularly get through to the latter stages with teams full of kids), but also allows their youngsters the chance to play in a meaningful game with a prize at the end.
There's a call to end FA Cup replays, at a time when the old cup seems to have started to regain a bit of glamour. The FA Cup needs to remain as it is...
You see the dilemma for British football? How do you put a quart into a pint pot? How can you change the most popular league in the world without devaluing its economic worth?
I have a really radical idea; one that would never see the light of day unless it could be made to work financially: Completely restructure the football leagues, making it more viable for lower league clubs to exist and reinvigorating a competition that actually doesn't need that much reinvigorating. Here's what I'd do if I was in charge.
Decrease the size of the Premiership to 16 teams; but form Premier League 2, with 20 teams. These 36 clubs would form the basis of a league that would have less fixtures, bigger games more often and would take 8 games out of the Premier league clubs schedules. The remaining 56 clubs, plus the top 4 in the Blue Square Premier, would be split into 3 leagues of 20 teams, divided by geography. A South division, a Midland and a North. The winners of each league would qualify for the EPL2. No runners up, no play offs. The money lost by lessoning the fixture list would be compensated by a bigger division of money from TV rights.
It aint going to happen. Not ever.

Now... the real reason I'm here. Every year, at this time, I start thinking about what's going to happen during the coming season. But as much as I'd love to sit down and give you my forecast, I feel it's a wee bit premature. Barely anything has happened in the world of football transfers (unless its Man Citeh) and with a month to go before the start of the season then there's a good chance that there will be many changes to personnel before then. So, I'm holding off until next month. Besides, I don't even know what I think at the moment.

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