Premier League reforms to the football calendar must benefit all clubs
Premier League clubs are meeting to discuss reforms to the calendar at a shareholders’ meeting. These must be for the benefit of all clubs.
Change is in the air. The weekend brought a report in The Times about proposed reforms to the FA Cup and the League Cup, which are due to be discussed at a meeting of the Premier League on Wednesday. But as ever in modern football, it would be simplistic to detach this from broader conversations that have been going on about the future of the game in the face of conflicting pressures, both from inside the game and out.
What is immediately noticeable about the proposals made is that Premier League clubs seem to need to be dragged kicking and screaming towards any sort of meaningful reform that doesn’t benefit them and them alone. It had been expected that there would be an independent regulator for football in this country with teeth, following the fan-led review into football governance in this country.
But a change of Prime Minister has brought a completely clean sweep through the corridors of power in government, and it’s reported that clubs are now planning more of a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards how much they offer in return for further concessions that will primarily benefit them and then alone.
Regardless of what PR statements come out, it should be pretty clear that the biggest clubs aren’t doing this out of any significant sense of solidarity with the rest of the game.
The focus of these latest reports is the two domestic cups, which have increasingly in recent years felt like something many clubs would rather not be involved in at all.
In the FA Cup, the suggestion is one that has been thrown around for years. It is said that third and fourth round replays could be scrapped for good from 2024, to coincide with Champions League reforms. Meanwhile in the League Cup, the talk is that clubs who qualify for European competitions should either be absent from it altogether or that they should be permitted to field under-21 teams.
The obvious losers in the scrapping of FA Cup replays would be smaller clubs who earn a replay by holding bigger clubs to a draw. This has almost come to resemble a crude form of financial distribution, albeit not a particularly fair one. For example, when then-National League side Exeter City drew Manchester United and held them to a goalless draw at Old Trafford, it was estimated that the money raised from the two fixtures – more than £750,000 – was sufficient to allow them to clear the debt brought about by a CVA required from a previous period in administration.
So in other words, a good run in the FA Cup can be a life-saver for small clubs, but it is distributed in an entirely scattergun manner. Perhaps more radical solutions to this conundrum could be considered if replays are to be scrapped. The money from gate receipts could, for example, be paid into a central pool rewarding all lower division and non-league clubs to have reached a certain stage of the competition.
It has also been suggested that the lower-placed teams in each round of the competition could be automatically be given a home draw for FA Cup matches, but this creates issues of its own. At present, FA Cup match gate receipts are split, 45% to each team and 10% to the FA, so a home draw with no chance of a replay would result in the smaller club receiving substantially less for their endeavours.
With different clubs having differing motivations for being there in the first place, might it not make more sense to offer the smaller clubs the choice of whether they wish to be the home or away team? Some will see a better chance of progression in the competition as their preferred option. Others would rather cash out and take their chances in front of the bigger crowd. So give them the choice if the possibility of a replay is no longer on the table.
It seems unlikely that the League Cup, as several Premier League clubs would probably rather like, is going to be abolished any time soon, but this doesn’t mean that substantial changes aren’t likely in that, too. It has been suggested that the way forward in this competition would be for European qualifiers to either be excluded from the competition altogether or permitted to play their under-21 teams in it.
If there is a straight binary choice between barring European qualifiers or letting them play the kids, then the former is surely the way. Of course, Premier League clubs would probably prefer the latter of these options. This would represent a significant opening of the door that they really want, which is to play other teams within the league system.
But playing under-21 teams in the EFL Trophy has done nothing for that competition, which remains effectively boycotted by many, and to do so would cause obvious damage to the League Cup, too. Giving European qualifiers a break – and with a European place at stake for the winners – would likely increase interest below the biggest clubs.
And this would be important, since current interest in the competition is largely driven by the involvement of the biggest clubs. Either the withdrawal of the biggest clubs or the introduction of their under-21 teams would have a substantial effect on the value of future television rights for the competition. Regardless of which decision is ultimately made over this, the cost of that loss should be covered by the Premier League.
That Premier League clubs are taking a wait and see view before committing to redistribution tells its own story of how clubs view all of this, and the greater concern is that a free-marketeer like the new Prime Minister will simply let smaller clubs swing. The state of football governance in England is no longer up for debate. The fan-led review confirmed the extent to which reform is needed if the game is to survive at a grassroots level.
It has been suggested that the amount the EFL would be looking for in exchange for yet more reform to benefit the biggest clubs is £250m per year, but while this is a huge amount of money, it becomes rather less when we consider the number of clubs it would need to be divided between. Parachute payments need the substantial reform that has been promised, because in their current form they often seem to do more harm than good in the Championship. And just as the Premier League may be serious about its demands, so should both the EFL and the FA be holding out for more. It’s hardly as though they can’t afford it.
If the Premier League is serious about redistribution, its clubs should commit to greater redistribution whether the government ever gets round to appointing a regulator or not. The biggest clubs, through EPPP, increases in the number of substitutes and a myriad other small changes, have been getting their own way for years.
It’s time to redress that imbalance a little. The problem with finances and football in this country has never been that there wasn’t enough money around. The problem has, for the last three decades, been the way in which it both is and isn’t distributed. If the football calendar is going to be defenestrated to benefit the biggest clubs, then the price that they pay to do so has to be distributed between the whole of the rest of the game.