BY PAUL BREEN
In politics they call it silly season; when commentators struggle for stories about actual things that are happening and instead resort to gossip, rumour and sometimes even downright scaremongering. So here’s a thought for football’s silly season – a glimpse into an imagined future – as we reflect on the close to the season and Barcelona’s victory over Juventus in the Champions League.
Remember back in the late 80s and early 90s when people started to talk about a European Super League – the idea that the best clubs from each country would come together in competition at some point in the future – Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and so on?
In bygone days it was seen as something of a dream with the closest incarnation to its reality coming in the form of the European Cup. Initially, this was on a knockout basis with only the national champions and previous season’s winners qualifying for the tournament; the status quo lasting for more than three decades. Then, at the start of the nineties, came the introduction of a new system when at last we got to see the possibility of Leeds United and Glasgow Rangers facing one another in a league format. This too opened up the possibility of an answer to the long-asked question of how Scottish teams might do in a British League, since those were the days when there was greater equality on both sides of the border.
Then, a few years later, a new idea came along – the admission of teams who were not the national champions. Purists argued that this would dilute the power and the meaning of the competition, but time has shown the tournament to be stronger and richer than it ever was in the days of old, when the likes of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest played only a handful of games on the way to glory.
Times change and new ideas come to be accepted. Out there at the present time there are a couple of ideas floating around, which I would prefer not to see, but we need to stay conscious of.
One of them was the proposed creation of an extra division for reserve teams, or allowing reserve teams from Premier League clubs to participate in the existing Football League.
There are pros and cons to this, and the biggest drawback is that it would destroy many of the smaller clubs. Imagine, for example, West Ham United in their new Olympic Stadium home having one team in the Premier League and one in the lower divisions. If it isn’t already going to be hard enough for the likes of Leyton Orient to survive, such a scenario could well herald their death knell.
However, this isn’t because Orient fans, or fans of other small clubs, would stop supporting their team. It’s because the third division, where many of these clubs tend to find their natural home, would soon become clogged up with a dozen reserve teams.
This then brings me to another idea that has been floated in the past, the creation of a closed Premier League – effectively a Super League. The more foreign owners we have, the bigger these clubs get and the more the Premier League is geared towards overseas TV markets. The chances of this happening one day, therefore, become greater.
A few months back I was up in Middlesbrough at an England U-21 game and discussed this very situation with a local journalist and what it might mean for our respective clubs – Boro, and Charlton.
We wondered if in 25 years time we might well see a league made up of today’s powerhouses – Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs – alongside clubs that do not exist today but would have appeal in a Super League that tried to cross as wide a geographical space as possible. The fixture list of 2040 might well see West Coast Wolves – based in Bristol – taking on West Ham Olympic, the new giants of south and east London football. Further down the coast South Port Seagulls (formed from an amalgam of Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton) face Mariners United (that team which wears tiger-stripe jerseys and arose from the ghosts of Hull City, Grimsby and Lincoln). Then of course there’s a Manchester derby, overshadowing events in the Lancashire League of the same day where Bolton are facing Oldham.
Sound far-fetched? Maybe, but it seems in many walks of life we’re becoming more Americanised, more corporate and more focused on the concept of winners, to the exclusion of losers and all others.
Down under in Australia they’ve been running what can only be called franchise football for decades, not just in soccer but in their blood n’ thunder Australian Rules version of the game.
In both soccer and AFL it has become commonplace for mergers to occur between teams miles and cultures apart. The Brisbane Lions, AFL champions several times in the early 2000s, were an amalgamation of Brisbane Bears and Fitzroy, from Melbourne. That’s a fair distance and leap of the imagination to put together two teams with a flight time between them of several hours. Yet it worked in Australia, and the fans came around to accepting it. Maybe it’s a consequence of living in a newer country or coming from a place where the weather seems to be good all the time, but this has happened right across the board from Perth to Sydney and way up to the very top of the country in Darwin and Queensland.
The same sorts of amalgamations wouldn’t be as easily accepted here in Britain – take the furore over MK Dons usurping the body and soul of Wimbledon or the proposed merger of Hearts and Hibernian. But they could become more a way of life in the coming decades as the gap between Premier League clubs and others grows, in terms of revenue, resources and political clout.
So where then does that leave the likes of Charlton and Middlesbrough? I’d say it makes it all the more imperative for today’s Championship clubs to get into the Premier League as soon as possible before somebody does decide to slam the door shut. It also makes you wonder what would happen in such a scenario to somewhere such as the North East where three clubs in an 18 or 20 club Super League might just be seen as too much. Who would go, and be banished forever to the wilderness – Sunderland, Newcastle or Middlesbrough?
Maybe from a corporate perspective Newcastle would have to stay and get sexed up a bit as Newcastle Magpies. Perhaps then Sunderland and Middlesbrough would merge as North East Ironopolis and float between stadiums, in between their obligatory one game a season in Shanghai, one in Bangkok and one in Dubai.
Anyway, like I said, this is silly season. Let’s hope such a situation never materialises and we keep our rich tradition of each area having its own football club with a particular pride and heritage. And a situation too where each club can one day dream of getting to the Premier League, whether they are MK Dons or AFC Wimbledon, and where there’s always a dream for FC United of Manchester that they’ll play the other United in the FA Cup and beat them. That’s what makes the English League one of the best around in terms of its diversity, and hopefully it stays that way.
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men available in paperback, and also on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B00G8OBOKW/
FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen