Football: Dividing divisions

Norman Fox examines moves to raise the status of football's poor relations
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The Independent Online
The hidden agenda at last week's meeting of Football League chairmen was not well concealed. It was obvious that while they had suggestions for "modernising" in time to celebrate the new millennium, in fact they were scuffling around for ideas to avoid being out of business soon after. For "modernisation" read "desperation".

None of the proposals (least of all that ultimate distortion, penalty shoot-outs) seems likely to close the financial gap between themselves and the Premiership clubs. Indeed the Premiership's reaction was a snooty but realistic "you would have thought that if their plans also involved us, they might have told us".

There is no chance of greater access to the Premiership because sooner or later it will be reduced in size to allow the setting up of a full- blown European League. When Sepp Blatter, the Fifa general secretary, said last week that 16 was the ideal number of clubs, he was merely reiterating a long-held view. That could lead to one up, one down between the Premiership and First Division, and an even greater concentration of wealth.

The unlikely but most satisfactory answer to the League's ills would be to persuade the Premiership clubs to spread their disproportionately high income more widely across the whole of professional football. Anything else, including altering the sizes of the existing divisions, playing around with points for the team ahead at half-time and the abandoning of midweek fixtures, is re-packaging. Thoughts of turning the First Division into a second section of the Premiership, would further alienate the rest.

Once the Taylor Report was published, the Premier clubs were able to hide behind the cost of ground improvements to avoid taking on board any further responsibility for the lesser clubs. That, combined with the big increase in foreign players, has not only led to the richer clubs refusing to contemplate passing on more of the new money but avoided the need to buy players from the lower divisions. The traditional financial merry- go-round on which the game used to spin now creaks like a cog without oil. Meanwhile, the attitude of the more hard-nosed Premier club executives is to ask if there is any difference between their situation and that of the big supermarkets who would laugh at the idea of subsidising corner shops.

A suggested reduction of the number of First Division clubs to a "super league" of 12 is absurd. It has the disadvantage of repetitive fixtures and the public knows that there are not a dozen "super" clubs outside the Premiership and never will be. If the existing title ("First Division") is already a misnomer, a "Super League" would be doubly so.

Because they had previously rejected the idea, the chairmen did not reconsider the clear cost-saving advantages of returning to regionalised lower divisions, but no doubt the subject will come up again. For now everything points to compromise. In all probability, next month will see a plan of reorganisation under which the First Division is reduced and the number of clubs promoted and relegated between the Second and Third increased. That would freshen up each division each season, but time will tell whether it can bring fresh life to the 58 clubs who made an operating loss last season - and time is short.