Second Premier tier could halt transfer spiral

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The Independent Online

Is there no end to the crazy upward spiral of transfer fees and wages? An idea resurfaced last week after an absence of some years. A marketing consultant who specialises in football argued that the only way to inject some financial sanity into the game would be to create a second division of the FA Premier League and to distribute the proceeds of the main television contract more evenly between the 40 clubs involved.

It would, so the argument went, be the next best thing to a true pyramid with a showcase top division at the apex and regional leagues at the bottom, and would make it easier to apply the principles of sensible financial management, which football clubs have collectively never truly come to terms with.

Players are always going to put clubs under pressure to secure the biggest package they can, so I cannot follow the logic of spreading the revenue, and indeed the risk, in this way. Sure, the penalty of relegation from the top flight would be reduced, but those who slip out of the new division would surely demand a hell of a large parachute to float down on.

Football did, of course, have an integrated professional pyramid before the Premier League was formed. It was called the Football League, but sadly there was never any way of persuading the clubs to seriously consider modifying the structure to meet changing economic circumstances. On one occasion Jimmy Hill got the chairmen together, but when he quickly found he was getting nowhere he astutely switched track and persuaded them to adopt three points for a win in order to stimulate interest.

The idea of a two-division Premier League first arose just after the formation of the Premiership, when the then Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades argued that the top 40 clubs, alongside the FA, would constitute an all-powerful negotiating unit in the field of television and other commercial rights. Despite the force of that argument he did not obtain an awful lot of support.

The major clubs wanted to preserve their élite concept, and the Football Association had two fears. It worried about the new league becoming all-powerful, believing it could control a single division Premier League by means of its sanctioning rules and a golden share in the Premier League, and it came under pressure from the Football League, which did not want to countenance further fragmentation of its structure. Indeed, the Football League, bolstered by the retention of the League Cup and its place in Europe, negotiated a substantial increase in television fees itself, and is still doing so, as the latest deal, the three-year £315m contract due to start on 11th August, demonstrates.

The FA would be no more likely to embrace a revolutionary concept such as the enlargement of the Premier League now than it was then. Partly because it has its hands full at the moment with its own proposals to re-organise football immediately below the Football League. This debate commenced a couple of years ago, not without acrimony, with the Nationwide Conference's bid to form a second division and continued, with equal bitterness, with an idea for a format embodying just two avenues feeding into the Conference, the top divisions of the Dr Martens and the UniBond Leagues, thus marginalising the Ryman League, which is often disparaged as regionally challenged.

The Ryman, as its official name, the Isthmian, implies, may indeed to be restricted to a narrow strip of land, but on that isthmus lies Soho Square and the Ryman came out punching.

When no agreement resulted from the Conference's talks with the other Leagues, the FA decided to step in. Its starting point, coincidentally, is the ever-increasing gap between the Conference and the rest. It has published a diagram of what looks like a perfectly balanced pyramid, with 16 district leagues at the base, building through four regional leagues to two semi-national leagues, north and south, which are the two feeders to the Conference.

The FA says the new structure would improve quality, reduce travel, and iron out inequalities and inconsistencies in the complex structure of football below the Football League. The UniBond League has been quoted in favour of the FA blueprint, whereas the Dr Martens League says it is complying with a request by the FA not to speak publicly.

Throughout its history football's structure has struggled to keep pace with the economic factors that have affected the game. One thing I can promise is that there will be no shortage of comment when the initial allocation of clubs in the new structure is announced.

Clubs who believe they belong to a regional set-up will not take kindly to being placed in a district league, particularly at a time when regional assemblies are on the political agenda.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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