Rugby League: Premier League proposals unveiled: Revolution over game's structure avoided but clubs still facing dilemma. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
THE GAME has drawn back from the brink of a revolution, settling instead for the more typically British virtues of a political compromise.

Where the radical report 'Framing the Future' suggested a depth- charge that would have blown much of the game's structure out of the water, the firmed-up proposals unveiled by the League yesterday to go before clubs next month are more like an iceberg. They look innocuous on the surface, but there are far-reaching implications.

The plan that needs a two-thirds majority of the League's 35 member clubs on 5 October would mean the introduction of a 16-team Premier League - the same size as the current First Division. It will not, however, be sealed off from the rest of the game, even for the three-year period that was originally envisaged. The team finishing top of the Second Division will, starting at the end of this season, gain promotion at the expense of the bottom club in the Premier League, but only if they can meet entry criteria.

Initially, those requirements will be scaled down, but they will eventually include a minumum capacity of 10,000, with 2,500 seats and 6,000 under cover; an income of pounds 500,000, half of it from gate receipts; a youth development officer, chief executive, company secretary, football secretary, media / marketing manager and commercial manager; and a five-year business plan approved by the League.

Premier League clubs failing to meet these standards could be expelled, but their chances of doing so will be improved by them taking the lions' share of the pounds 25m - pounds 20m in expected grants from the national lottery - which the League will have to distribute over the next five years. The share of central cash distributed to clubs outside the Premier League will be reduced to nothing over the next three years, although some expenses will continue to be paid.

It will look to them like a rich man's charter, but the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, said: 'We have been spreading the jam too thinly and that has not been to the benefit of the game.

'If you were to take someone interested in investing in our game to Manchester United on a Saturday and to some of our First Division grounds the next day, he would be appalled and his wife would never come near again. We believe that our game gives us a head start, but we have to bring its surroundings up to the same standard.'

At first sight, the document to be voted upon by the clubs in three weeks' time is notable for what it omits. There is no total separation of the elite competition, although Lindsay described entry as 'desirable, profitable and difficult,' there is no overt pressure on clubs to merge, fold or drop down to lower leagues; and there is no salary cap, although that may follow as part of the clubs' business plans.

But the future for the clubs outside the Premier League will, if they accept this blueprint, be very different. They will compete in two equal groups of eight until Christmas and then re-form into a Second and Third Division for the rest of the season - an ingenious if complicated way to give most of them something to play for.

But the leap from top of the Second Division into the Premier League will be a huge one. The prospect of some of the weaker clubs dropping off the bottom of the ladder, presumably to be replaced from the National Conference League, is more likely.

'We are not forcing anyone out,' Lindsay said. 'I don't see the need for any clubs to disappear.' That is an important change of tone from a report which talked of too many clubs in the M62 corridor chasing too few customers, and one which he believes will carry those clubs with it.

They will, however, be aware of a double sting in the tail. If they accept these changes, they will also accept a new voting system that gives Premier League clubs two votes to the others' one, and a built-in two- thirds majority. If they do not accept them, the would-be Premier League clubs will almost certainly break away. That is something the League is desperate to avoid, but the fear of it may be what wins approval for its proposals.