Sunday, February 21, 2010

Premier League Play-Offs

Soccerphile explores more proposals for change in the English Premier League.

As Soccerphile has documented over the last few years, suggestions with regards to restructuring the Premier League have been plentiful. There was talk in 2008 of a 39th fixture being added to the annual schedule, with each club playing outside of England for this game. There were rumblings about the Old Firm (Rangers and Celtic) joining England’s elite league once again this season, while Bolton Phil Gartside also proposed the idea of a two-tier Premiership with no promotion or relegation outside of it.

The in-vogue discussion ahead of the next Premier League chairman’s meeting in April is of a play-off system being introduced which would see the clubs finishing between fourth and seventh battling for a spot in the Champions League. The idea behind such a move would be to inject more competition into a league that has seen the same four clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United – qualify for the competition from the Premier League for the past six seasons.

As with other potential areas of change that have been mooted over the past few years, there are supporters and detractors of this latest proposal. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the current ‘chasing pack’ behind the Premier League’s ‘Big Four’ that have stepped forward to champion this suggestion. Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp believes that introducing a Champions League play-off system in the Premier League would increase excitement and work as well as the Football League Play-Offs. Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill thinks the system would reinvigorate the aspirations of mid-table teams.




Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez has poured scorn over the ideas, believing more games would lead to players being exposed to great risk of injury and clubs “playing until the end of the century”.

"People should analyse carefully what they say and think before they put these ideas in the newspapers," Benítez told The Guardian newspaper. "Yes it is good for the papers and it's a good talking point but we have too many games and injuries as it is. We have to be realistic. We have too many injuries in all the top European sides because we play too many games and we have too many competitions. When are we going to play more games?”

The Premier League has refused to comment on the proposals, saying they only talk about advancements to the division when they are concrete. Opinion on the topic has been free flowing from every other quarter of the English game however and with so many pros and cons to the Premier League introducing this play-off system, it is clear why views are so split.
The success of the Football League Play-Offs is the strongest reason why this idea should be given real consideration. The system, though unpopular with some, has reinvigorated the lower divisions in terms of competitiveness. Even in the last week of a season, most clubs in the Football League are either in with a shout of promotion or battling against relegation. The Premier League meanwhile has become far more predictable with the top four spots usually decided by May and relegation issue usually a question of which three clubs from four will go down. For the remaining twelve or so clubs, there is very little motivation left towards the end of the campaign with no tangible goal to work towards.

The Premier League Play-Off system would mean that most teams would be heading the last weekend of the campaign with a massive prize to fight for. Middle table obscurity come March would be a thing of the past and the drama of the play-offs themselves would be immense. Suddenly clubs from outside the ‘Big Four’ would have an even greater chance of qualification for the Champions League. The play-offs would hopefully see different clubs in the competition, aside from the same four and crucially, ensuring the distribution of wealth in the division would become more balanced.

The arguments against the play-offs are strong though. The obvious first argument is why should a team that has finished seventh, maybe as many as 20 points behind the team in fourth be given a chance of playing in the Champions League? Indeed it raises the more salient point of should teams other than national champions actually be a part of this competition?
From a supporters’ point of view, as much as a play-off system would bring excitement for more clubs, there’s a cynical suggestion that this is just other way to make more money out of television revenue and gate receipts. With a number of key members of the Premier League’s executive committee so keen on a 39th game a few seasons back, one wonders whether this is just a dressed up version of that proposal?

While all this talk of restructuring the Premier League for the league and the club’s gain, Portsmouth FC are on the brink of becoming the first top flight team in English football to go into administration. West Ham United, by their own admission, are also in a grave financial situation. And there’s Liverpool and Manchester United who are competing in the Champions League despite debts to combined worth of over one billion pounds.

Maybe the real restructuring the Premier League should be focusing on is getting their own house in order. Wigan chairman Dave Whelan called for the debt culture in the league to be acted on by Football’s governing bodies this week and restricting clubs to borrowing no more than 25% of their annual turnover. This suggestion is something that should take precedence over the play-off idea for sure.

© Andy Greeves & Soccerphile.com

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