YOU have to take your hat off to Richard Bevan, the publicity-hungry chief executive of the League Managers’ Association.
Without providing much in the way of cold and hard evidence, he has managed to whip up the perfect Premier League storm this week by claiming several foreign owners of top-flight clubs favour a franchise scheme that would do away with the age-old tradition of relegation and promotion.
“There are a number of overseas-owned clubs already talking about bringing about the avoidance of promotion and relegation in the Premier League,” he said at the annual conference of the Professional Players’ Federation on Monday – prompting an outpouring of outrage from all of the game’s big figures.
Clubs with foreign owners quickly lined up to distance themselves from the talk. Aston Villa, under American ownership, said they had not been involved in any discussions, while The Journal understands the issue has never featured on the agenda at the Stadium of Light – owned by Dallas-born billionaire Ellis Short.
For good measure a Newcastle insider told The Journal the club had never raised the issue of shutting down relegation with the Premier League board, and the owner remains “very much” in favour of the promotion and demotion system, even though it cost him and his club so dearly in 2009.
They are not alone, for you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in professional football willing to speak up in favour of franchising. Even those who oversee a sport without relegation and promotion admit it is an “imperfect system” – and one of them has worked in a senior position for a Premier League football club.
British Basketball chief and former Newcastle United marketing director Paul Blake said: “There is a difference between the franchise model and cutting off entry and exit to a league through relegation. And as far as I know, no sport without franchises has ever closed their league.
“Really, the only examples you have are in America, or our own sport and Rugby League. But the franchise model – where clubs buy a franchise from the league – just wouldn’t work in football. If you close the league and don’t change the remuneration model within the league, you still have the issue of how the weaker clubs generate more income. That won’t go away.
“Look at the Everton model. They are completely maxed out and losing £4million a year. There is no way for them to generate more money, so how would cutting off entry and exit of teams help them? I don’t see how it could be done.”
Now Bevan is a smart man who talks eloquently and passionately in favour of his members’ interests but, without naming names, it is difficult to ignore the shadowy spectre of self-interest in his pointed remarks.
Foreign owners tend not to favour the largely British membership of his organisation for the top jobs and there is considerable disquiet at the creeping globalisation of top-flight boardrooms. It is difficult to imagine Roman Abramovich or the Abu Dhabi Royal Family having much time for the League Managers’ Association, for example, and the organisation’s repeated calls for patience from club owners.
But if Bevan’s remarks must be taken with a pinch of salt, the furore that they were greeted with is revealing.
For while barmy franchising plans and Liverpool’s ridiculous advocating of solo TV deals might have been shot down with the contempt they deserve, it is more difficult to ignore the burgeoning influence of clubs over the global game.
Talk of franchising is the tip of the iceberg, the most powerful European sides have already begun to erode some of the traditions that British football held dear. Organisations like Fifa, Uefa and the FA no longer rule the roost – a powerful cabal of clubs do.
Take the World Cup and the international game, for example. The annual round of early August friendlies have been in the international calendar for the best part of five years but with every fresh domestic season they inspire the anger of managers across the board. That is understandable, given the possibility of injuries on the eve of the Premier League season. Perhaps, though, their anger is misplaced – the Premier League’s member clubs could always move the start of their campaign to accommodate the round of international fixtures.
Just a few short years ago international football meant the world. Paul Gascoigne’s new autobiography “Glorious” – an unashamed, picture-led glossy trek through his footballing highlights that is worth the money for nostalgia value alone – provides a succinct summary of his experiences. “When they hung that (fourth place) World Cup medal around my neck it felt great. I kept staring at it, reading World Cup, World Cup over and over.
“Fourth place wasn’t what we’d dreamed of, but it was still a hell of an achievement.”
Compare and contrast with the admission of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher that the international game and representing England has become a secondary sideshow to them, a pale imitation of gunning for glory for their club sides.
As Sir Alex Ferguson readily admitted in the aftermath of last year’s hugely disappointing World Cup, the Champions League is the be-all and end-all now – the rich and storied heritage of international football is losing its lustre.
The problem with clubs assuming control of the league they play in is that few – if any – will think of the collective good. In the case of public companies like Manchester United and Tottenham they cannot afford to worry about the Carlisles, Hartlepools and Gatesheads when they have shareholders baying for greater profits and an increased share of global marketing.
With toothless administrators in thrall of these big clubs, it appears that the best we can hope for is that the clubs retain enough of their local identities for fans to block the growing influence of the number crunchers who sit in top-flight boardrooms. Or that British football remains proud enough – as has been the case this week – to regard nonsense like franchising as a death knell for our proud sport.