Last weekend I ventured down to Brisbane Road, eagerly anticipating the clash between League One’s Leyton Orient and Scunthorpe United. The O’s were on a remarkable eight-game winning streak, which was in stark contrast to the Iron, who sat precariously in the relegation zone.
It was surely a foregone conclusion, a home win on accumulators up and down the country. But no, Scunthorpe mustered three clear-cut chances to emerge victorious, 3-1, in a match that helped restore my faith in the beautiful-yet-utterly unpredictable game.
However, while I had braced myself for the inevitable dip in quality, I was not expecting to be greeted by such a lacklustre atmosphere. The stadium appeared to be filled by disgruntled supporters that outright refused to dream of an ascent to the big time. Not even an injection of Christmas spirit could lift this subdued lot, who had seemingly come to terms with their prolonged existence in the lower leagues.
With the advent of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), a new lucrative broadcasting deal and a stuttering economic climate, are we about to witness an involuntary two-tier system separating both the Championship and the Premier League from the rest of professional football in this country?
The greatest aspect of English football is the competitive nature of the top flight, right the way down to the Conference and beyond. We still witness a healthy number of upsets in cup competitions and a fair few of the current Premier League stars have worked their way up from non-league football. The sport is a celebration of the ‘British Bulldog’ spirit that inspires a nation.
Yet cast your eye towards Spain and it’s painfully clear that football is in an appalling state. Outside La Liga, clubs continue to bleed money, drowning in a sea of escalating debt. Real Oviedo have recently been spared certain extinction thanks to the power of social media, but many more sides teeter on the brink of liquidation. Real Madrid and Barcelona may exist in a class of their own, but their decision to negotiate exclusive television deals mean the rest are forced to suffer.
Is this a sign of things to come on our shores? The Premier League’s revenue from collective broadcasting deals is expected to top £5billion by the time the final overseas contracts are tied up. This is a staggering increase on an already sizeable gap in financial income between the top and the bottom of the football league.
While clubs in the top two divisions strive for a place in the top flight, the remaining clubs can only pray for an exceptional cup run to boost finances. Bradford City director of operations Dave Baldwin recently declared their heroics against Arsenal effectively ‘secured the club’s future’. If other clubs buried in League Two need a similar miracle to preserve their existence, then it portrays a grim outlook for the future.
It’s only a matter of time before the first controversial transfer under the EPPP makes all the wrong headlines. The new regulations mean a transfer fee for a youngster is no longer decided by a tribunal and is instead calculated by age, how long he has been at a club and the club’s ‘category’ status. The concept of ‘ability’ or ‘potential’ will be completely ignored in deals that total a fraction of their current cost.
Under these new rulings, managers are likely to cast their net far and wide, sucking up a plethora of talent in the hope of landing the ‘next big thing’. Yeovil, Hereford and Wycombe Wanderers have already disbanded their youth development programmes, convinced they will be no longer capable of reaping the rewards of raising players from an early age.
If lower league clubs are unable to accumulate substantial income from TV deals or player transfers then how exactly are they supposed to survive? In recent years we’ve witnessed an alarming number of investments from foreign ownership derail a football club, many of whom are still struggling to recover.
The Scottish Premier League clubs are currently pursuing a two-tier top flight that will create two separate divisions of 12 teams. The new model presents an opportunity to revitalise a country that has been dominated by the infamous Glasgow duo for as long as I can remember.
There have also been growing calls to redistribute the wealth across the board in an attempt to level an uneven playing field. At present, the club that finishes bottom of the SPL receives £750,000 as a parachute payment, but the winners of Division One are handed just £70,000. It may seem insignificant when compared to the Premier League, but it’s one of many reasons Scottish football has become painfully mundane and predictable.
As attendances across the Football League plummet, the cost of watching football only seems capable of increasing. The vast difference in investment, quality and recognition between clubs across the four divisions broadens with each passing season and if we don’t do something to safeguard the future of every team, the fabric of football in England will be ripped from its seems.