It sounds like the kind of sequel that turns into a movie franchise. Premier League Two – this time with added Aston Villa and more Middlesbrough. If it has been an issue that recurred regularly for years, it was one that was raised again by the Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani.
If his comments reflected a quest for greater resources as everyone chases the dream in a division where most post losses and some would be unsustainable without parachute payments, the Italian may have had a point.
Not so much in his analysis of the situation, which was laced with predictable self-interest – at least when the late Bolton chairman Phil Gartside advocated a Premier League Two, Wanderers were still in Premier League One – but in the sense that, by peculiarities of history and geography, English football’s eco-system has arguably generated enough sizeable clubs for a second elite division. Arguably it already has one, just without the status, billing and, crucially, television income.
There are approximately 40 to 45 bigger clubs – some, at the very summit, clearly far bigger than others – and if there is some scope for social mobility (Wigan’s eight years in the Premier League and FA Cup win sealed their journey from the ranks of the smaller to the larger, blazing a trail for Bournemouth to follow), it is limited. It is reflected in the way that when a bigger club drops into League One, it often tends to be a restorative experience, their resources enabling a promotion at the first or second attempt. Sunderland may well follow clubs such as Wolves, Leicester, Southampton and Blackburn in effecting a swift return to the upper two tiers. Likewise, when an overachiever reaches the Championship, they can find themselves pitted against 23 clubs with far bigger budgets. For Rotherham now, like Yeovil and Burton in recent years, the challenge is to defy footballing gravity before the inevitable descent to League One.
Hence the natural divide. Indeed, there may be a clearer demarcation at the bottom of the Championship than the bottom of the Premier League or League One. There is no definitive measure of a club’s size when the reasoning can include the numbers in their support and their catchment area, the number of trophies, the question if success was relatively recent or increasingly distant, their Premier League pedigree and everyone’s individual perception. Nevertheless, the sense is that some of the 20 biggest clubs are in the Championship – Villa, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday – and, in several cases, are fixtures there, exiled from the top flight for well over a decade. They are reasons why the Championship has the third biggest gates of any league in Europe.
And yet part of the problem for the Premier League Two advocates is that, despite the stature of such clubs and the loyalty and fervour of their fanbase and the healthy television audiences their games generate, the focus has switched to a huge extent. As those who judge merit solely by clicks on websites can testify, it is less about the 20 or 40 biggest clubs, but the six.
As the top division’s overseas television rights start to overshadow the domestic ones, it is a moot point if a foreign market that is overwhelmingly based around the ‘big six’ have any willingness to pay rather more for games that are of less interest to its viewers; there are already rumblings from clubs with global fanbases that they object to equitable division of revenue with Bournemouth and their ilk. Or, for that matter, if the EFL has any way of generating more television rights – Sky feel the only serious bidder and struck a five-season £600 million deal last year – or merely if the only recalibration is to strip money from the League One and Two clubs to give more to their Championship counterparts. The Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis produced a variant on a theme by suggesting the division should be made smaller; if reducing players’ workload was the reason he advocated, presumably it would have the added benefit of meaning the TV pool could be divided among fewer clubs. The feeling was that a Rotherham would be sacrificed to give clubs like Boro a bigger share of the pie.
All of which would be another way of raising the drawbridge to keep others out when the reality is English football’s peculiar dynamics have produced a top 40 or 45 who help comprise a division as competitive and unpredictable as the Championship. It is an organic wonder that does not require rebranding and, almost certainly, will not receive extra funding.
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