Response to proposed EFL restructuring

In the programmes for the Bolton Wanderers and Chesterfield games, club chief executive Erik Samuelson summarised the proposals for restructuring the English Football League (EFL), and outlined the football club’s and the Dons Trust Board’s joint response to those proposals. These programme articles are being re-published on this site because we think the issues are of fundamental importance to football in this country and need to be debated as widely as possible. The first article follows below.

My page today is about the slightly ominously titled Whole Game Solution, which is the English Football League’s name for a proposed restructuring of the EFL into four leagues of 20 clubs each. This would require eight clubs to join the existing 72 over the next few years.

Briefing papers were sent to clubs three weeks before the EFL’s AGM in June, at which there was a presentation to League clubs in a communal session, plus discussion at league-by-league break-out groups later in the day. That isn’t a lot of time to consider what would be fundamental changes, and in the League One meeting we argued for a more detailed consultation process as well as meetings to gather the views of fans.

We were pleased to hear that arrangements for club meetings were starting to be put in place, but other than a session at last month’s Supporters Direct conference at which the EFL chairman took delegates through the details it seems fans are not included in this consultation.

The objective of the changes was described as being to alleviate the problem of ‘insufficient dates available … to sensibly accommodate both league and cup fixtures without clashes’.  An obvious thought was that reducing the number of League games while adding two more games at the group stage of the Trophy was contradictory, but it was explained that this wasn’t a problem because the extra Trophy games would be played during international weeks. That has rebounded on itself, with several Category 1 academies declining to take part, apparently because of the clash with international fixtures.

It is the job of the EFL board to think longer-term and engage with other authorities, specifically the Premier League and the FA, and they are to be congratulated for doing so proactively. But we have grave doubts about where this is proposing to take us.

The briefing papers included 13 benefits arising from the proposed changes to reduce the number of clubs and consequently the number of league games played each season. These benefits make for strange reading, so we thought we should share some of them with you, including a couple we agree with.

  • ‘Potential to reduce squad size’ – Almost every club spends as much as it can on players’ wages in pursuit of success, so this looks like flawed logic.
  • ‘Increased importance of reserve-team football’ – We don’t understand this – which clubs nowadays have reserve teams? We have a development squad for the purpose of bringing young players through to the first team, and we don’t see how those games could be made more important than they already are.
  • ‘More balance to players’ training/match preparation’ – We agree that most managers would regard this as a good thing, but not if the reduction in the number of League games is offset by more Trophy games.
  • ‘Increased sales of season tickets due to lower number of midweek games’ – The logic here seems to be that a significant number of fans don’t buy season tickets because they can’t come to midweek games. No evidence was presented for this idea which, to be blunt, seems substantially overstated to us.
  • ‘Statistically greater chance of promotion (and relegation)’ – In general, a benefit (which itself is tenuous) that has an equal and opposite downside isn’t usually promoted as being a benefit.
  • ‘At least six new clubs to play each season’ – In League Two and the Championship this is already the case, and in League One there are currently seven new clubs each season so we struggle to see what exactly the benefit is.
  • ‘Opportunity to standardise promotion and relegation’ – This would presumably mean three up and three down between each division, and between the lowest division and the National League (formerly the Conference), which has the benefit of consistency and is something which we would support.

You will no doubt form your own view of these so-called benefits. Overall, our analysis shows that only a couple carry any weight, while most are arguably of very limited value and certainly not enough to justify discarding the traditions and history of the League.

Furthermore, in all the League meetings we’ve attended we’ve never heard clubs complaining about the number of midweek fixtures (and some fans prefer midweek games or can’t attend at weekends because of other commitments).

So who would benefit from these proposed changes? I will return to that subject on this page in a forthcoming programme.

The article in the programme for the Bolton Wanderers game was followed by this one, in the Chesterfield match programme. 

In my first programme page of the season I wrote about the English Football League’s ‘Whole Game Solution’ proposals. The objective of these proposals is to reduce midweek fixture congestion by adding an extra division to the EFL, making four divisions of 20 teams. This would be achieved by extra relegations from the Championship, League One and League Two, to reduce the number in each to 20 and place 12 clubs in a new League Three. Eight teams would be added to make up the 20 in League Three, from a source yet to be decided.

Many clubs and fans fear that this would facilitate the inclusion of B teams in the EFL, an idea that was proposed by Greg Dyke last year and subsequently thrown out. I reviewed the 13 benefits the EFL claims such changes would bring and concluded that, with one or two exceptions, the benefits are paper-thin and the EFL has failed to make the case for change.

Earlier this week, we submitted our response to the proposals. We said that we can see a possible need for change due to:

  1. pressure, to the extent that it exists, for a mid-season break, and
  2. fixture problems caused by UEFA’s attitude to league and cup matches being played on, for example, Champions League evenings.

As regards the first point, the pressure appears to be coming from the FA and possibly, to a lesser extent, from the Premier League. As for the second, the commonest example of this problem, whereby UEFA will not allow other games to be played at the same time as games in its own competitions, is when FA Cup replays in the later rounds have to be squeezed into an already tight schedule. Semi-final replays were abolished some years ago, and you may have noticed that replays for the sixth round have been quietly dropped to ease this pressure. The EFL has now said that, to achieve its objective of maximising the number of Saturday and bank holiday games, some earlier FA Cup rounds (probably the fourth and fifth) would need to move to midweek.

To summarise, the EFL board’s proposals are:

  • four leagues of 20 teams (plus the existing Premier League of 20)
  • extra relegations to achieve this (in effect, as things stand, the bottom eight teams in League One would drop into League Two)
  • eight clubs to be invited to increase the number of clubs from 92 to 100 and create a new League Three
  • effectively, the end of midweek league games
  • the fourth and fifth rounds of the FA Cup to move to midweek.

As I have said, we don’t think the EFL has made a case for change. We also think that these changes, which would radically change the face of English football for ever, should not be rushed. Therefore, in our response to the EFL we said this:

“In summary, the case for change has not yet been made; the timescale for debate is too restrictive and the chances of a successful and constructive debate are severely constrained by the elephant in the room that is the issue of B teams in the EFL. Only by more thorough and detailed communication of the risks of taking no action, and by meetings of groups of clubs and consultation with fans, can these matters be aired and resolved, and a practical solution arrived at. As things stand, the only change to the League structure that our boards can accept will be the scrapping of the EFL Trophy.”

We added:

“Finally, as regards the FA Cup, we were dismayed to see a proposal to move some rounds of the competition to mid-week. This would further diminish the importance of the most senior cup competition in which English clubs compete and one of the major sources of interest and excitement to fans of lower-league clubs like ours. Taken together, the overall effect of sidelining the FA Cup and reorganising the EFL would represent a massive change to the structure and fabric of English football, and we are deeply disappointed that these matters are being pushed though at a speed that doesn’t allow for thorough consideration of the long-term consequences for football in this country.”

These are serious issues which we are pushing back on very hard. We will keep you informed of developments.