Tom Peters says in business you’re either different or you’re cheap.
The announcement on Friday that the EFL Trophy, formerly the JPT, would include Premier League Academy U21 teams was greeted with all the contempt it deserves.
It was a cynical announcement, timed to coincide with the start of Euro 2016 when the media’s attention was already elsewhere.
Initially it appears that Oxford had reflected the fans’ view and voted against the plan when Darryl Eales told OxVox he opposed it. Later it turned out we had voted for it and that Eales had been outvoted by his board. Oxford are, to date, the only club to have confirmed their support for the move but we’re not a lone wolf here.
The fact that the board outvoted Eales is interesting. He clearly isn’t the benevolent dictator we sometimes perceive him to be, it’s good that there are opinions at board level, if everyone thought the same, then some of its members are redundant. There should be debate, that’s what will make the club a healthy one.
The club broke their silence on Saturday with what I thought was a pretty a cogent argument for voting with the plan. The Trophy is a dying competition, it has no sponsor, falling TV interest, there’s little that attracts the fans and it’s clearly a distraction for players and managers.
Having now been through an entire Trophy campaign, I can confirm from my perspective that excitement rarely gets beyond mild interest, even in the latter stages. As I said after the final against Barnsley, Wembley was like a works day out rather than a milestone in our history. It was nice, but it wasn’t vital.
Don’t get me wrong; adding Premier League U21 teams to the mix is a terrible idea. I can’t imagine why anyone – media, sponsors or fans – might be attracted by the prospect of Stoke City Under 21s v Rochdale or even a Wembley final featuring West Brom v Southampton juniors. Last year’s FA Youth Cup final between Manchester City and Chelsea had an attendance of 8,500, even the Premier League has only so much appeal.
But, it’s difficult to know what else to do with it and the alternative is probably to abandon the competition altogether. The reality is that there is just too much football, and the trophy itself is being squeezed out.
A friend of mine’s husband suffered a near-fatal brain injury 6 years ago. He’s been subjected to progressively more radical treatment in an attempt to save and then stabilise him. This idea seems to be along those lines, a terminal tournament being nursed with increasingly radical treatments.
But, like my friend’s husband, who is now in a wheelchair, suffers depression and bouts of extreme anger and is probably going to lose his leg; all the radical treatment can really achieve is to prevent it from dying, not allow it to thrive.
There is the suggestion that this is a Trojan horse strategy to allow these teams into the Football League. If it is, it’s a pretty dumb one, the equivalent of the Greeks climbing out of the horse at the gates of Troy to ring the doorbell. If this is part of a secret strategy then it’s obviously failed; Oxford may legitimately be able to vote for the idea as a test, but knowing the fans’ views, could it now vote for Premier League entry into the Football League? If it’s a test, then it’s clear that the results are negative, which is good to know, now let’s drown the idea forever.
There’s no doubt the Premier League holds a lot of the cards; they could end loyalty payments, the loan system, promotion and relegation, and throttle coverage of the Football League on Sky and BT. But the answer to those threats is not to become a cheap assimilation, it’s to become something different.
The Premier League is not an English league full of English clubs. Owners, players, managers, and increasingly, fans are not English. I’m no jingoist, I’m fine with it; I quite enjoy the Premier League although I can’t engage with it any deeper than as a form of entertainment.
But I like the uniquely English phenomenon of having three professional leagues (four if you add the Conference), I like the fact that five years ago we were in the Conference and next year we could be fighting to be in the Championship. I like that fans of obscure clubs travel up and down the country to support their team. As the Premier League becomes global, the Football League has a great opportunity to build itself as something successful and local; a Costa Coffee to the Premier League’s Starbucks.
The Football League will be making a grave mistake if it chooses to suckle on the teat of the Premier League in an attempt to succeed. It has so many assets, the Championship is the fourth best attended league in Europe, it needs to build on what it has rather than assimilate itself to a global phenomenon that doesn’t care about it.
As Tom Peters says, in business you have two options – let’s be different, not cheap.