A love of football has been in my family since my great-grandfather first emigrated to England in the late 1800s! My grandfather attended his first football match shortly after the First World War, and was a lifelong fan of Fulham – a team whose fortunes have bounced around a lot in recent years. The sport has changed immeasurably since then, with the upper echelons of football becoming awash with money and arguably losing touch with the working-class roots someone of my grandfather’s generation would recognise.
The amount of money in football is partly driven by television broadcasting, but also by a change in the way clubs themselves operate. No longer are clubs content to make a small profit; enough to pay the wages, maintain their ground, and keep the lights on. Instead, some of the biggest clubs in the country have become corporations, earning huge profits for shareholders and/or private owners – many of whom are based overseas.
Football has seen a number of rules added and changed over the years. Extra time and penalty shoot-outs have replaced replays. The offside rule, and adjustments to it, changed the way matches are played. There were “golden goals” for a while! And of course, the recent addition of VAR (video assistant referees) has been controversial in some quarters. These rules affect the game in different ways, and we can argue whether each one has been for better or worse.
Recent events over the last year or so have shone light on the fact that English football is missing two rules that I think are absolutely vital to the future success and integrity of the sport. It’s surprising to me that a professional league like the Premier League never adopted such rules in the first place, or that the EFL, which has been running since 1888, has never considered either rule necessary. Let’s look at each in turn.
Firstly we’re considering something that the pandemic brought into sharp focus last year: what to do if a season can’t be completed. For some reason, the Premier League, EFL, and other leagues around the world appear to have no provision for this scenario – yet it’s something that any professional body should be planning for. There was an intense debate last year about what to do in the event that the season couldn’t resume following pandemic-related disruption, and the absolutely stunning thing to me was that there seemed to be nothing in the rulebook to cover this.
Professional football has been disrupted in the past, by both world wars. Even though no such disruption had occurred since the 1940s, it should still have been a possibility for the Football League to consider when drafting and updating its rules, and it’s really a dereliction of duty – or else rank incompetence – that no one knew what was going on last year. Football’s governing bodies appear to have taken the approach of “it probably won’t happen,” and just not bothered to put any kind of rule or guidance in place. That’s not acceptable and has to change.
The rule needs to be ironclad and simple, so there’s no room for argument or cries of “unfair” based on the performance of individual clubs. I would have it look something like this:
In the event that a season cannot be completed, one of the following will apply: If fewer than one-third of scheduled matches have been completed, the season is declared null and void. All points earned, goals scored, yellow and red cards awarded, and so on are considered entirely expunged. When a new season is able to commence, all teams remain in place, with no promotion or relegation taking place. If more than one-third of matches have been completed, the season will be considered complete. League table positions will be considered final, with promotion and relegation based on current standings. All goals, yellow and red cards, etc. will remain on the books.
When the rule has been decided on and incorporated into the laws of the game, no club will be able to cry “unfair!” if a future season is disrupted and needs to end early. It might be difficult to agree on the appropriate cut-off, before which the season is voided and after which the season is declared complete. I’ve suggested one-third of the total number of matches, because usually by that point in the season things are becoming clear as to which clubs are doing well and which aren’t.
If one-third of matches doesn’t seem right, that number could be changed to half, 75%, or whatever clubs agreed on. But the principle remains: there needs to be a cut-off point at which the season is declared complete, and a point at which the season is simply declared void. Every club needs to sign up to this, so that there will never again be the kinds of arguments we saw last year.
The second new rule pertains to the European Super League, the failure of which is one thing fans of practically every club can agree was fantastic! When the European Super League was proposed, I wrote a piece for the website criticising the project for its patent unfairness. But that’s kind of beside the point. The new rule needs to prohibit any team(s) from joining a breakaway competition without the explicit permission of the Premier League and Football League, and needs to specify strict penalties for any clubs that do so without permission.
As above, this rule needs to be watertight and easily understood, with no loopholes or get-out clauses. It will also need to be specific on the penalties for clubs that violate the rule. I propose something like this:
No team may agree to join or participate in any competition, league, tournament, or match, even in principle, without seeking the prior agreement of the Football League and a majority of member clubs. No “breakaway” competition, league, or tournament may be set up without the permission of the Football League and a majority of member clubs. Penalties for violating this rule will include: an immediate twenty-point deduction for any club involved, the complete prohibition of any player involved in such a league, competition, etc. from playing in any match in the Football League, Premier League, FA Cup, and other football competitions in England, and for clubs that continue to violate this rule over the course of more than one season, expulsion from the Premier League, Football League, and all other English competitions.
Despite the rapid collapse of the European Super League, some of the wealthiest clubs and individuals involved in English and European football have not given up on the idea altogether. However, they have now tipped their hand, which gives the Football League, Premier League, and other European leagues time to act and bring in these kinds of harsh penalties to discourage it from ever happening again.
English clubs are already threatened with a ten-point deduction for falling into administration (i.e. becoming insolvent) so the principle of points deductions for bad behaviour exists and is acceptable. If a twenty-point deduction were put into place for the six Premier League teams who tried to join the European Super League last month, at least two – possibly three – would have been relegated. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham would all be in or just above the relegation zone, so this kind of threat will work.
In Scotland there are two huge teams: Celtic and Rangers. They’re the two biggest clubs in Scottish football, and between them have dominated the Scottish league and cups for decades. But in 2012, following a series of financial issues, Rangers was relegated from the Scottish Premiership and had to begin all over again from the Scottish Third Division. Rangers is a case in point: no club, no matter how big and powerful they think they are, is above the rules.
Scottish football was dominated by Celtic in Rangers’ absence, and it was only this season – for the first time in a decade – that anyone other than Celtic won the league. English football is not a two-horse race, so the relegation of even clubs like Liverpool or Manchester United would not lead to one team dominating in the way it did in Scotland. It might even be a net positive for English football overall.
I love football. The unpredictability of the sport, especially in cup competitions, is fantastic. But as the game has become a worldwide money-making machine, corruption and greed have followed. The two rule changes I’m suggesting wouldn’t fix everything wrong with football in England. But they’d be a step in the right direction.
All brands and clubs listed above, along with shirts, logos, etc. are the copyright of their respective owners. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.