“I don’t understand the rule…it doesn’t make sense…it’s ruining football. You want to see goals… even the referee couldn’t make sense of it. When the players and the officials can’t make sense of it, does it make sense? You are giving handballs for jumping with their arms up…you are giving offside when someone points to where they want the ball. If you asked me what the offside rule is I couldn’t tell you. It is my job to stay onside but I just don’t know.” – Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford
If ever there was a terminally damning indictment of the way football operates in 2020, Patrick Bamford hit the nail on the head after his perfectly legitimate goal was ruled out by FIFA’s cretinous VAR concept on 7 November 2020. The fact that his Leeds side went down 4-1 to Crystal Palace is actually irrelevant. Leeds would have lost that game regardless of that specific decision, but it reveals a potentially fatal schism that threatens to separate footballers, their clubs and their supporters from the game everyone still just about loves. That currently sits on a knife-edge due to a wide range of problems emanating directly from the bodies purporting to run the game.
The mechanics of Bamford’s disallowed goal lie at the heart of everything that is wrong with game, and in every corner of the world. The players, the managers and the supporters are telling the football authorities that they are getting the running of the game horrendously wrong in a shamefully significant number of ways, but the football authorities refuse to listen. Any criticism of their rules is met with a charge of bringing the game into disrepute, an extremely convenient shield for them to hide behind. However, the only people really bringing the game into disrepute are the ones who are supposed to run it. Shall we begin in Zürich?
On a global level, let’s start with the behemoth that is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Traditionally riddled with fraud and corruption on an eyewatering scale, it is impossible to believe that this is the organisation trusted with running the world game in an honest and equitable way. If you are the kind of person who likes to have their salary doubled and supported by secret bonuses, this may be the organisation for you. It is almost impossible to detail the many pies with FIFA fingers in them, but here are a select few to warm the cockles of your heart.
Formal allegations of corruption within FIFA began as far back as 2002 with cash-for-contracts, bribery and electoral vote-rigging at the heart of the organisation. The former chairman of the Football Association Lord David Triesman memorably described FIFA as behaving like a mafia family, immersed in many decades of bribes, bungs and corruption. The allegations soon encompassed a number of FIFA affiliated bodies and grew to include bribes for the award and marketing of World Cup Finals and a plethora of inter-related fraudulent practices. A host of officials were arrested from 2013 as the investigation by Swiss authorities expanded to include an estimated $150 million in bribes. That led to formal investigations into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals specifically, and documents exist that suggest bribes amounting to $880 million were paid to secure the 2022 World Cup Finals for Qatar alone. Take another look at the size of those numbers, they are beyond the bounds of comprehension.
With the investigation still to be completed, suffice to say that the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at the height of an Arabian summer in 40-degree heat may or may not have been corrupt. We may even suggest that the decision was not made by anyone with any interest in football, footballers or their wellbeing.
Suspicion inevitably began to spread around the world. In 2010, the US Department of Justice began its own investigations into racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering within FIFA and its affiliations, centred around the former General Secretary of CONCACAF Chuck Blazer. The now-departed Mr Blazer proved remarkably compliant in providing a pile of evidence against a number of his colleagues, many of whom were arrested and charged in 2015. Two football associations were also investigated (CONMEBOL and CONCACAF) as claim and counter-claim filled the media. Guilty pleas littered courtrooms like confetti, and prison sentences and personal financial forfeitures amounting to tens of millions of dollars were agreed. However, it is far from over: the fraud investigation tracing its roots all the way back to 2002 is not expected to be concluded until 2022.
In other words, the degree of malfeasance within FIFA and its affiliated organisations will take TWENTY YEARS for the best legal brains in Switzerland and the US to untangle. And yet FIFA survives as the ultimate governing body, apparently untouched and unfazed by the sound of its own integrity crashing into dust around it.
And then we have notorious former FIFA President Sepp Blatter to consider. Where do we begin with him, and where would the end be? Strangely loved by the smaller regional administrations and detested by practically everyone else, Blatter led FIFA from 1998 until his non-resignation in February 2016. The salient point here is obvious: Blatter was the man at the head of an astoundingly corrupt organisation at a time when it was essentially behaving exactly as it pleased. Only once he had been banned from all football activities for six years by FIFA’s own Ethics Committee did he agree to be winkled from office, yet he still went kicking and screaming into what will hopefully be permanent retirement from public office. Incidentally, he is still being investigated by the Swiss authorities for corruption almost five years later.
With Blatter gone and his cronies safely inside prison cells, it was hoped that FIFA would actually begin to run the world game in a fit and proper manner. However, there is a serious problem with credibility. The sheer degree of criminality revealed by the fraud investigation means FIFA’s activities will always be subject to suspicion, and that is hardly conducive to running anything properly. There have been calls for FIFA to be disbanded, and we will return to that theme later.
Finally, the Football Association is subject to FIFA governance of course, and has been since 1946. Interestingly, the FA resigned its FIFA membership in 1918 and 1928 on matters of principle. It is very difficult to see the FA repeating that bold stance in the present age of globalisation and vast television revenue, rendering FIFA’s enduring and damaging influence over English football a problem that can never be resolved. Or can it?
The next stop after Zürich must be Nyon, and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Strange that they felt the need to move headquarters from Paris to Bern in 1960, as FIFA had done in 1932; the reason for that may be shrouded in mystery, but the fact that UEFA today is located just two hours from FIFA headquarters cannot altogether be a good thing. Ironically, FIFA is believed to be considering a move back to Paris due to the restrictive nature of Swiss law despite having blown $200 million of football’s money on its new pleasure palace in Zürich as recently as 2007.
Many have suggested that UEFA is little more than a doppelganger puppet of FIFA, but that is not strictly true. UEFA has certainly been tainted by its close association with FIFA in recent years, with former president Michel Platini becoming the ultimate symbol of that in 2016. Despite publicly calling for Sepp Blatter to do the decent thing and resign in 2015, Platini himself was found guilty of accepting a ‘disloyal payment’ of around $2 million from Blatter in 2011. His eight-year ban from all football was reduced to four on appeal, but the verdict remains. Both Blatter and Platini issued statements claiming to have been set up by certain organisations close to them, but neither man could produce any written evidence of the $2 million payment or the reason for it. Furthermore, a series of courts including the European Court of Human Rights have upheld the guilty verdicts on both men, which hopefully ends their involvement with football for good. Incredibly, Platini was believed to be planning a comeback earlier this year. One thing is for sure: the affair did nothing for UEFA’s own credibility and responsibility for the running of the European game.
To be fair, there is no doubt that UEFA has tried to put its house in order since then. Incumbent UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin has set in motion a number of intelligent initiatives during his four years of office, ranging from the development of women’s football to more structured and active racial policies. He branded plans to develop a global super league by the World Club Football Association (yet another organisation trying to run football) as ‘insane’, and has stood firmly against the creation of a European super league. He recognises the dangers of permitting Europe’s big clubs to increase their revenues from television rights and refuses any initiative designed to restructure voting power. That is all very promising.
However, there are conflicts. Whilst being a serious critic of VAR and saying that decisions should not be made by people hiding in a van, Čeferin also states that it is here to stay. He described the facility as ‘a mess’, yet has apparently made no attempt to stop its imposition on European football. I find that strange, with opposition to VAR within the football community appearing as universal as it ever can be. Football could stop nonsense like VAR simply by refusing to play, yet football plays on.
The reformation of the European Cup and UEFA Cup into the Champions League and Europa League respectively was not strictly necessary in terms of the competitions themselves. Expansion of its two primary club competitions to include a larger number of participants (79 in the present Champions League instead of 32 in the old European Cup, for instance) may be viewed as inclusive on the one hand, but driven purely by broadcasting income on the other. Europe’s big clubs would be very supportive of that, of course, and would claim that its governing body was acting in their best interests. That is undeniably true, but it also generates a financial inequality that cascades down to domestic level and creates the likes of the Premier League. The domino effect therefore starts with a huge television deal at UEFA headquarters and ends with tens of thousands of clubs in each country being unable to compete any more. That would appear to be at odds with Čeferin’s own statement about the dangers of increasing the revenues of Europe’s big clubs.
And now UEFA has decided to foist the Nations League upon us. The idea is ostensibly to reduce the number of ‘meaningless friendlies’, but is that concept not a bit strange? Footballers are supposed to be honoured by an international call-up regardless of the opposition or competition, so why is UEFA so concerned with this? The format is convoluted, there is little evidence to suggest that the players approach a Nations League game any differently to a friendly, and reaction from fans has been lukewarm at best. Performances have been lacklustre, possibly because everyone knows that the competition itself is a very poor relation to the World Cup and even to UEFA’s own second division European Championship. So what is the point, from a footballing perspective? A cynic may suggest that the Nations League is related to broadcasting income rather than to anything else.
There is a further problem. The advent of this competition comes at a time when managers and players are bleating pitifully about the number of games they are being asked to play. God forbid that the poor loves should have to actually earn the millions in their pockets, but it highlights another discontinuity between football’s governing bodies.
To end with a recent faux pas, UEFA initially asked disgraced FA chairman Greg Clarke to stay on as the body’s representative on the FIFA Council. That seems particularly strange on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the statement from parent body FIFA asking Clarke to ‘do the right thing’ and resign. Yet another example of the lack of cohesion between football’s governing bodies, but we are getting ahead of ourselves – we will discuss Greg Clarke and the preposterous FA later.
Our next port of call is the spectacularly misguided International Football Association Board (IFAB), which is based in…Zürich. For those who have no experience of IFAB, they are the rule makers for the world game and are therefore responsible for the complex and increasingly unworkable set of rules that are decimating the game of football as an enjoyable spectator sport. There are some inherent problems.
On the surface, this faceless organisation appears to have little connection with the money minters at FIFA, but that is incorrect. FIFA would have us believe that IFAB is independent, but its constitution places a serious question mark over that. There are eight members, four of whom are representatives of the Football Associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as founders of the game. So far, so good. However, the other four members are representatives from FIFA, and six votes are required to pass any motion. Therefore, the four FIFA members effectively have a veto: although they cannot pass any motion without the consent of two other voting members, nothing can be changed if FIFA does not want it to be.
IFAB has traditionally claimed to be conservative in its willingness to change the rules of the game, but that statement collapses on its own head within moments of watching any game. Part of the current malaise stems from the fatal misconception that everyone wants consistency, but surely what everyone wants is an exciting football match? The use of yellow and red cards and the advent of proscribed offences for them has created a game that is robotic instead of free-flowing. Furthermore, the players have worked out how to use that to their advantage, and have a detailed knowledge of how to get the other guy sent off. What IFAB has produced is effectively a cheat’s charter, and the players at the top of the game have seized the opportunity with glee. Yet the creation of this unhappy state of affairs was entirely unnecessary.
Let’s revisit the statement from Patrick Bamford at the head of this article which suggested that:
- the players do not understand the rules;
- the referees do not understand the rules;
- it is ruining football.
Only a fool would attempt to correct an unworkable rule by passing lots more rules, but that is exactly what IFAB does by rote. VAR is the crazy but almost inevitable result of refusing to abandon or reverse such unworkable rules. We only need to consider the ludicrous rules for offside and handball for all the evidence we need. Patrick Bamford tells us that no one understands offside anymore: what on earth was wrong with simply requiring two defending players between the attacker and the goal at the time the ball is played? Even Mr Blobby understood that, although Garth Crooks did struggle a bit. And now we have ‘silhouettes’ and ‘unnatural positions’ to consider when the ball makes even the slightest contact with a player’s fingernail. Again, what was wrong with the traditional requirement of hand to ball deliberately? The players knew where they were, the referees knew where they were, and VAR would be viewed as lunacy personified.
Yet that is what we have, supporters are screaming for simplification, and the football authorities continue to stick their heads in the sand. They would prefer to impose VAR with all its delays and crazy decisions, rather than admit defeat and start again. Attempting to break the game of football down into a series of mechanical processes is a crazy proposition in itself.
And only this week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino gave his own view of VAR, and guess what he said? “VAR is helping football, it’s certainly not damaging football.”
With leadership like that, football is in real trouble.
The Football Association
The Football Association is the body charged with running the game of association football in England. That really does not take a genius to construe, yet the FA has developed an embarrassing habit of demonstrating a woeful lack of understanding of its own game.
Without delving too far back into its dubious history, does anyone remember the preposterous proposal to reform English football launched in 2014 by then FA chairman Greg Dyke? It included increasing the number of English players in the Premier League, the creation of a League Three and the inclusion of Premier League B-teams within the pathetic little EFL. Written and backed by a number of questionable luminaries including then England manager Roy Hodgson and a painfully familiar raft of former Premier League players, Dyke proudly insisted his plan would be welcomed by the Premier League and the EFL. The degree of derision that greeted the plan and the speed with which it was consigned to the waste paper bin demonstrated yet again how detached the FA had become. Dyke claimed it was about improving grass roots football and its facilities, but it was really about trying to win the World Cup at the cost of competitive football outside the Premier League. Dyke resigned in 2016 and slipped quietly out of Wembley with his tail firmly between his legs.
Greg Clarke was the next chairman to try his luck, but the four years of his tenure were littered with controversial proposals and catastrophic errors of judgement.
To begin with, in 2018 the FA tried to sell Wembley Stadium – supposedly the home of English football – to Fulham chairman Shahid Khan. As ever with the FA, the decision was divisive. Rumours circulated that Khan wanted the stadium primarily as the new home for his Jacksonville Jaguars NFL side, hardly an appropriate use for English football’s traditional fortress. The FA claimed to have the broad support of its regional football associations, but former Premier League chairman Sir David Richards called the proposal ‘scandalous’. He was obviously not alone, because Khan withdrew his offer due to the rift it was already causing: in his view, the proposal would have won the support of only a small minority of the FA Council. The £600 million agreed for the sale was allegedly earmarked for the development of grass roots facilities, but one has to wonder exactly how the FA would have wasted it. Compared with the £8.4 billion received by the Premier League for broadcasting rights at that time, the sale price was chicken feed for a stadium that should be the source of national pride.
Clarke’s four years were also filled with allegations of sexual and racial abuse at various levels of the game. It is not the intention to discuss these cases specifically, but the FA’s handling of successive scandals drew criticism from victims and media alike. Suffice to say that Clarke was almost sued by the PFA over comments made during the Barry Bennell case, had no idea why the Mark Sampson allegations were being referred to the FA at all, and told a parliamentary committee that allegations of institutional racism in football were basically nonsense. At the end of all of that, Clarke announced a fundamental review of the FA after realising that it had lost the confidence of the public. Certain measures were voted in at the AGM in 2018, but the fact remains that not much has changed almost three years later.
And now we have the role played by Clarke in Project Big Picture (aka. Operation Power Grab), the shameful attempt by the so-called ‘big six’ to assume control of English football to the detriment of everyone else. Having publicly denied all knowledge of the proposal, it later transpired that he had been involved from its earliest stages as initiator. Clarke cannot claim to have misunderstood the proposal or its financials. As the CEO of a string of multi-national companies for many years, he will have understood the plan and its ramifications as well as anyone. So why is his central role in its creation wrong?
There are over 40,000 football clubs in England, all of whom are under the auspices of the FA. The chairman of the body purporting to safeguard the interests of those clubs played a very active role in potentially shafting 99.9998% of them. Do you want Manchester United and Chelsea making your footballing decisions for you? I rest my case.
Despite the apparent dishonesty of his role in those plans and his subsequent denial of it, he saw no problem in continuing as FA chairman. Fortunately he soon fell on his sword over some antiquated language used to describe black players, yet another incident confirming that he was unfit to hold his position in the first place. And to top the lot? As detailed earlier, Clarke was also vice-president of FIFA through his position as UEFA representative on its Council, completing a virtueless circle to be proud of.
There is no intention here to highlight Clarke in particular, but his position as chair between 2016 and 2020 inevitably attracts some degree of personal culpability. The pace of the pack is set by the leader, and this particular leader led the pack down too many blind alleys. Clarke may be gone, but there is always a fear that his replacement will be cast from the same mould. The FA has already stated that the role of CEO must be held by a businessman, rather than anyone from a footballing background. That sounds very much like the same recipe: if you use the same ingredients, try not to be too surprised when you end up with the same cake. At least his successor can take up the role secure in the knowledge that they can hardly do a worse job. Watch this space with interest.
The Premier League
It is not a coincidence that the Premier League and the Champions League started life in the same season, 1992-93. Since when, English football has become a story of a small number of very wealthy clubs and a huge number of struggling ones. Financial inequality in the game is nothing new of course, but the size of the differential is wider today than ever.
There is no point in dissecting the Premier League here, other than to say that it is barely recognisable as a constituent element of the English football pyramid. The teams in it may carry the names of famous old English clubs, but the similarity ends right there. The size of its broadcasting deals has turned the Premier League into a global circus, not an English football league. The players and coaches come from all over the world to take a seat on its gravy train, limiting the chance of progression to the top echelons for English players and coaches. The FA complains about the effect of that on its England team, which Greg Dyke tried to fix in 2014 by imposing B-teams on the EFL. The EFL ferrets around for crumbs beneath the Premier League table, and to its credit has collected some useful morsels to cover the next few months. Well done, and thank you to all parties. However.
“The Premier League is a huge supporter of the football pyramid and is well aware of the important role clubs play in their communities. Our commitment is that no club need go out of business due to Covid-19.” – Premier League CEO Richard Masters, 3 December 2020
To its credit, the Premier League did voice its opposition to Operation Power Grab. But if Mr Masters’ commitment to the pyramid is genuine, why has it taken so long to offer any assistance at all? EFL clubs are undoubtedly grateful that genuine assistance has finally been offered, but the genesis of it leaves a lot to be desired. As Andy Holt said this week, football’s distribution model still has a long way to go. And perhaps it will take more than the rejection of Project Big Picture and this rescue package to convince the rest of football that the Premier League is deserving of genuine credibility.
There can be no doubt that the organisation known as The Premier League has done a terrific job for its members. It has turned Burnley into a bigger financial entity than Bayern Munich and enabled Bournemouth to be completely self-supporting without the need to admit any fans to games at all. But is that not just a tiny bit crazy? It creates conflicts with the rest of English football that are completely unnecessary. Would Manchester City miss a million pounds? On the other hand, what could Accrington Stanley and many other clubs do with that money? So is the model really correct?
The English Football League
When many of us were in short trousers, the governing body of English league football was simply called The Football League. It was run with an iron fist by a closed shop of cobweb-covered individuals who stood for no nonsense. For example, the original Accrington Stanley tried to revoke its resignation in 1962 when a rescue package was found under old Bob Lord of Burnley, but the Football League refused to accept the request because it had already opened the resignation letter. Everyone knew where they stood, although there was always a sprinkling of strange and arbitrary decisions to keep everyone on their toes. From a Lincoln City perspective, look up the election of Tottenham Hotspur to the League instead of Lincoln in 1908, or the 1920 re-election vote for starters.
In 1992, the Football League became the poor relation of English league football with the formation of the Premiership, and many of its later problems can be traced back to that decision. The original schism has widened to a gulf as the new competition has grown into a monster in every sense, and that in itself has presented challenges for all lower leagues. No one quite knows why the Football League decided to change its name to the English Football League (EFL) in 2016, although there are suggestions that it was simply to fall in line with the English Premier League (EPL). Was that strictly necessary?
But the main problems with the EFL relate to its running of the game in recent years, specifically the question of whether its venerable set of rules are fit for purpose for the modern game. Much of that stems from the fact that far too many clubs believe they can ignore the rules with impunity, but that in itself surely renders the old rules redundant. This has been demonstrated in a wide range of ways during the past two years, notably the alleged financial mismanagement at Birmingham City, Sheffield Wednesday, and Derby County which have produced different outcomes in each case. A host of other clubs have also immersed themselves in the financial mire, raising questions over whether the whole issue of financial governance should be overhauled. We now have the salary cap, of course, which is a natural product of the rampant overspending at clubs like Bury, Bolton and Wigan. The EFL’s handling of the Bury and Macclesfield Town sagas drew much criticism (particularly from Kieran Maguire’s favourite club chairman Steve Dale), yet ironically the EFL tried to bend over backwards to assist them. At the end of the day, there was financial misfeasance which was not initially picked up under the old rules, and that demanded attention.
Further problems were encountered when the 2019-20 season had to be curtailed due to Covid-19. It is entirely understandable that there was no provision in the rules for such an event, but the EFL’s solution for determining final league placings left a lot to be desired. A number of clubs pointed out the obvious subjectivity of a straight points-per-game calculation, yet some sensible and more equitable amendments to the formula proposed by Lincoln and a couple of others were dismissed out of hand. The EFL had dug itself another entirely avoidable hole: the threat of legal action and a vengeance tour came in from Peterborough, Tranmere believed they had a right to stay up because they had won a couple of games recently, and Wycombe Wanderers became perhaps the luckiest club in the history of English football. It all blew over of course, but it once again highlighted the need for reform within the governance and rules of the EFL.
And now we move on to the matter of Covid-19 losses and the survival of the EFL and its clubs. New EFL chairman Rick Parry apparently told his members as long ago as July that a rescue package was imminent. When the proposed package eventually materialised in mid-October, it was only a loan and had some extreme conditions attached. Make no mistake about this: those behind the plan were in no doubt that their proposed rescue package was actually nothing of the kind. It was a deliberate and premeditated attempt to hoodwink the majority of football clubs – and therefore the majority of football supporters – into handing control of English football to six clubs in exchange for a guarantee of very short-term survival. Were they really arrogant enough to believe that no one in the EFL or remotely connected with it would have the intelligence to spot what they were up to? Incredibly, they were almost right. Thankfully, a very small number of EFL member clubs were not so easily fooled, and were able to explain to the rest that they were being ever so slightly stupid.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this particular episode was that the newly appointed chairman of the EFL gave his wholehearted support to a proposal that could have potentially eradicated many of its members. Hopes were high that Parry’s vast experience in the game as the original chairman of the Premier League would create stability and restore some degree of efficiency and respect to his troubled organisation. However, his support for Operation Power Grab was hardly in the best interests of his members despite his assertions to the contrary. To compound the disappointment of that, he followed up with an open letter to government that read like a rambling rant, which is not at all what would be expected from his position.
When a more acceptable rescue plan arrived in early December, it was little more than a temporary palliative. Reactions throughout the EFL ranged from instant delight from FGR’s Dale Vince to a more reserved ‘wait and see’ from Lincoln’s Liam Scully. As Accrington chairman Andy Holt said, the majority of clubs were happy to receive anything at all, but the £375,000 guaranteed core payment to League One would barely cover two months’ outgoings for even the smallest clubs, as highlighted by Rochdale’s David Bottomley. In League Two, Mansfield CEO David Sharpe said they would not be applying for any monitored assistance because of the strings attached, while Grimsby chairman Philip Day regretted the fact that the clubs were not consulted before Mr Parry accepted the deal. As far as the deal for Championship clubs was concerned, it was simply a loan that could only be used to cover PAYE contributions. As Coventry CEO Dave Boddy pointed out, such a facility was useless for clubs with no PAYE debt and would also penalise clubs that have been run correctly. Whilst the deal was better than nothing, it was hardly the panacea many hoped for.
Let’s give the final word on all of this to Accrington owner and chairman Andy Holt, so often the spokesman for the silent majority:
“The long-term viability of football’s distribution model was and still is a major problem.” – Andy Holt, 4 December 2020
So, Whither Football?
There is a radical solution: in order to restore integrity, common sense and fair play to English football, we should disband FIFA, UEFA, IFAB, the FA and the EFL. Can those five organisations honestly claim they still have a mandate to govern football? Unfortunately, we have an elephant in the room: the Premier League. Contrary to the other five organisations we have considered, the Premier League is ruthlessly efficient and almost completely independent of outside influences. It would be helpful to all other English football clubs to find some way to curtail the threat to English football it poses, although the minor olive branches it has offered recently may be a start.
The first stage of salvation could come through the reformation of the five organisations named above. The creation of a new FIFA, UEFA, IFAB, FA and EFL could lead to greater coordination of the game at all levels, with the five organisations working together instead of as a series of remote empires. One necessity would be the absolute refusal to permit anyone connected with the previous incarnations to perform any role within the new bodies. Entirely fresh blood is needed if a new broom is to sweep clean.
In this utopia, FIFA and UEFA could be run by salaried employees with the good of the game at heart instead of the creation of wealth and personal fiefdoms. Applications for the hosting of major tournaments could be managed by independent bodies to prevent brown envelopes from filling Zürich’s waste paper bins. Everything could be open to independent scrutiny, to accountants and financial experts not on the payroll. IFAB could be completely independent of FIFA and staffed by a dozen former footballers who remember how exciting a spectacle the game used to be, instead of by faceless representatives from football associations who have never played it. The rules of the game could be restored to a point thirty years ago, before rule-obsessed morons began to ruin it as a spectator sport. And VAR would be placed in a large incinerator together with the idiots who thought of it.
From a domestic point of view, imagine the potential of a new FA with revised financial demands and controls, genuinely dedicated to the grass roots as well as the big six. The EFL could completely rewrite its rule book in conjunction with its 72 members, creating governance with safeguards to prevent the big clubs from using it as a plaything and eventually erasing it from the map. Perhaps a vibrant and progressive FA and EFL could even persuade some of the smaller Premier League clubs to return to the EFL fold and leave the Premier League pond to the big six. Besides being an interesting scenario, it would give English football a chance of surviving as a viable spectator sport. It may also restore the confidence of football supporters in the rule makers, the governing bodies and their personnel. It is not going to happen, of course, because those holding power tend not to volunteer its surrender.
As ever, there is a Lincoln City connection. In his autobiography A Double Life, Imps legend Phil Neale recounts his surprise that his team mates did not rush home to watch Match of the Day as he did. He suggests that those older players were simply jaded by the game, and that is interesting. Neale was referring to the 1970s, a period when many present day supporters believe football was at its zenith as a competitive spectator sport. From a personal perspective, I was football mad from an early age and devoured everything to do with it. My own love for the game dates from that same period, and I would never have believed that my interest in it would ever wane.
But it has, and I blame the football authorities.
Try watching a Premier League game, if you can. There is no doubt that today’s top players are technically superior to their predecessors, yet the game itself is far worse to watch. That is curious to say the least. The endlessly chuntering Martin Tyler and his pie-in-the-Sky pundits tell me what a great game I am watching, but all I see is a bunch of multi-millionaire tattooed monosyllabics trying to out-cheat each other while the poor referee blunders around like a man in a blindfold. A man in a van then makes his decisions for him, and gets those decisions comically wrong. Meanwhile, the six biggest clubs want a bigger slice of a cake they already own, to the exclusion of everyone else. And the football authorities are supportive because they fancy a slice of cake too. And make it a big slice while you are at it.
Football is supposed to be a sport and an entertainment, but marketing men and the desire for riches have turned it into a product. Whilst the profits in the highest echelons of the game may be substantial right now, the governing bodies need to realise that every product has a shelf-life. Football has long been cyclical in exactly the same way, and has transformed through many ages. Love for the Premier League is far from universal, and its own complacency may prove the biggest threat to its survival.
Danny Cowley famously said that football is a great game, but a terrible business. He is only partially correct because I am not sure that it is a great game anymore. It has been ruined as a spectacle by petty rule makers, corrupt and inept administrators, greedy football clubs, greedy agents, and greedy players. The lack of coordination between a raft of disparate, essentially self-interested bodies is breathtaking at times, highlighted in spectacular fashion by the failure to create a Covid rescue package for the good of the game. The opportunist response was to use a global pandemic as a tool to place the running of English football in the hands of six big clubs, yet another example of greed overriding what even they must know to be right. As a consequence, a large number of professional and semi-professional clubs continue to hurtle to the wall; our governing bodies continue to fiddle while English football burns.
Football’s hierarchy needs to wake up before it is too late. English football needs every single club at every single level, regardless of its size or who owns it, but it is on the point of throwing away the greatest structure in the world in order to pander to the ill-considered wishes of the big clubs and their masters. The Covid pandemic has presented a window of opportunity to reform the way football operates, from its governance to the rules of the game itself. There is an undertow of dissatisfaction among football supporters that is growing steadily and should not be ignored, but unfortunately, I will not be holding my breath. The governing bodies measure the success of their product by counting pound signs, and the top of the game has never been richer.
And that is what lies at the root of football’s problems. FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League are obsessed with increasing their already vast wealth through outrageous marketing and broadcasting deals. The FA appears weak and emasculated in the face of bodies far more powerful than it is, while the EFL tries to collect scraps from the bottom of the Premier League barrel in order to keep as many of its clubs going as it can. As for every other club, perhaps they should call Bear Grylls to help them to survive. Football is supposed to be the world game, but all too frequently it is anything but.
So, the outlook is not promising. I am on the point of not being interested in football anymore, and that is quite incredible. It is not the same game I grew up watching, but salvation may be at hand. The FA Cup first-round games in early November were a real breath of fresh air as non-league pitted its wits against its slightly bigger brothers. Despite the obvious influence of the Premier League cheats on certain aspects, the games were far more honest and great to watch as a consequence: all the things Premier League games are not. It was a blast from the past, the way all football should be.
So here is another radical idea to end with: perhaps it is the big six that should be disbanded in order to give the game back to the supporters who are the real owners of it.
Back in the real world, who were our star performers in November?
Top of the pile is HARRY ANDERSON after topping the ratings four times from his five games during the month. Fittingly, H captained the side for the first time in his 187 appearances at Plymouth (please take note of the two FA Cup qualifiers against Guiseley, Lincoln City).
ALEX PALMER takes second place with a string of consistent performances; fans are as impressed with his overall command of his area as they are with his goalkeeping ability.
In third place we have the returning LEWIS MONTSMA; it is no coincidence that we conceded three goals to Portsmouth in his absence.
The average team rating of 6.37 is the lowest of the season to date.
- Harry Anderson 7.22
- Alex Palmer 6.94
- Lewis Montsma 6.78
- Adam Jackson 6.70
- Anthony Scully 6.57
- Jorge Grant 6.55
- Brennan Johnson 6.51
- Liam Bridcutt 6.35
- Sean Roughan 6.33
- Theo Archibald 6.28
- Conor McGrandles 6.06
- TJ Eyoma 6.043
- Robbie Gotts 6.039
- Tayo Edun 6.030
- Max Melbourne 6.02
- Tom Hopper 5.99
- James Jones 5.93
(Joe Walsh 5.80)
(Ethan Ross 5.13)
(Players in brackets made only one appearance during the month).
Individual ratings by match:
Portsmouth: Harry Anderson 7.00
Forest Green: Harry Anderson 8.58
Manchester City U21: Harry Anderson 7.50
Accrington: Alex Palmer 7.57
Swindon: Lewis Montsma 7.25
Plymouth: Harry Anderson 6.90
So where does that leave us regarding the current Player of the Season standings?
- Harry Anderson 7.18
- Lewis Montsma 7.14
- Joe Walsh 7.02
Home Player of the Season:
- Harry Anderson 7.26
- Brennan Johnson 7.21
- Lewis Montsma 7.07
Away Player of the Season:
- Lewis Montsma 7.23
- Harry Anderson 7.08
- Jorge Grant 6.99
Player of the Month:
Thank you to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City Football Club for the photograph!
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln1) January 4, 2021