The Case for Change

Evolution or Revolution
Roger Titford looks at the various different ideas for changing the structure of league football that have been proposed during The Football League’s history.

Stability is a virtue often only valued in its absence.  The Football League’s 125th anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate its continued existence.  There are some long-standing sporting institutions that change so little that their structure becomes part of the fabric of national life, easily knowable and explainable to a child: the Ashes, the Grand National, Wimbledon.  There are others that change their format so much that it is to their peril.  The Football League stands much closer to the former group and that is part of its enduring strength.  In England and Wales in 2013 more people watch more football matches at more professional clubs in more national divisions than anywhere in the world.

So much of the structure is still in place from the original conception of the League in 1888.  Independently run, geographically based clubs still play each other once home once away during a season which runs from autumn to spring.  The outcome of each game is determined solely by the number of goals scored and the order of merit is determined firstly by a points system which has changed only once (when three points for a win replaced two in 1981) and secondly by the calculation of goal difference (which replaced goal average in 1976).  Yet all these seemingly stable elements could be and have been challenged during The League’s long history.  The success of the League structure can be determined its very endurance in the face of innumerable crises, by the present day appeal of its competition and by its ability to adapt with small but meaningful reforms.

Almost every period of social or economic crisis has provoked calls for the re-organisation of the League, the re-structuring of promotion and relegation and / or the method of deciding the outcome of matches.  The motive is almost always financial – to generate larger crowds by creating more spectator excitement.  Goals and excitement are often seen to go together.  In 1992 at The Football League AGM, Jimmy Hill proposed the idea of five points for a three goal winning margin and four points for a two goal margin.  But excitement stems more from a close match where the lead fluctuates and few fans would see much justice, or excitement, in one side gaining a five point reward because another happened, for instance, to be reduced to nine men.  The idea was rejected by clubs.

The idea of more points for bigger victories returned in 1998 with The League’s working party structure report which also floated the idea of extra points for half-time leads and resolving drawn matches with penalty shoot-outs.  Football globally has resisted the temptation to tinker with its match-scoring system so it retains an attractive balance of justice and chance; the better team usually but not always wins.

The process of promotion and relegation between divisions has been subject to more change and more demand for change.  The pre-1914 days of the League saw two-up, two down as the norm in divisions of between 16-20 clubs.  Bradford City were the first to propose three-up, three down in 1905.  It finally happened for Divisions One to Three in 1973/74.  The worst ratio of promotion places (one) to competing clubs (24) was endured by Divisions Three (North and South) between 1950 and 1958. Alan Hardaker, Secretary of the League from 1956 to 1979, proposed in 1963, in his generally acclaimed reform plan ‘Pattern for Football’, three national divisions of 20 clubs with four up, four down as a way of eliminating meaningless end-of-season matches – which, in the regional Third Divisions of those days, could have started as early as October!

Luton Town manager David Pleat leaves the pitch with his team after they were relegated in 1992

What has dramatically changed League football and, by a different route, achieved Hardaker’s aim is the combination of three points for a win, from 1981/82, and the introduction of the play-offs in 1986/87.  Together they have made the League tables much more dynamic and thus exciting.  With three or four promotion places available from each division the whole League became more fluid so that over the past 30 years 18 clubs have played in all four divisions and 45 different clubs have competed in the 21 years of the Premier League.  Hardaker was far from alone in proposing more promotion and relegation (which was typically resisted by club chairmen fearful of their own club’s relegation) but the most extreme proposal came from the League’s 1998 working party on structure.  It proposed amongst its five options one entitled ‘Saturn’, of six divisions of twelve clubs with three up, three down and all clubs either to be promoted, relegated or playing in an end of season play-off.  This was perhaps judged too much excitement and not enough scope for forward planning, especially as it might have been scheduled to take place twice a year!

In terms of reforming League structures the greatest focus down the years has been on the size, number and regionality of the divisions.  In fact, the Football League has largely expanded through acquiring other Leagues – the Alliance in 1892 became Division Two and the Southern League became Division Three in 1920, after two decades of seeking a merger on increasingly weak terms.  Division Three (North) was the exception to this rule on its formation in 1921.

While the Football Conference is not part of the League it has acted, to some extent, as a fifth division, connected by automatic promotion and relegation, subject to grading criteria, since 1987.  This connection has certainly made matches in the bottom half of the League’s lowest division more meaningful.  Nor, of course, is the Premier League formed in 1992, part of The Football League but the connection by promotion and relegation has always existed and suggestions that entry into the Premier League be conditional on ground capacity were successfully resisted.  The dream of rising from the bottom to the top is still a possibility as recently verified by the likes of Swansea City, Hull City and Wigan Athletic.

Swansea City celebrate promotion from the Championship in 2011

One continual debate has been at what level League football should be organised on national rather than regional basis.  The Football League considered having three national divisions as early as 1909 and 1919 before finally going to four national divisions in 1958.  Ever since some have been calling for a return to regional football, often those in the nation’s geographical extremities, believing it offers more in benefits of local matches and lower travel costs.   The Hardaker plan of 1963 (re-submitted in 1971), the Sir Norman Chester Report of 1968 (re-submitted 1983) and Deloitte Touche proposal of 1997 all suggested a structure of three national divisions (by 1997 including the Premier League) being fed from beneath by two regional divisions.

In more cautious times, such as 1956 and in 2002, after the collapse of ITV Digital and subsequent loss of TV revenue, a structure of two national and three regional divisions (north, midlands, south) were mooted. It is interesting to note the real-life response from football has been to go five national, full-time divisions (including the Premier League and Conference) and that there are many other team sports with a weaker following than lower League football also organised on a national basis. To this day there remains little real appetite amongst Football League clubs for a return to regional football in the lower divisions, the biggest stumbling always being how you would convince a division to merge with division below it!

Whilst reform of the League structures has often been stymied for all manner of different reasons, in the long run of 125 years the regrets about missed opportunities are comparatively few.  There should certainly have been more promotion places on offer earlier, the Southern League clubs could have come in en masse a decade earlier (they missed by just three votes in 1909) and the automatic promotion into the League might have come sooner but that was also dependent on the non-league ‘offer’ coming up to standard.  Perhaps the one that got away, that fell eight votes short of the necessary three quarters majority in 1963, was Hardaker’s Pattern for Football.  Besides five divisions of 20 clubs (with eight new clubs coming in) with a four up, four down system, he also proposed a mechanism for automatic relegation from the League instead of re-election, a League season that would run from October to May and be preceded by a League Cup competition organised in regional groups.  Some of the objectives he sought have come to pass by rather different means but many of the other, wilder attempts at reform have come to nothing.  For that, most fans I feel can be quite grateful and thus continue enjoy a competition that has remained stable and thus familiar, accessible and popular.