Fulham will take a 3-2 advantage back to Craven Cottage after two headed goals from Bobby Zamora upstaged the European aristocrats AC Milan on a dazzling night of Champions League football in the San Siro… it could have happened.
Roy Hodgson’s men finished 19 points behind fourth-placed Arsenal last season, but had current Premier League proposals been in place they would have qualified for the play-offs for the final Champions League spot along with Aston Villa and Everton. From there it would have been only a handful of games to the goldmine that is Champions League football. The Premier League will discuss it further in April and ultimately it will require a 14-6 club majority to introduce the new format in three years time, when the new television contract starts. Many will see an end of season play-off extravaganza as the latest in the money-grabbing grand plan by the Premier League. They will place it alongside the botched 39th game and two leagues within a league idea of Bolton chairman Phil Gartside. But they would be wrong to simply dismiss it. The objections and obstacles are obvious. Critics, the ‘Big Four’ first and foremost, will talk about the sanctity of the league system, the scheduling problems and the ‘sheer unfairness’ of it all. None of these are compelling.
Is it unfair? No. The top three will qualify and the rest will know the consequences of missing out. They will have to position themselves and peak at the right time to gain the coveted final place. Leagues evolve and teams and supporters accept and adapt to the new landscape and rules. Are the Championship play-offs so offensive? Have rugby league and rugby union lost out with the introduction of a title-deciding play-off format? A winner-takes-all play-off would add extra drama, jeopardy and climax to the end of the season. Squeezing in extra games towards the end of the season would be an issue. And in a World Cup year everyone is suddenly more sympathetic to the demands on players, but the two-legged cup games could go for a start and, depending on the format, there could only be three more games to add in.
For once the Premier League seem to be motivated by the right reasons. The money-spinning play-offs would be a big bonus but the central theme is to shake-up the monopoly on Champions League money that perpetuates the ‘Big Four’ club. The race for fourth place, ironically, may be more open this year but in five of the last six seasons the Champions League spots, and cash spoils, have gone to Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Indeed only Everton have broken that monopoly. It has taken the financial down-turn for an up-turn in the chasers’ fortunes. If the ‘Big Four’ go back to spending the big bucks will anyone apart from Manchester City be able to challenge them in the coming seasons? UEFA argue that only between 8-13% of these clubs’ total turnover comes from Champions League money. But, if that is not a huge amount alone, the prestige of European football sucks in players, fans and would-be customers.
The proposals are far from perfect and there are still a number of issues to resolve. However, those who shout it down with a shrill voice, scream about ‘slippery slopes’ and protest at ‘the meddling interests changing our game’, should stand back and cast an eye over the current landscape. It has transformed immeasurably and is constantly mutating. The task then is to identify progression. Whether the play-offs would transform the fortunes of smaller cubs to the extent that they can regularly challenge the supremacy of the ‘Big Four’ is debatable. But it is certainly a debate worth having.