The Battle for Seventh? No Thanks

The Guardian’s ever-excellent David Conn’s report on Monday that the Premier League is proposing to introduce a play-off for the final Champions League place is the sort of story which gets people talking from the boardroom to the pub.

The simple plan, if approved by 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs, would be for the teams finishing from fourth to seventh to meet in a mini end-of season tournament to decide who plays in the following season’s Champions League. The final could even be held a Wembley – or Kuala Lumpur!

Predictably a number of Premier League chairman have already backed the idea, although West Ham’s David Gold and Wigan’s Dave Whelan should probably be more worried about keeping their sides in the top-flight rather than planning a European adventure.

On the face of it, the idea is a good one. For too long the so-called “Big Four” have dominated English football and with such riches on offer in the Champions League have further opened the gap between the haves and have-nots. Surely an idea which would help distribute some of the wealth to more teams should be considered a positive move.

And the chance of a play-off would also help keep the season alive for more teams. As well as the race for the title and the relegation battle, the final day of the season could further be enlivened by the race to grab a play-off spot and the chance to mix it with the big boys of Europe.

And if there’s more to play for, the crowds will keep on coming through the turnstiles which would no doubt please clubs, sponsors and broadcasters.

But despite seeing some of the benefits of the idea, I’m firmly in the No camp for this one.

My first concern is that it’s the Premier League who has initiated the plan. This is the same Premier League which completely misjudged the mood by proposing the 39th game a couple of years ago.

If the Premier League are proposing it, you know it’s because the Premier League think they will make money from it so I’m immediately suspicious.

Then there’s the thought of the play-off final suddenly overshadowing the FA Cup final which would no doubt be played around the same time.

The narrative of the English season has become hugely dominated by the Premier League, but the FA Cup still retains enough of its shine to be grand finale and it must stay that way.

With a Champions League place on offer, even more teams would begin to field weakened sides in the FA Cup. At the moment the top four, with perhaps the exception of Chelsea who have such a strong squad, clearly see the FA Cup as their third priority of the season. With the introduction of the play-offs more teams would start to think this way.

Although he initially backed the idea, West Ham’s Gold also suggested that the lure of Champions League football would encourage more teams to spend beyond their means. And with so many clubs in financial trouble at the moment, surely you don’t want to be giving them further reasons to increase their debt.

Fixture congestion, the integrity of the league and the failed experiment in Holland are further reasons why this one should be a non-starter, although worryingly it was reported that it was only one of a number of ideas to be discussed. Lord knows what they will come up with next.

For me, the final nail in the coffin of the idea is the fact that English clubs will not always be guaranteed four Champions League places. The decision is based on past performances of English clubs in Europe.

It’s not too much of a stretch to believe that at some point this could revert to three teams. After all, Liverpool didn’t make it out of the group stages this year and no one knows what the implications will be of UEFA’s planned rules about only allowing clubs free from debt into the competition.

If it suddenly goes down to three teams, do the play-off positions move? And keep shuffling around?

For me having to introduce a play-off is actually an admission by the Premier League that their competition is inherently unfair and they don’t know how to fix it without completely changing the nature of the league.

Personally, I’d award the fourth Champions League spot to the FA Cup winners at a stroke making it available to far more teams and also leaving the Big Four to battle it out for just three places. Now that would be exciting.

About author

Mark Segal
Mark Segal 7 posts

Mark is a journalist and online editor at ITV.com with over 10 years experience working for national media outlets. Recently wrote for FC Business Magazine on twitter in sport. You can follow him on @segalmark

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