Norwich City look set to be on a moral collision course with their great East Anglian rivals as talk of a two-division Premier League gathers pace.
Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside put the cat firmly among the pigeons towards the end of last week when he went public with his revolutionary plan – to establish a Premier League One and Two with 18 clubs apiece. And no promotion or relegation in and out of it.
It would be a closed shop for the top 36 teams in England. Everyone else would be left out in the cold; doomed to a Conference-esque type existence with what's left of the Football League.
“We have to start considering what the structure of the league is,” Gartside said on Friday, in a statement that must have enjoyed the tacit support of others. A long-time member of the Football Association Board, you do not go so far out on a political limb if there are not other, like-minded chairmen and owners backing your proposals.
“And it is time to look at two Premier Leagues – Premier League One and Premier League Two – and the way the finance is allocated. You could have 36 Premier League clubs split into 18 and 18 and that would also solve the problems of the winter break and supporting the England team,” added Gartside, with insiders suggesting that membership of Premier League Two could be even worth up to a guaranteed ?25 million to those who sign up for the closed shop.
“It would even everything out and it would make it more competitive on that basis,” said the Bolton chief, acutely aware that the current level of parachute payments – ?7 million a season for two years – would never cover the extent of Bolton financial exposure should they drop out of the Premiership.
And given the current financial climate, Gartside is clearly working on the basis that any hope of finding an understanding bank manager have long disappeared.
Hence the urgency to his tone – and why he is likely to find willing listeners up and down the land.
“We have already got to the situation where the three clubs that go down from the Premier League are usually the three that come up, although a couple of others might sneak in. I don't have the answers, but it is certainly time for a debate – perhaps even on not having relegation from a second division of the Premier League.
“It would be revolutionary, but I don't think this would be as revolutionary as when the Premier League was set up, and we should open our minds to change. I know a lot of Football League clubs won't like it, but a lot will.”
One club that made it clear that they did like it were Ipswich as Town chief executive Derek Bowden wasted little time into swinging into line behind Gartside's thinking.
“I concur with Phil Gartside's proposal whether it is two 18-strong divisions or a split of what is now the Premier League and Coca-Cola Championship,” said Bowden, speaking to the Ipswich Evening Star on Friday.
“It would lead to more equal distribution of wealth, and remove the horrendous damage done to a club – even with parachute payments – when it is relegated back to the Football League.”
Having been through administration once, Bowden was clearly determined that the Suffolk side should not go through that particular mincer again.
“The time has come to do away with that fear and devastation that relegation from the Premier League brings,” he said. “It is not nice being relegated from the Championship, but nowhere as painful as being relegated from the Premier League.”
If clubs had, say, a guaranteed cushion of ?25 million apiece for every season in Premier League Two then the gulf would be manageable; as it is now, that ?7 million parachute payment simply doesn't do it. And not in these credit crunched times as lenders patience proves ever more wafer-thin.
“I would expect Premier League One to earn more than Premier League Two, but the balance between the two would be manageable.
Not the headlong fall into the abyss that is clearly haunting Gartside's every waking moment.
And he won't be alone, either.
But the real controversy – and the point at which Delia Smith and her husband Michael Wynn Jones might baulk at – will surround the idea of a closed shop; that for the Colchesters and Doncasters of this world, that was it. With no promotion or relegation into the proposed gilded elite, their dreams would end.
It would all-but signal the end the oldest football league competition in the world; history, tradition and all else besides thrown out of the window.
By contrast, for the likes of Leeds United and Leicester City the proposals could come as a complete saving grace. They will be feverishly working on the basis that their old pals will find a ticket for them to the ball – wherever they finish in League One this season.
Bowden – presumeably speaking on behalf of Town's reclusive owner, Marcus Evans – appeared to have few qualms.
For Delia and Wynn Jones – having for so long bought into the idea of football as this mainstay of a local community's life – the thought of denying the dreams of thousands upon thousands of Football League supporters would be a very, very difficult pill to swallow.
Even if it guaranteed Norwich's own financial well-being. All provided, of course, the Canaries were deemed one of the golden 36 by Gartside and Co.
“With there being no sign of TV money drying up, the financial gulf between Premier League Two and Football League would be very difficult to manage,” added Bowden, whose final line is likely to go down like the proverbial lead balloon with near-neighbours Colcchester.
“It would be harsh on clubs that just miss out on joining the elite – like trying to get into the last lifeboat on the Titanic,” he said.
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