Empty seats on the bench as the FL goes from seven to five subs

The Football League turned the tide when announcing that next season clubs will only be able to choose three from five, rather then seven, substitutes for League games reducing the number of bums on the bench for the first time since the extra men were introduced.

From none to one to two to two and a goalkeeper to three to five and to seven the number of men waiting in the wings to go onto the wing has increased always. For the first time now the FL has cut the number back.

The logic is sensible. In times of hardship clubs have found it hard to muster seven spares and the resultant pressure to do so has caused some problems. Reducing the number of pros required in a squad will – in theory – help clubs who are trying to watch the bottom line.

The downside is a reduction in the cover for each player of course – the days of the Adrian Heath utility man are firmly behind us – and a reduced number of tactical options for those managers who like to think that the right three replacements will turn a game in their favour.

Add to that the idea that young players are more likely to get a chance with a broader bench. Paul Jewell spent years at Liverpool but in the days of one seat on the bench he never got a game. Pool needed a player who could be thrown on at right back or left wing as injury would dictate and that was not Jewell (although he did play both roles for City) and so he got no chance.

There seems to be a another way and one which the Football League has ignored which would have taken the pressure off clubs to fill seven seats while not removing the tactical options for those who want them, or the opportunities for the youngsters.

Rather than setting a number of five or seven why not just allow a club to select from all registered players to be on the bench. Any three who the club held a registration for could be shoved on but – crucially – the club would be under no onus to set a number. If Team A wanted replacements for all eleven players ready for action they could, if Team B wanted two guys in reserve they could have them on the bench. Team C could have the development squad ready to go if needed and so on.

No club would be forced to name seven, five, one or any substitutes and each could do as they wished. The practice is common in American Football – the one that looks like a game of catch between Motorcycle messengers – which seems to offer hundreds of numbered players.

The Football League perhaps will be commended for this decision and financially it make some sense but there is something about the openness of an all in substitute policy which appeals to me.

Five not seven on the bench next season, and frustrated faces in the stands waiting for their chance.

Here comes Crawley Town

Wes Thomas’ 18 goals for League Two Cheltenham Town last season understandably made him a man in demand. But rather than moving up the football pyramid, the 24-year-old has joined the league’s newest and most inexperienced club.

Crawley Town, promoted from the Blue Square Premier last season, have beaten off interest from other clubs – not to mention Cheltenham’s own hopes of retaining a striker they had rescued from non-league after a less than impressive time at Dagenham – to land Thomas. And while this may be largely considered unremarkable, the comments from Cheltenham chairman Paul Baker should be of concern to the other 22 clubs in next season’s League Two:

I’ve heard the package he’s on and he wouldn’t get that at a lot of clubs in League One, it’s staggering. It shows the money someone is putting in at Crawley to sustain the wage bill. They’re not doing it on gates.”

The rise of Crawley was well publicised last season during their extraordinary FA Cup run which was only ended in the fifth round, following a commendable performance in losing 1-0 at Manchester United. They earned promotion with a stunning 105 points – only losing three games all season, the last of which was on the 16th October 2010 – and in the FA Cup defeated League One Swindon, Championship Derby and League Two Torquay on route to Old Trafford.

More notable, however, is their financial strength that led to such remarkable results. Some £600k was apparently spent on transfer fees alone last season – astonishing for the Conference, and last season was a higher spend than all of the League Two clubs combined – while the aftermath of Derby’s 2-1 FA Cup defeat saw Rams manager Nigel Clough reveal some of his players were on lower wages than some of the Crawley players. True, Derby’s efforts to trim their sizeable wage bill will have caused them to pay very low wages for new signings, but it is still a startling fact that a club then-three divisions lower had greater financial capability.

For next season’s League Two campaign, the consequences of Crawley’s continuing high spending are becoming clear. Crawley are not just widely considered favourites for promotion, but in one bookie’s eyes ODDS ON favourites to climb straight into League One. Over the last few years, recently promoted teams into the Football League – with nothing like the resources Crawley enjoy – have had little trouble ascending into England’s third tier. It would seem the type of forwards momentum exhibited by the likes of Exeter and Stevenage will be replicated at the Broadfield Stadium next season.

The big question is how fair that is on the rest of League Two – just as whether Crawley’s spending was fair on Conference clubs last season. As Cheltenham’s Baker said, it’s not being achieved on their gates (average 2,535 last season, while the Robins’ – who couldn’t match the wages Town offered for Thomas – averaged 2,980).

The actual source of Crawley’s financial support has not been disclosed to date, with the financial backers brought to the club by late chairman Bruce Winfield wishing to remain anonymous. Before these backers arrived Crawley, who had suffered significant financial problems for many seasons, were said to be losing £400,000 a year. To go from this to suddenly spending £600k on players such as City’s Scott Neilson – not to mention the wages being paid for persuading talented players like Sergio Torres to step down to non-league – should be considered troubling.

Crawley’s owners may have perfectly good reasons for remaining anonymous, and there is no evidence to suggest the club or their backers are acting illegally, but the mystery surrounding the ownership issue is not good for the wider game.

And it makes for an interesting test for the Football League. The comparisons between Crawley’s financial might next season and Notts County in 2009/10 are obvious. County, bought by the enigmatic Munto Finance, spent unprecedented sums of money at this level to build a squad that eventually won the division at a canter. In County’s case, however, it was all part of an epic swindle that almost ended with the club collapsing.

The validity of the promotion they achieved is still hugely questionable, and for the rest of League Two the distorting affects it had on that season are still felt today. Fourth-placed Morecambe, for example, might feel a sense of injustice that they missed out on promotion to a club who were bending the rules. The 5-0 defeat City suffered on the opening day immediately put Stuart McCall under pressure and set the mood for a difficult season.

Yet the Football League failed to get to grips with County at all. The fit and proper rules in place were easily bypassed by County’s owners, and their inaction almost saw the world’s oldest professional football club go out of business. Like with Crawley, the FA claimed they had seen the necessary documents from Notts County that apparently proved the fit and propeness of Munto. Equally poor has been the Football League’s failure to establish the true owners of Leeds United, and the situation was only cleared up when the Elland Road club looked to be on the brink of the Premier League but were warned they might not be allowed in it if the ownership matter remained unresolved.

As a supporter of a club entering League Two next season I want to know that there is a level playing field. After Notts County, the Football Authorities have lost the trust that they can be left to ensure that publicly hidden ownership is for the good of the game. Fair play must not only be the case, it must be seen to be the case.

There is nothing to suggest the owners of Crawley Town are as crooked as Munto Finance or acting as dubiously as Leeds chairman Ken Bates, but in the interests of fair and honest competition they surely cannot be allowed to remain annoymous while the rest of the Football League must follow the rules. If Crawley’s owners are whiter than white – and let’s hope they are – they should have nothing to fear in revealing themselves to the authorities and their own supporters.

But beyond that, this ongoing situation of football clubs living beyond their means is not one to be encouraged. Crawley, like many other clubs in England, most notably Chelsea, apparently do not operate in a self-sustainable way; meaning they are at the whims of the investors and will be left in an almighty mess should they withdraw their backing. If it is wrong to compare Crawley to Notts County, the lessons of Gretna’s rise up the Scottish leagues and subsequent demise should be noted by all.

Crawley’s summer spending isn’t going to end with Thomas, and come August it looks likely they will have built a squad good enough to romp League Two. It doesn’t seem fair and, as long as the sources of their financial capabilities remains anonymous, there will be those crying foul over their approach and many others hoping it all comes tumbling down for probably the least welcome Football League newcomers of all time.

Lawn returns to Accrington and revisits the idea of putting Bradford City into administration

The last time Mark Lawn went to Accrington Stanley he left with his car vandalised and spent the weekend threatening to wind Bradford City up by withdrawing the loan he has made to the club. This time as Lawn heads for the Crown Ground he talks about moving City away from Valley Parade.

Speaking to the T&A Lawn confirmed what BfB reported yesterday that the club had opened talks with the Football League about what they were calling a last-ditch scenario of leaving VP to move to Odsal. One would assume that this would mean refusing to pay the Landlords of Valley Parade and the clubs offices and being open to and expecting either to both to pursue the club for being in breach leading to the club seeking a third spell in administration for protection from the creditors.

The phrase “administration as a formality” has been used before at Valley Parade by Julian Rhodes in 2004 as he looked to et the club from Gordon Gibb who voted in the CVA for Bradford City to die rather than end up in the hands of his former boardroom rival. That time City came as close as can be to going out of business as could be imagined – Ashley Ward made the casting vote – so I treat the idea of a strategic administration with scepticism.

As should Julian Rhodes. My understanding of the Football League rules about who can and cannot be involved in running a football club have it that having been involved in “multiple insolvency” evenings he would not be involved in the business of Bradford City 2011 in an official capacity.

He could buy a season ticket though – many of us have – but where that season ticket will see us sit is something which should what Mark Lawn is talking about come about will change. One wonders what consideration has been taken over this from Bradford City. Fans who are happy enough to go to Odsal might not be happy to move from seats they have occupied for over a decade and will but upset but there are supporters who do not want to go to Odsal and will be knocking on the door of Valley Parade demanding their money back.

How many of the Bradford City supporters who have season tickets now will still follow the club to Odsal? We might guess at a percentage and we might curse those who do not want to but unless someone has a figure as to how the impact of moving on supporters then should this move be considered? Has anyone at Valley Parade taken the temperature of supporters about moving from Valley Parade? Does anyone know what the supporters want?

What about the club’s business partners? Our understanding of the deal which sees Nike replace Surridge as the club’s shirt supplier will see Nike take over the club shop which is a part of the offices which City are talking about defaulting on the rent of. How secure is this deal? How transferable? Has the most iconic brand on the planet been told it will be backing a club with a level of support which no one – at the moment – could even have an educated guess at?

What about other businesses which have backed City? Are they going to be left out of pocket again by administration? Have they been warned?

Ross Hannah and Michael Rankine are non-league strikers rumoured to be in talks with City. Back in 2002 Nicky Law had agreed a deal to sign Thomas Hitzlsperger and – from Grimsby – Michael Boulding but those deals died in administration. If Hannah or Rankine were to pick up the T&A today what confidence could they have in those deals coming to fruition (let alone that the man they are talking to at the club will be there next season).

What about Mark Lawn’s loans? If City go into administration and then Lawn becomes a creditor. £2m worth of loans represents a significant vote for whatever is on the table in terms of a CVA but after a CVA has been accepted those loans are gone. Is Lawn prepared to write off the loan he considered withdrawing fifteen months ago as he drove away from Accrington?

One would love to suggest that Lawn is bluffing or that he is firing shots across Gordon Gibb’s bow to try get him to the negotiation table and see City emerge with the best deal but one cannot guarantee that. The club are talking to the Football League about how to make leaving Valley Parade work. It might not be the idea that you or I, dear reader, would have chosen but it seems to the the prevalent idea.

The gradient becomes steeper

On The 2010/2011 Season

Mark Lawn’s first-ever Football League meeting saw the Joint-Chairman loudly question why the Football League TV deal left his club so disadvantaged. He was told it was because of a rule which had been implemented by a then-Bradford City chairman.

The split of TV revenue is weighed heavily in favour of clubs in the Championship, and it’s a thinking which has been replicated in other important money matters. The Premier League’s solidarity payments subsequently introduced that summer – loose change from the billions England’s top flight generates and keeps for themselves, after voting to break away from the Football League in 1991 – saw each Championship club receive £830,000 per season. Meanwhile League One and Two clubs – arguably most in need of any hardship fund going – received £103,000 and £69,000 per season respectively.

A welcome gift, but one which will did little to bridge the gap between rich and poor.

And this heavily-biased split of the leagues was the work of Geoffrey Richmond, who two years after making a speech on the Valley Parade pitch that his Premiership-bound Bantams would “never forget their lower league friends” marked City’s return to the Football League in 2001 by ensuring clubs in England’s second tier received the greater benefits of any pots of money coming all three divisions’ way. Who cared about clubs in England’s bottom tier then?

Lawn, faced with this unexpected further revelation of Richmond’s legacy at the Football League meeting in 2007, didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Fast forward to the present day, and the landscape will begin to further shift from this season. A “take it or leave it” revised solidarity payments offer from the Premier League last April was initially rejected by clubs in League One and Two; but faced with no choice, they ultimately had to accept. The £20m a year donation by the elite has tripled to £60m from this season (cuts to community funding will pay for the Premier League’s generosity), but the disparities in who is entitled to how much have remained, further increasing the gaps.

So from this season, the majority of Championship clubs will each receive £2.2m per year from the Premier League. For League One clubs, the payment has increased to £335,000 and for League Two clubs £220,000. In addition, relegated Premier League clubs will now receive £48m worth of parachute payments over four seasons – £16m in each of the first two years.

A near quarter of a million guaranteed revenue for City is certainly not something to be sniffed at; but whereas the Bantams were previously receiving £761,000 less per year than their Championship counterparts, the gap will now be over £2m every season. And that’s before we consider the present three-year TV deal, collectively worth £264m.

Let’s remember where City want to ultimately aspire to return to – last July, the vision unfurled by Lawn was for City to reach the Championship in five years time. It could prove increasingly difficult to scale those heights – and much more challenging to stay there.

With so many Football League clubs struggling to stay in business, any help that the Premier League is willing to provide has to be grudgingly accepted. But there are genuine long-term concerns about what this new deal will do to the competitive nature of the Football League. In the Championship, clubs relegated from the Premier League will have such a huge advantage in terms of the money they have, compared to their rivals, that bouncing back within a couple of seasons should be much more of a regular occurrence than it currently is. And for clubs climbing into the Championship from Leagues One and Two, the inequality of solidarity payments will make it more difficult to catch up as time goes by.

The gulf between Premier League and Championship has been huge for years, and a similar type of chasm could be about to emerge between tiers two and three.

Which makes the need for City to start climbing the leagues all the more urgent. That £2.2m per year Championship clubs will start receiving is hardly going to be used to make ticket prices more affordable or to increase presence in the community; it will likely be extra money for the transfer budget and extra money for the wage bill. And with each passing season of getting £2.2m richer, the size of the wage bills will get larger and more difficult for newly-promoted clubs to compete with.

So while getting into the Championship can still be considered a realistic objective for all the 48 teams in England’s bottom two tiers, with the difference in solidarity payments between Leagues One and Two relatively low, competing against teams with increasingly larger resources will become increasingly difficult. It’s hard to imagine many more instances of a Wigan, Stoke or Fulham rising through the divisions like we’ve seen over the last decade. And the sport will be less magical for losing that.

But while we can curse Richmond yet again for instigating a situation that penalises our club, the reasoning of why he did it is one difficult to avoid talking hypocritically about. I bet not many of the 24 Championship clubs supported their lesser peers in initially rejecting the Premier League’s offer last April – despite the very real possibility that they one day could be relegated and suffer the consequences. And I bet that if they were on the Championship side of the fence, few League One and Two Chairman would have been principled enough to reject the offer either.

It’s all about looking after your own interests, and believing the changes you vote for will only aid your cause – rather than later tripping you up. Least we forget, then top-flight members Oldham and Sheffield United voted for the breakaway of the Premier League.

And if City can fulfill the vision of making it back to the Championship, would we care too much about the plight of present-day rivals? If there’s a big pot of money that we’re entitled to take a greater share of, would we vote to give more of it to others?

Which is perhaps the greatest irony. Over the last two decades, Premier League and Championship clubs have voted to make changes which boost their individual prospects and increase their own chances of enjoying success – at the expense of others. That natural competitive nature to maximise every advantage and be damned with morals and ethics may in fact be leading to our national game become less and less competitive.

The door is beginning to close. City need to get their foot in.

FL and UEFA going head to head for the Play Off Final date

Should Bradford City reach the play-off finals next season – and we all hope for more but fear less – then City fans would be advised to get in and out early to avoid the congestion that comes with having two games in the same stadium on the same day.

It seems hard to believe that the League Two final – which City’s site tells us scheduled to take place at Wembley on Saturday 28th May – be played in the afternoon while a trip to UEFA’s website tells us the highlight of European football’s club calendar returns to the London venue for a record sixth time, the first at the new stadium, on Saturday 28 May.

Play off finals tend to be in the afternoon kicking off at three but – after the traditional playing of “Simply The Best” to the team that finishes between 72nd and 75th in the football pyramid – the event does not finish until 17:30 at the earliest and probably somewhat later. The Champions League final would look to kick off at 20:00 with gates open perhaps an hour earlier giving some dervishes about ninety minutes to turn around from one game to another.

Putting aside the lunacy that would see the National Cabbage Patch used twice in one day – the logistics would be impossible surely – it would seem that the stadium is has been promised to two parties on the same say and The Football League are not budging on the play-off date simply to accommodate the Champions League finals switch to a Saturday night.

The Football League are one of Wembley Stadium’s biggest customers staging the three play off finals and the League Cup final at the venue which famously went over budget and one doubts could afford to lose the custom back to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. UEFA are not likely to want to move the game they see as the biggest in football to avoid the prospect of a clash with the clash between Aldershot and Burton Albion or whoever ends up at the final.

Wembley would seem to be caught between the prospect of upsetting UEFA – never good when chasing a World Cup 2018 bid – or alienating The Football League and risking the loss of their business.

City fans have sometime to thing about this and – should Taylor’s men excel or flop – it may never be an issue but as it stands it would seem that Wembley Stadium is double booked and either the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United are going to have to shift for City and Stockport or Stockport and City are going to dig in and tell the giants of European football that we got there first.

Either way the merits of the Football League publishing a list of dates for the forthcoming season when they have an obvious problem with one of those dates is annoying to say the least and any City fan considering booking a holiday for the 29th on the understanding that there is no chance of missing the big game would do well to hold off until one of these two football authorities blinks or the concerns of supporters start to feature in their thoughts.

Things start to fall apart at County

The 5-0 defeat to Notts County at the start of the season seemed like the first steps in a new Empire of football at Meadow Lane with the home team – Sven, Sol et al – inexorably rising through the leagues starting with a coasting of League Two. The Munto Group, funded in a Byzantine labyrinth of financial twists involving a “Middle East” organisation called QADBAK, were going to make a mark in sports starting with the oldest league club in football.

The Bantams were blown away by a set of very good footballers playing very well that day but that August afternoon seems increasingly long ago for the Magpies.

This week the Guardian released information to the effect that an investigation by Formula One into the QADBAK attempt to purchase the BMW Sauber team the findings of which seemed to be that QADBAK, Munto Group, County’s holding company Blenheim 1862 and First London all seemed to lead a trail back to a man called Russell King of whom the words “convicted fraudster” are often associated.

David Conn – the hero of football finance investigation – has spent months on unravelling this situation (and a similar oddity at Elland Road) and even his dedicated research has not been able to get to the bottom of the situation although his prompting has seen the Football League begin questioning County again.

County’s attitude to any questions on the people who own the club is aloof to say the least with head honcho at Meadow Lane Peter Trembling stating that “the people who need to know, know” when asked about the owners of the club who he characterised as “Middle East investors” that turn out to be based in Pakistan – not the Middle East – if indeed the location of incorporation of one of the many companies in the pyramid can be said to be a base. Trembling put down any queries or ill feeling County provoked as being a kind of sour grapes, as being jealousy.

One wonders what Trembling would say about Formula One’s rejection of the QADBAK money in their notoriously cash strapped sport. Hardly the stuff of envy the main reason that F1 sent QADBAK packing was because – well – they could not find any money at the end of the trail they followed and had more of a care over the sanctity of their sport than The Football League had.

The Football League took in whatever investment came into Meadow Lane with glee and welcomed Sven-Goran Eriksson to the lower leagues of the game with a level of investigation which they have twice felt the need to reopen. Sol Campbell walked away from County complaining that not much was happening to suggest that there was a revolution in progress and talk emerges that Eriksson might end up at Cadiz sharing his time between the two clubs should he be paid a few million pounds he was promised.

The worry – the worry when words like “fraudster”, “pyramid” and “no money at the end of the trail” start to be banded about is that at some point of putting sums between accounts then there will be a case where the cupboard is bare and the League Two all-star – assembled from the high earners of clubs like City and from the division above – would in short order find that the patience, the sympathy, the regard for football’s oldest club had gone. The adage of being nice on the way up because one would meet those people on the way back would come into force with the caveat that the rise had been – potentially – rather shallow.

Perhaps though the Formula One investigation has found one thing and another is the case. Perhaps County with the six figure debt winding up orders, the questions from Sven, the walking out of Sol and so on and so forth are simply a business who do business that way. Messy, but above board.

All of which concerns City little. County come again for a fourth game at Valley Parade after new year and will have the usual squad of quality players because unless the unravelling some see happening at Meadow Lane is more rapid than anyone could predict. Nevertheless though there will be an effect on the Bantams, and on everyone in football.

If – as doom sayers looking at the County situation would predict – everything at Meadow Lane build since the summer turns into a weight to drag the oldest club out of existence then the credibility of the game both in League Two and beyond suffers.

The attempts of clubs to raise money are hampered by another football failure and the integrity of the competition is damaged by the collection of Ben Davies, Graeme Lee et al assembled on what would be in this scenario false pretences unbalancing the league.

Moreover though such a situation demands questions of the footballing authorities and the Football League itself which at the moment seems to be less well governed than an organisation headed by Max Mosley and allows clubs to be bought and paid for with wind and ghosts.

Perhaps then calls for proper regulation of clubs, of owners and of the money in the game at this level might reach levels where they can not be ignored.

Football League insults us and robs us blind

Football League Chairman Lord Mawhinney is warning football clubs to be careful with money and the patronising sod is saying…

People’s disposable income, what they’ve got to spend on other things once they deal with these fundamentals, is likely to decrease this year.

Once you have recovered from being told you have to pay your mortgage before you go to the football think about this. This weekend Rochdale are paying £20 to get ito Valley Parade and in a couple of weeks we will be paying £15 to get into Elland Road for what could well be a reserve game.

Lord Above-Us-All continues…

I have been a member of parliament for 26 years, and I understand the pressures on the budgets of ordinary people up and down the country.

Ordinary being the scum like us who follow teams up and down the country watching football. He understands the pressures on our budgets and knows that clubs might have to be careful cause fewer of us will be able to go pay the thick end of £20 plus travel, beers, programs and so on.

The Lord of Football tells us

My advice to our own clubs is that you should review your budgets, make sure they are as tight as possible and make sure you administer them as tightly as possible.

Yes. The man who runs the league that City are in is telling clubs to be careful with budgets cause they will not be able to rip people off as much which is what travelling to football is. A rip off. You pay more money to sit in worse seats to watch the same game as the people opposite you. That is an obvious rip off but we have no choice just like we had no choice about paying to get into our home ground before City changed things.

So why doesn’t Mawhinney do something impressive like recommend that if clubs are suffering they start trying to get more fans in rather than warning them that they can’t rip the other ones off as much? Why doesn’t he tell them all to follow City’s example?

And for that matter why don’t City do something about charging £20 to away fans which is stupidly high. We have the space for them. Why don’t we try charge them £10 and see if more come and hope they make more noise that could get City fans making more noise back?

But no. Mawhinny insults us and then tells clubs to be careful cause they can’t rob us as much as they used to. It is times like this that I’m pretty proud to be a City fan with our pricing and pretty ashamed of the people who run the game.

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