Plans are afoot for deciding how and when football will return to our lives and one of the options allegedly being considered is regionalisation of League One and Two.
We find ourselves living a strange ‘new normal’ at the moment, where the Coronavirus is touching everything in our lives, including football.
We have no idea when or how the beautiful game will return, and I have even less idea of when I will be seeing my friends again.
There has been lots of speculation, suggestions range from cramming the remaining season into 56 days, to playing the matches behind closed doors or, of course, cancelling it all together.
Whatever happens, this situation is expected to take its financial toll on many clubs, and for some it may mean they cannot survive into next season.
As a result, a proposal has been put forward that we consider introducing a North and South divide to the leagues below the Championship: an idea which fills me with a fear.
Recently, I was asked to share my thoughts on this with the East Anglian Daily Times, but it's such a lengthy discussion I have decided to share a little more detail below.
If the proposed changes were to take place it would make it much harder for me to attend games, the football supporting life I know and love might never return.
For those who don’t know, I moved from East Anglia to Yorkshire just over ten years ago and, though I struggle to make home games these days, I regularly attend away games – especially those in the north.
I understand the arguments put forward to support making these changes to the league, but here are my main arguments against it:
Not all fans live locally to their club
When the cup draw allotted us Manchester United away back in 2015, I finally got to see The Blues play at the famed Old Trafford for the first time in my life.
Though I was born in Ipswich, I grew up down the road in Cambridge. At secondary school, I was one of only three Ipswich fans in a sea of ‘Manchester United fans’.
So it was a game I could not miss and I was proud to hear the Town fans in fine voice, singing: ‘We support our local club’ to a packed stadium of United fans.
But the truth is, these days there are a great number of us who do not, in fact, support our local club.
In general, people are far more transient, many do not stay in their birth town for their whole life.
Perhaps because of their job, perhaps for university, perhaps – like me – they meet someone and settle down elsewhere.
In the suburbs of Leeds, where I live, there’s an army of Ipswich fans who travel to away games.
Even more so across Yorkshire and the whole of the north, we even have our own branch of the ITFC supporters club.
Conversely, there is some incredible support for the team from the south-west of the country in Bristol, Devon and even Cornwall.
And it’s not just Town, there are fans from every club in the country based up here in West Yorkshire, including Cambridge United.
One of those is a friend of mine, Chris Vessey, who I met at the Wetherspoons pub at Leeds train station on my way home from a northern away day.
He and his friend had just been to see the Amber Army play and it was great for me to meet a fellow East Anglian living in Leeds.
Given the fact the Amber Army have been reported as supporting the proposed regional changes and that Cambridge have experience of how the north/south divide can affect a club in East Anglia, I asked for his thoughts on this debate:
‘I couldn’t be more against it,’ he told me. ‘Whilst I can see the pros (e.g. initially higher attendances from more local fixtures), the cons heavily outweigh them.’
‘The beauty of following your team home and away in the lower leagues is those far-flung Tuesday night games at places like Carlisle and Exeter that you hold like a badge of honour.’
Chris points out this is the case for most clubs:
‘For instance, Carlisle have a 200 strong supporters club in London, hence why their away support down South is so good - why deprive them of 'local' games at Leyton Orient and Stevenage to name just two?’
Reducing this league to a regional one would have a huge impact on those of us who live a long way away and I’ve heard several of my northern Blues friends say they would no longer go to games if this were to happen.
It makes no sense
Supporters argue that making these changes would reduce travel costs for the clubs: teams would not only pay less for travel, but for accommodation and so on.
But, let’s be honest, wherever Town are playing, are they really going to depend on East Anglia’s oh-so-reliable dual carriageways to get them to games on time?
Would you want to leave Ipswich in the morning and travel up the A14 for a game at 3pm and risk getting stuck in one of the many stretches of roadworks?
Surely, it is more likely that clubs would want to stay overnight before a game to allow themselves to prepare properly.
What’s more, it’s probable that in a southern league we would have to travel to places like Plymouth and Exeter (which are over 300 miles away).
As lovely as it would be to head to the south coast for a day out, it is further away from Ipswich than Fleetwood (around 280 miles away), the club at the centre of this debate.
Cambridge United fan Chris agrees:
‘There are logistical problems, particularly for Cambridge, we have flitted between the North and South in both the League Cup draws and EFL trophy in recent years.’
‘In the National League North you have an imbalance in geography: Hereford, Gloucester, Leamington and Brackley are all in the north split – and those teams are as northern as jellied eels!’
Another example is Gateshead, who currently play in the National League North and have to travel to Hereford and Gloucester for their away games.
There is no way you could set the league up that doesn’t leave someone still having to travel a long way for games. It simply wouldn’t work.
It’s a step back
Did you know that back in 1957, back when there was a north/south divide in football’s Third Division, Ipswich Town won the league and were promoted? (Thanks to my Dad for the history lesson on that one!)
The following year, the regional divide was removed and the football league moved closer to the structure that we know today.
As much as I would love to re-live us winning a league, I’m not sure a return to the 50’s is really what football needs.
For one thing, only the champions from each region was promoted, there was no play off competition at all.
Play-off competitions aren’t universally popular, but without them you have the potential for one team to run away with the title early on and the rest of the league having nothing left to play for.
Let’s say this problem is countered and they do decide to run a play-off competition, perhaps with one additional team from each region going up, that would logically mean four clubs must be relegated from the Championship.
But what if those four clubs come from the same region? You’re going to end up with a situation where clubs have to move from one region to another each year, something that has happened with Coventry in the past, as well as Cambridge as Chris explained.
It’s not clear who supports the proposal
It does appear that this is simply speculation from some sections of our media, research shows there doesn’t seem to be any official support for the suggestion.
Fleetwood chairman Andy Pilley has been widely credited with pushing the idea during an interview with the BBC, but even he has clarified on Twitter that he didn’t actually suggest this is the right way to go.
What he did say is that all options should be considered, which is understandable and sensible – I just hope the idea is vetoed swiftly.
Conversely, Gillingham boss Steve Evans has added his vote to the ‘for’ column, claiming: ‘I have said privately for many years that if you did it north and south there would be more interest.’
Frankly, anything Steve Evans agrees with goes down as a bad idea in my book.
It’s not solving the main problem in football
I understand that football is a business and huge changes are going to need to be made after social distancing restrictions have been lifted if it is to survive this challenging time.
But I can’t help feeling this is sticking a plaster over the matter and hoping the actual problems in football will magically go away.
For a long time now, finances in football have been cause for concern and wide debate, most clubs run at a loss and many in the lower leagues are facing going out of business altogether.
The gap between the Premier League and the Championship is vast. Likewise, as we have seen this year, there is a huge gulf in quality between the Championship and League One.
Wouldn’t adding regional leagues simply make that divide even bigger? Even harder to overcome?
The Football League is already top-heavy when it comes to finances, this season alone we’ve seen Bury and Bolton face extinction in an extraordinary situation which included a Wanderers team of youth players pitted against our newly relegated team of Championship stalwarts.
In his interview with the BBC, Andy Pilley raised exactly this point, suggesting that better control on player’s wages is what is really needed to help clubs become more sustainable.
To my mind, the regional league ignores the core problem in football at the moment and will only lead to more problems down the road.
The suggested changes to the league would change the face of football forever, and not in a good way. I for one will be hoping it never happens.