Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blogathon: Fighting against big team mentality

Absolutely delighted to welcome blogging legend and French football's main man Andrew Gibney to the party this hour.

Indefatigable, Andrew can be found all over the internet including The Mirror's football blog and, nominated as one of the year's best new blog, French Football Weekly.

Follow him @AGibneyFtbl

Here's Andrew on relegation issues in France and England:

From years of following Scottish football you get drawn into a malaise of comfort-ability. No matter what happens in a one goes up, one goes down system, there is rarely any major changes.

They may not show it but the big teams know that without a complete collapse, they will be playing in the same division season after season. Surely the fear of going down is the one that makes you want to do better.

If you travel south you find a bigger sense of change. England's top flight sees three go up and three go down. This can lead to a few shocks, successful big teams can drop and smaller un-fancied teams can rise.

One downside to this method is the creation of the yo-yo team. Promotion one season then relegation the next, teams are happy to go up and down, without the fear of total collapse. Part of this is down to the parachute payments teams received, making sure they are competitive for a few years to come.

Around mainland Europe the conditions for promotion seem very similar; every league has their yo-yo teams. Without a safety net though there can be hazardous permutations for the clubs that fall.

In England the popularity of local big city sides makes for a vast amount of quality teams. You only have to realise that two of England's biggest cities, Bristol and Sheffield haven't had a representative in the top flight since Sheffield United were relegated in 2007.

There is no doubt that both Sheffield clubs have the facilities and fan-base to be successful Premier League clubs. However with so many huge well supported clubs in one country not everyone can always eat from the top table.

England is not the only country to see teams falter. Most top European countries have seen their so called “big names” playing outside the top division but are these teams too big to being mixing it with the lower leagues. Be it Deportivo in Spain who not so long ago where a Champions League club, Sampdoria in Italy or most recently Monaco in France all through bad fortunes or bad management dropped out of a division that they once classed as a permanent home.

The question is: Do so called big teams have a right to be in the top division, or does your league place fully represent your overall quality as a club?

In Ligue 1 this is a very interesting topic. Currently in the second division you can find not just former league champions but former European Cup finalists. There is an argument for teams like Nantes, RC Lens and now AS Monaco that Ligue 1 would be better if you swapped them with the unfashionable teams like Dijon, Evian, Ajaccio and Brest.

Lens are a great example, no matter what the game, no matter what league, they will always come close to filling the Stade Felix Bollaert. They have as any Lens fan will tell you "The best fans in France". Ligue 1 would easily be more vibrant and exciting place with Les Sang et Or it doesn't however give them any divine right to be there.

The same can be said for FC Nantes, it one point the former champions were one of the best teams in France. Due to mis-management and bad results.they find themselves for the third time trying to make it back to Le Championnat.

Why should they have anymore right to play at the Stade Gerland or Stade Velodrome than Brest or Ajaccio, who on tiny budgets relied on excellent management and organisation to climb out of the second division. They may not have the history or prestige of Nantes or Monaco but they are obviously better run clubs to currently play at that higher level.

This season Monaco was expected to bounce straight back up. However they have endured a terrible start to the season at sit rock bottom of Ligue 2. Even Nantes and Lens are struggling to fight their way back up the ladder. This season it has been the usual mid-table sides Clermont Foot and Stade de Reims that have shown the most quality and currently lead the way in France's second division.

If French football followed England's lead and offered the teams going down extra payments to stay afloat you probably wouldn't have seen so many of the recent success stories, and in my eyes you wouldn't enjoy the competitiveness that the league currently enjoys.

West Ham United’s recent struggle and demotion really does little harm to the teams day to day business. As long as they get back up within a couple of years there will be no great damage done. And with so many competitive teams in the Championship it is not exactly the black hole it’s made out to be.

On the flip side in France this summer saw the demise of Strasbourg and Grenoble, both of which were playing in Ligue 1 only two seasons ago. Their lack of success and protection payments caused catastrophic problems to their finances, then under the strict guidance of the DNCG sanctions were handed out. Strasbourg were demoted and Grenoble went bankrupt.

Clubs have no right to play in the top division just because of who they are. In Ligue 1 Valenciennes, Lorient and Brest don't have the prestige of others but they deserve to be where they are through hard work and excellent management.

Perhaps in England if they scrapped the parachute payments taking away that safety net, teams might think twice before haemorrhaging money at players or wages and sensible planning and forward thinking might takeover.

Leagues might be more of an attractive product with the so called big traditional teams filling the league tables, personally I would rather have the fairytale stories of well run teams breaking into the top flight and making their own piece of history.

For the demise of Monaco, Nantes ans Lens, give me Valenciennes, Brest and Lorient.

And here's my response on how I think Scottish football might handle a relegation "revolution:"

Fear.

That's the dominant force in Scotland's footballing climate.

Our football clubs are run as businesses. But they're shoddy businesses. The dragons in their den would tell them to do one.

The comfort of our big clubs in the top flight isn't all that comfortable. It's survival.

The club's talk about league reconstruction but what they want, in their hearts, is to raise the drawbridge, hunker down and tell the rest to go on play in the traffic.

Relegation matters to Scottish clubs because they don't have the financial comfort of massive parachute payments and they can take a time to resurface.

That's another thing about a one up-one down system. If you do drop through the exit there's limited scope for making mistakes in your attempts to get back up.

French fairytales are all well and good. But our fairytales tend to feature big, bad wolves.

Remember Livingston's plummet. Or the greatest fairytale of all, Gretna, turning into the greatest nightmare of all.

There's an issue with the Scottish footballing psyche as well: "Surely the fear of going down is the one that makes you want to do better."

Or, indeed, one that makes you want to not lose. Which might be a measure of doing better but doesn't always provide the flowing football that put bums on seats.

Remember the ten team days of the late 80s? There was some amount of crap to watch in those days. At least these days those fans that do show up can watch in a degree of comfort.

But Andrew's absolutely right. Stagnation - and that's what one-up and one-down in a 12 team league gives us - is bad for the game.

Solutions?

Stick with 12 teams for a period of, say, three years. The chances are we're all going to take a hit on TV revenues so for that period include in the split of the TV revenues the top four teams in the First Division each season.

And introduce two up, two down. Not play offs. Bottom two are oot. Top two replace them.

Yes, play-offs are exciting and thrilling and they have them in England and Neil Doncaster thinks they might be a good idea. We've had them before, they were largely not that exciting, didn't attract masses of coverage and somebody should buy Neil Doncaster a bloody history book so he doesn't think he's reinventing the wheel with every fecking idea he comes up with.

That's that rant over. It's been building.

And, then, see how it goes. Say from the outset it's a trial period and that it will be reviewed.

Then measure how it affects attendances, how it affects the attitude of First Division teams who would suddenly be playing for two promotion spots and a much bigger financial prize for finishing in third or fourth.

And measure how it affects the teams in the bottom six of the SPL, with a third of their number under threat, and how that would make the race for the top six more exciting.

And see what happens to the two relegated teams. Would they suffer the same financial problems or would the extra promotion place and extra cash buy them more breathing space?

If it worked then it would surely show that a larger league would be sustainable.

If it didn't, well, it was an experiment that was tried with the best interests of football at heart.

It might offer us affordable fairytales - they tend to be the best type - and it would breathe some new life into our top league.

It wouldn't be the French way or the English way. It would be our way.

But it might just give us our own Valenciennes, Brest or Lorient.

And crucially it wouldn't be billed as a "footballing revolution" that would "save the game."

We wouldn't need to jump in feet first and then find out that, actually, the revolution wasn't all that after all.

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