While many know Richard Scudamore as the Chief Executive of the Premier League, many more would probably know him as “That guy who keeps talking about a 39th game.” After a good long run in the papers last year, the 39th game proposal has been mostly out of the news for a while now. But make no mistake: If Scudamore and the Premier League can find a way to make it happen, they will.
For the most part, the 39th game opponents have derided the idea as a meaningless match, claiming that the balance of the schedule is lost with an odd number of games. Other opponents have argued that since the idea often included matches abroad, the local fans were being short changed. However, the last two seasons in particular have offered a great opportunity for Scudamore to slide in a palatable compromise that opens the door to a full-blown extra set of fixtures.
Last year, the league title came down to the very last day of the season. A spirited Bolton side drew Chelsea to provide a comfortable cushion between the runners-up and the Champions. But had Chelsea taken one more of the chances on offer in their final game, the title would have been settled, distastefully, on goal difference. Fergie often talked of goal differential as an extra point toward the end of last year, and knew he could afford to lose at Stamford Bridge and still take all the glory if United ran the table against lesser opponents. This seems to undermine the significance of the big “title decider” matchups.
This year, Manchester United lead by a point and have a game in hand, but a revitalized Liverpool could very well make up the possible four points and leave us with a title decided on goal differential. Now consider this: if Manchester United were to beat Liverpool to the Premiership title only on goal difference, they would have taken zero points off the nearest rivals, and been outscored 6-2 head to head. They would have been well beaten every time they faced the runners-up in Premiership competition. Just how convincingly can you sing “Championes” under those conditions? Sure it’s a victory, but it ranks up there with a three party election where you win a minority government: you outpaced your opponents, but if you were to try to rule in an uncompromising fashion, you’d find out quickly that a vast majority didn’t want you running the show in the first place.
Every time this discussion comes up, the traditionalists pooh-pooh any change, talking about the league being a marathon, calls evening out, and the season being a fine determiner of whom the worthy champions are. The idea of a playoff to decide the crown? Preposterous!
Well, get over it. How many times have you heard a football heavyweight roll out something along the lines of “If someone told me back in August that we could have one game to decide it all…” Many of us have heard ourselves reciting that very line when the season is winding down and a big clash is coming up. It’s why we love the FA Cup. We’ve been programmed through Champions League viewing to appreciate a winner take all season ender. It’s a logical next step, if needed.
Regardless of the huffing and puffing of Premiership gatekeepers (proudly upholding the ancient traditions of Premiership football since 1992!) playoffs are already a part of the English game. For the lower league promotion races they’re wildly popular, and fairly lucrative for the teams involved, seeing as they’re almost “free games” – the players, minus appearance and bonus payments, receive a set amount of money via contract, but a successful club scores a few more gates along the way to playoff success. Even if you don’t win promotion, you’ve gained some extra revenue. No doubt, a good look at the books would prove that the revenue generated from long, albeit fruitless, playoff runs helped Leeds sort out their troublesome finances.
With the FA Cup incorporating shootouts, it’s pretty clear that many of the English traditions of the game, for better or for worse, have slid by the wayside. Deciding a title, European competition, or relegation on goals scored and conceded should too. In fact, goal difference is such a flimsy way to settle ties that not every league agrees to use it. In Serie A, for example, the first tiebreaker is head to head competition. It could still come down to a goal difference situation, but at least it’s goals between the teams that matter, not a game of “we put five past Stoke, what did you do against West Brom?” The truly preposterous notion in all of this is the possibility that you could lose the league simply because your club got stuck playing a bottom feeder in a snowstorm while your main rivals got to play them in the sunshine of September or May.
So, if the bigwigs at Premiership headquarters have their thinking caps on, they could establish the following:
- If two teams tie on points in a situation where a prize of significance is on the line, the two shall play off at the venue of the higher-tabled team. This way goal difference is still means something, but it’s given its proper weight – used to offer an advantage, not the be-all and end-all.
- A prize of significance is determined to be a position that gains you privilege in football, such as league status (re: avoiding relegation), the Championship, a Champions’ League position, a preferred CL position (i.e. automatic group qualification vs. qualifiers) or a Europa League position. As the years roll on and the idea gathers acceptance, you could expand this to all positions in the table, since positioning entitles clubs to a larger slice of TV revenue.
- In the case of three level teams, 2 and 3 play off at the home pitch of “Club 2”, the winner to take on “Club 1” at “Club 1”. If four are tied, 3 hosts 4, 2 hosts winner, and so on.
Depending on the number of matches, the Premiership could schedule these one-offs starting on the Tuesday after the final Saturday (yes, push the last day of the season back to Saturday) of the season, to conclude on the Friday night before the Cup Final. If a Cup finalist is involved in the 39th games, their game gets moved to Tuesday. If both finalists are involved, then English Premiership fans get treated to a Tuesday doubleheader. High drama ensues!
The odds work against a lot of matches occurring under these circumstances, but all you need is one that grabs the imagination and whets the appetite of the football population to get the ball rolling. As seen in the Football League, the extra matches are exceedingly popular and undoubtedly, a Liverpool v Manchester United – for all the glory – is the perfect way to send football fans off on summer hols itching for the next kick of the ball. After all, if someone came up to me in August and offered me one game for success…