I am in a favor of the 39th game (audible gasp). By that I don’t mean each team should play an extra round of fixtures tagged on somewhere in an already congested season that would ultimately imbalance the entire league structure and everything we hold dear about equality, fairness and the unbiased (cough) nature of the Premier League fixture list. The 39th game hoopla seems to have slipped away recently but I wouldn’t bank it not returning in some other guise in the not too distant future if the likes of Richard Scudamore and Ian ‘why can’t the big clubs get paid more?’ Ayre have their way.
If we are ever to reach a juncture when the Premier League must decide between further expansion or a self-imposed isolation, I have what I believe to be a pretty decent proposition for all concerned. Each summer Premier League sides head off into the far flung corners of the world, scrambling for American and, more importantly, Asian currency, hoping to sate the appetite of the overseas fans with a momentary glimpse of their idols. Manchester United spent last summer in the States competing against a host of Europe’s top names in Houston, Seattle and other such places in what were billed as showpiece events for the native audience but attracted little more than a passing glance from those of us in the UK. That was obviously the point. The United hierarchy want the diehard fan from Kentucky to continue buying the latest away strip every 12 months, believing a friendly or two will do the trick.
United are far from alone in this. Chelsea and Aston Villa competed for the Premier League Asia Trophy in Malaysia whilst Blackburn recently flew half way round the world to play an Indian select side. For these teams it is purely a simply a business decision designed to develop their markets in up to recently untapped territories. My proposal is that these pre-season games be developed further into something tangible, an exciting curtain raiser that would have real impact on the league table without compromising the integrity of said league.
The proposal would be this:
At the end of each Premier League season, the 20 teams would be split into 5 groups of 4. Which group each team would enter would be dependent on their final standing in the table. For example, going by the final places for the 2010-11 season the first group would contain; Manchester United (1st), Liverpool (6th), West Brom (11th) and Wigan (16th). Each of the 5 groups would have representatives 5 league positions apart to allow for an even spread. These teams would face off in a semi-final before going on to the final two or three days later. Each 4 team mini-tournament would take place in a different host city around the globe; Sydney, Tokyo etc and be played across the week/weekend of the terminal irrelevance that is the Community Shield. The 5 winners would each receive 3 points, the beaten finalist 1 point and the beaten semi-finalists no points. These points would be added to the league table for the upcoming season.
Here’s why it would work:
1) The obvious financial boon is the reason the 39th game was contemplated in the first place and why it will never truly go away. English clubs would be heavily compensated in terms of TV money, gate receipts and the chance to expand their markets into previously untapped territories. The winning bid from the host city would also be split evenly between the 4 competing sides.
2) The exposure for the smaller clubs. Naysayers pointed out that few in Bangkok might fork out good money to watch Stoke play West Brom in a glorified friendly match but if at least one of the big boys was guaranteed to be in the town each year and real points were at stake this wouldn’t be much of an issue.
3) The likes of Wigan or Swansea would have a real chance to turn over one of the bigger clubs and get a head start in the league that season. Yes, over 38 games the richest clubs usually win out but over a two game series anything is possible and 3 points before a ball is kicked in regular season for a team of lesser means could make a huge difference in terms of relegation etc.
4) Overseas fans outnumber the native fans for many of the bigger English clubs these days and I think it’s time they were truly rewarded for their loyalty and willingness to continue buying the overpriced merchandise. A South Korean Spurs supporter is just as valid in my book as an Arsenal fan from South Wales and would most likely jump at the chance of watching their idols up close in a match that actually meant something for a change.
5) The prospect of points would surely snare a British audience and would act as an intriguing curtain raiser, a chance to watch the new signings in a competitive environment.
6) Fixture congestion is certainly an issue but not a great one. Two extra games tagged on to a pre-season that already involves multiple games, countries and time zones would make little difference. Easing the load could come from abolishing FA Cup replays after the Third Round and using some of the new dates created by the relaxing of the international friendly timetable.
7) The 5 tournaments played over 7 nights in early to mid-August would create a real event to rival anything offered by the NFL or even that of the Champions League in some respects.
The Italians have already stolen something of a march on the Premier League by hosting the SuperCoppa Italia out in Beijing in recent years and there is a danger that if we don’t do something the satisfy the overseas demand for top quality football then someone else will and it may too late by then to join the party. I can’t say that I revel in the idea of a football league without borders that forgets its own culture and beginnings as I believe it is that culture that makes English football so attractive to fans, wherever they may hail from. However, we do not want to be left behind and if there has to be a 39th game, then I’d prefer that it was done right instead of simply plonking a United/Liverpool game in Dubai in the middle of February.
So, Scudamore, there we have it. I don’t really want just a 39th game but a 40th too if possible.