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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Comment: Why regionalising the EFL just won't work, and just won't happen

Comment: Why regionalising the EFL just won't work, and just won't happen

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karlypants

karlypants
Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
It was little more than an hour to kick-off and the floodlights at Cheltenham Town’s Whaddon Road hadn’t reached full luminosity back in late 2016.

Given the eerie quiet, I thought I was the only person in Gloucestershire who had remembered there was a Checkatrade Trophy game being played… And that somehow it was taking place in the Northern section of the draw.

In the event, 1,038 people turned up. Bolton lost 1-0 and I remember Max Clayton coming on as a sub in pouring rain. Little else sticks in the memory.

These are the peculiarities of a regional cup draw, and one of the reasons it would be a massive backwards step to consider adopting that policy in the league for the bottom two divisions.

Removing the long-distance trip, particularly in midweek, would be an appetising prospect for any football supporter, and indeed reporter.

But in debating regionalising the third tier you have to consider something other than comfort and examine the true practicalities of how football clubs operate, and how change would be actioned in the EFL.

Football’s third tier was split into northern and southern sections between 1921 and 1958. In that scenario, one club from each 24-team section was promoted, and two had to seek re-election as there was no formal agreement with the non-league to introduce new clubs.

One of the chief reasons for abandoning the idea was that seasons often became stifled post-January as clubs had little to play for – especially if they knew they would be re-elected.

If regionalisation were to work again, it would almost certainly require Championship teams to accept the idea of four teams being relegated each season, to allow at least two spots from North and South.

If those chances look slim, imagine also that you have to get the National League’s top division to agree to regionalise – or else suffer the same problems with competition unless more instant promotion slots were to open up.

Then we have the issue of latitude.

Each time new teams entered into mix via relegation pre-58, the geographical boundaries which separate ‘north’ and ‘south’ were affected.

Walsall, Coventry, Mansfield Town and Shrewsbury Town hopped between the two divisions – something which did little for their stability.

Problems with a regional approach are currently highlighted in National League North, where poor old Gloucester City, Hereford and Leamington are grouped in with the likes of Blyth Spartans, Gateshead and Boston United.

A big tick in the regional box is the potential of bigger crowds. It is fair to say that attendance figures in the 1950s were very healthy for clubs in Division Three North and South – and that in the years after four tiers were introduced, that some, like Gateshead and Accrington, fell by the wayside.

Whether that can be squarely pinned on attendances is a matter of debate.

The maximum wage for footballers increased from £14 in 1951 to £20 in 1958 and just a couple of years later Bolton’s own Tommy Banks was at the heart of move to abolish the ceiling altogether. The timing cannot be entirely coincidental.

And so it continues today. The vast majority of any club’s outgoings are wages and, in the case of many, such expenditure has spiralled way out of control.

Players – or staff – should not be made into pariahs. Worth is dictated by market forces and in this case it has been the ginormous sums of money poured into the Premier League by broadcast deals which has not been effectively distributed through the pyramid.

There is a strong argument to suggest that lower league clubs could save money on accommodation and travel expenses by keeping midweek travel to a minimum. If there is an algorithm that the fixture computer can find to prevent Tuesday night hikes down to Gillingham, Plymouth or Exeter City, I am all for it.

But a regionalised league would not mean clubs would ‘drive there and back on the same day’ – for that is simply not the way many professional teams work nowadays.

Shifting wholesale to Sunderland, Lincoln or Grimsby would require most clubs in the North West to organise an overnight stop, just the same as Southend or Stevenage.

The biggest factor counting against regionalisation, however, is that there just seems no real appetite for it.

Fleetwood chief executive Andy Pilley first brought up the conversation to the table last week, remarking: “It is worth considering a regionalised League One and League Two. Much as I like Gillingham, I don’t like going there on a Tuesday night, or Portsmouth on a Tuesday night. It makes no sense.”

Leyton Orient chairman Nigel Travis also believes it is something that should be very much considered, adding: “It hasn’t been debated at all at league level in the meetings we’ve been in and it’s an interesting one.

“I think Danny (Macklin) did the calculations that it would only save us a couple thousand a year, but it does bring local rivalries, so I for one with a personal view not the view of Leyton Orient, it’s an option we should consider.”

Oxford’s managing director Niall McWilliams took the opposite view.

“Personally I think it would be a backwards step,” he said. “In terms of costs it’s not significant.

“At different times Leeds have been in this division, as have Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn.

“Are we saying we’ll never get to go there to play?

“There’s nothing wrong with the structure and it’s not been mentioned on the EFL calls.

“For us we just want the status quo really and to finish the season.”

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