THE END OF THE LOWER LEAGUES? PART 3: HI HO SILVER LINING!

At Wembley on this late May Bank Holiday we have the third play-off final between Aston Villa and Frank Lampard’s Derby County. It’s also referred to as the £160m game and is the ultimate high-stakes, cliff-edge encounter where the winner literally takes all the spoils. For the loser, it’s having to face up to not having that money and another season in The Championship. The third and final part of our play-off special blog looking at the future of football outside of the Premier League asks if that is really such a bad thing.

For the winner of today’s match, money will not be a concern for a while. They’ll not only pocket considerable riches for just being a part of the Premier League but also be caught by their parachute if it’s all gone downhill by this time next year.

Yet both clubs involved have had to cut their financial cloth in recent seasons and one will have to keep doing so after the final whistle. It’s the stark reality when such a large gap emerges between the two leagues. The ‘prize’ is so great that it inadvertently diminishes the light above second place. After all, not only is the Championship one of the best-supported leagues in the world but also one of the most exciting and compelling.

Yet the lure of the Premier League will always entice many an owner; it’s inevitable that some will sail too close to the rocks. But we also don’t see many clubs ‘go to the wall’. There is usually a buyer waiting in the wings because football’s ‘financial problem’ is also its potential savior – for now anyway. A club in financial difficulties will still likely be purchased by someone else who wants to buy a lottery ticket in the hope that one day ‘it could be them’ who ends up in the Premier League.

The introduction of tighter rules and testing has already seen some clubs punished as the league attempts to safeguard against mis-management by owners whose heads have been turned. Now that Norwich and Sheffield United have shown that the journey can be made without going via Fort Knox, it may help to convince others that they can do it another way.

That’s the silver lining on this grey cloud that the Independent feel is hovering over the lower leagues. It isn’t only boom or bust.

Where all clubs have to begin to draw lines in future is under players’ wages. In the lower leagues, large transfer fees are rare and still a one-off outlay that is unlikely to kill the club but wages, paid monthly over two, three or four years can be crippling. If that practice isn’t slowed or reversed, then it’s easy to see more entries into administration or even the liquidation of some clubs. That’s why any club in any league that can’t guarantee they’ll be in the Premier League ad infinitum needs to rethink.

The Independent’s article gives them little chance, but this is based on the assumption that that next generation of fans only have two passions – either watching the top clubs or playing for them on the latest version of FIFA.

And that’s doing everyone a disservice. For a start, Premier League football is – through location or financially – out of reach for many youngsters and their parents. Top flight football is awash with football tourism; causing prices to soar and the average fan to be priced out.

That’s not another nail in the coffin of lower league clubs but a massive opportunity to fill a void that the Premier League has created. But they have to stop throwing their all into trying to emulate Manchester City and Liverpool and begin focusing on what makes them different.

Some already do this. As I said earlier more are following suit. Football, at a local level, can be about so much more than Premier and Champions League glory. Imagine a football club as a place where the community get together. Imagine parents taking (or dropping off if they are older) their children because it’s a safe, enjoyable form of entertainment for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. Imagine going to a place where you can eat healthy locally-produced food, have a choice of beverages that suit all budgets and tastes and get to meet your heroes – some of them local born lads who resonate far more with kids than headphone-wearing millionaires.

Rather than worry about competing with the EPL and UCL, it’s worth also remembering that very rarely do the ‘big’ games take place on a Saturday at 3pm. And many of the lower league fixtures will be more attractive and relevant than Bournemouth versus Watford anyway. So, take the Premier League status issue away for a second, and it’s really about marketing and attracting fans – the next generation especially – to these games.

Football outside the top division can be more than just an alternative to the money, money, money approach. It can be an antidote. And none of this means that clubs can’t still get to the ‘promised land’ – but that they and their fans will have a much better experience along the way.

If it isn’t promotion or nothing; if the game is equally a focal point for the community and a shared passion for grandfathers, fathers, mothers and the generations below them, then football in the lower leagues could be a conduit for starting to repair a divisive, socially-damaged nation rather than becoming another victim.

Think the football fan’s win-at-all-costs hunger for success hampers that hope? Maybe it does today, but just as the world changes, so does the football fan. The type that puts winning over anything else is still there at the moment – spouting bile on social media after a defeat or booing at the concession of a corner – but in fifty-years, they’ll all be dead anyway.

The next lot of fans won’t bay for blood quite so quickly. They have been nurtured in an environment that cares about things more, has other – more significant – priorities and that sees sport for what it really is; only a game.

It’s why they love playing FIFA. The Independent’s article sees this as a symptom of impending doom. It doesn’t have to be. For clubs, it can be a way of connecting with fans in a new way and bridging the gap between the online and offline experience.

Done well, kids can go to games to play FIFA rather than not go because of it. If they can play on consoles at the stadium – with their friends instead of being stuck alone in their bedrooms – it connects them with the club and if they are lucky, as already available at some EFL clubs, they might get to play it with squad players from the team itself.

Tell me that isn’t a USP worth shouting about.

FIFA isn’t just about the Messi’s, Ronaldo’s and Neymar’s of this world. If that was the case then I’d be more worried but let’s give kids and their parents (the ones who buy the tickets, remember?) a little more credit than that.

We recently had a family go to their first match at an EFL club as part of our assessment programme. They had a great time, visiting the fan zone, seeing plenty of entertainment that was in addition to the 90 minutes of footballing action. They ate well, they parked close by, they interacted with mascots and they absolutely loved it. Yes, the home team won on this occasion but that didn’t make a huge difference; in an assessment earlier in the season, the experience was scored equally highly and the team lost 4-1.

After the second visit, the parent told us that the first thing their child did when they got home was to switch on their PS4, start up FIFA19 and begin a career at the club they’d visited. For the record, that club was Swansea City.

The Swans finished tenth in their first season out of the Premier League since 2011. They had to sell their best players to balance the books. They’ve had their manager poached by a ‘bigger’ club and some of their young rising stars will possibly go the same way.

Did all their fans disappear? No. Their average attendance was less than a thousand people below what it was in the top division the season before.

The club didn’t die because they weren’t in the Premier League any more. Fans didn’t abandon them because they weren’t in the ‘biggest league’ any longer. But the club knew knew they had to adapt to their new surroundings too. They had to change.

The rest of the clubs – who haven’t already – will too.

Apart from anything else, they won’t have any choice.