I cannot think of many football fans who really cared much about England’s friendly last month against Chile. Ticket sales, as is the case for home games at Wembley were impressive, but that is more to do with the FA’s encouraging ticketing policy, meaning that a family of four could see this one for less than it costs to share one seat at quite a few Premier League games, than an indication that such games are worth watching. This is the fourth international break of the football season so far, the fourth occasion that Premier League Betting had taken a break, and more importantly, the fourth time over half a million football fans had to look for alternative things to do on a Saturday.
The Non-League Day campaign held annually in September is also a great initiative in encouraging these fans to head to their local side and I hope they use these enforced breaks to go back again and again although average attendances figures from the respective international break in October suggests otherwise. But could the footballing authorities try something new?
Whilst few will ever admit it, other sports are much braver in introducing changes that improve their games for the spectators. Video technology has revolutionised cricket and rugby, and having seen the travesty of an appalling refereeing decision go against Lewes this week away to Bury Town, which ironically was caught on video but nothing can be done about it, it is time that it was used more widely in football. The sin bin, and challenges in other sports have allowed wrongs to be righted almost immediately.
But how about taking a leaf out of Rugby Union’s approach to dealing with weekends where International fixtures decimate their calendar. For seven weekends each season, the international fixtures mean that the clubs lose their star players. But do they simply send the rest of their squads off to Magaluf for the weekend? Of course not. They play their domestic cup competition.
The LV= Cup isn’t the top priority for clubs who are in European competition (i.e the whole of the Premiership in either the Heineken or Amlin Cups), whilst the Premiership is the bread and butter for them. But the LV= competition is perfect for the International weekends. Clubs have the chance to play some of their squad players, which leads to a more even playing field and thus more competitive games. Clubs discount tickets accordingly and everyone is a winner. So what could football learn?
Well, how about re-energizing a competition that has been declining in popularity year after year – the
Rumbelows/Milk/Worthington/Coca-Cola/Capital One/League Cup. Clubs have for seasons fielded weakened teams so what difference does it make if they put out a similar side when internationals are on? Attendances would be better, as they tend to be on a Saturday rather than a midweek night. Less than 59,000 watched Manchester United beat Norwich City 4-0 in the previous round, 33,000 at Newcastle United v Manchester City and less than 16,000 at the Stadium of Light. Comparable home games for the three after these ties saw 75,000, 51,000 and 40,000 for Premier League games where ticket prices were also substantially higher.
Whilst it is true that many Premier League clubs have squads full of internationals, they all have large enough squads to field a team for the competition and one that is beatable by the lower league teams which in turn increases the interest in all ties. And the more interest there is in the competition, the more the crowds come back and the magic of a competition that twenty five years ago was a much-loved part of our game will come back.
The League Cup was originally introduced as a sweetner for clubs already knocked out of the FA Cup but it soon was shifted so that most of the games were played before the big teams entered the FA Cup each January. Today, all of the magic has disappeared from the competition although it has still retained the original feature of a two-legged semi-final, where attendances are of normal Premier League standard, and clubs start to take it seriously. But it is the early rounds that need the boost. With four international weekends from August to December it would be quite easy to play the rounds up to the semi-finals of a weekend, with a final weekend break in March for the final.
But perhaps it’s too sensible. I’ll get my coat.