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Storm Brews Over Plans for Phoenix League
By: Denis Campbell
FOR over a century every town in the land, from Plymouth to Montrose and from Southend to Stranraer, has boasted the local heroes of its football team through thick and thin.
But now that rich tradition is at risk. A planned revolution in the structure of British soccer could put dozens of the English game's oldest names out of business and reduce Scottish football to a wasteland.
Under a plan revealed yesterday, British football would be re-organised into a two-division English Premiership that would also include Celtic and Rangers, Scotland's dominant clubs.
An alliance of English clubs is pushing to create an elite league that would grab most of the vital television and sponsorship money and leave every other club on both sides of the border fighting for its future. They want the new set-up, called the Phoenix League, to start as early as next season.
A number of England's medium-sized clubs are behind the plan, including Premiership side Southampton and Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City of the Football League. They believe that unless they share in the vast commercial success enjoyed by the top clubs in the Premiership, their futures will be under threat. The latter trio, plus Manchester City, Birmingham City and Wolves, are reportedly planning to resign from the Football League before the end of the year, a move that would allow them to play in the new structure from next August.
'This is all about money,' explained one of those involved, 'especially the growing inequality in the distribution of income from television and elsewhere between the Premiership and the Football League.'
Under the scheme, the Premiership would be cut to 18 clubs with those dropping out joining a new 'Premiership Two', which would also involve some of the First Division's bigger names, while the Glasgow duo would abandon Scotland to join too.
The blueprint could, however, spell the end for all but a handful of Scottish clubs and for the fallen giants of English football, now languishing in the Second and Third Divisions, such as Stoke City and Blackpool, for whom the great Stanley Matthews played half a century ago.
The idea has caused huge controversy within football. The Premier League has dismissed the plan as 'complete nonsense' and insisted 'there is no prospect of a restructuring of the Premier League'.
However, smaller Premiership clubs, such as Fulham and Charlton Athletic, back the plan. Charlton's chief executive Peter Varney has been canvassing support among top-flight clubs, especially the 10 or 12 that are most likely to be relegated. They all want to avoid the huge drop in income - a loss of about Â£20 million a season - which slipping into the First Division now involves.
At the moment none of England's four biggest clubs - Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leeds United - has been invited to join the new set-up, but their attitudes will be vital as without them television companies would not back the venture.
The Football League, meanwhile, is against a plan that potentially would kill it off. League chairman Keith Harris is furious that some leading League clubs have been plotting an initiative which, while benefiting them, would seriously damage all those clubs not involved.
The proposals are likely to be debated at this Thursday's meeting of the 72 Football League clubs, which one insider said 'will now be a tinderbox'. Questions will be asked about the involvement in planning the Phoenix League of Bradford chairman Geoffrey Richmond, who sits on the League's ruling board.
Everyone involved admits there are huge practical problems to be overcome before the Phoenix League could become reality. Clubs in the Premiership will resist any restructuring that sees TV income shared between 36 rather than the existing 20 clubs. And there are fears that involving the 'Old Firm' clubs - Celtic and Rangers - could lead to a return of hooliganism.
Neither club could be contacted yesterday but the Scottish Premier league, in which they play, said: 'We have not received any notification to quit from either of the Old Firm clubs.'
Reproduced by arrangement with:
Denis Campbell, sports news correspondent
Sunday November 25, 2001
Read the Fishy's report on the Phoenix League Proposal Click here
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