What hope for promotion and relegation?

Marconi, one of the most successful and eminent clubs in the now defunct National Soccer League, were last year relegated from the NSW Premier League into what is effectively Australia’s third tier of football.

Perth Glory
You could have been forgiven for feeling a touch of sadness at this even if you weren’t a supporter of the 58-year old club domiciled in the western Sydney suburb of Bossley Park.

But here’s the good news. By winning the NSW Premier League2 this coming season the club can bounce straight back into the state’s top tier, replacing another club which will get relegated.

Tell that story to supporters of North Queensland Fury, Gold Coast United and New Zealand Knights, A-League clubs which were shut down, erased and are now defunct, never to return.

The A-League, you see, has no promotion and relegation. Its doors are, it seems, permanently shut to the prospect of its losing clubs going down and the winning clubs of a lower division coming up, a concept intrinsic to football all around the world for a century and a half.

This despite the fact that promotion/relegation is FIFA's policy for domestic competitions. This despite the fact that in 2008, when FIFA adopted the policy, the FFA pledged that the introduction of promotion/relegation was to be part of the A-League’s future strategy.

In 2008, after the FIFA Congress held in Sydney, both Frank Lowy, FFA chairman, and FFA CEO Ben Buckley promised that promotion/relegation was part of the governing body’s vision.

"Promotion and relegation is the lifeblood of the game, so we can't ignore it and we won't ignore it. By the time the (2018) World Cup comes there will be promotion and relegation, we will probably have a lot more teams and ... I believe we are going to move forward in big steps, as we are now," Lowy said at the time.

Yet in 2016 the prospect of introducing the concept for the A-League is as far off as ever. Early last year the FFA released its bold Whole of Football Plan, a 106 page document which will act as the holy book on how the FFA guides the game forward in forthcoming decades.

In it there is but one solitary mention of promotion/relegation. On page 84, in the section dealing with the composition of the A-League it says the following:

A-League competition expansion will come as a product of sustainable commercial growth, via a managed process of ‘in and out’ as circumstances arise, rather than a relegation and promotion system based purely on results. This is critical to retain the strategic market placement of clubs which underpins the commercial viability of the league.

Strip away the business jargon and read into this that, moving forward, results and excellence or failure on the field of play will have no bearing on who takes part in our top league. We, namely the FFA, will decide who takes part purely based on business considerations.

At the 2008 FIFA Congress, after the promotion/relegation resolution was moved, a delegate from the United States got up to argue that no investor in fledgling leagues would put his or her money into a club that stood the risk of being relegated from the top tier after a set of bad results. He was shouted down by a delegate from another country who bellowed that football was not just about business and money.

I concur with the latter. Football today is more about business and money than ever before but that doesn’t mean it should be. It should remain primarily about football and promotion/relegation should be part of it for a number of reasons.

1) It’s about opportunity and growing the game. We, surely, want more clubs and players in football and not less.

When I was a 15 year old I joined a fledgling club as a junior player in my local suburb. The club was founded just a couple of weeks before. When the club president addressed the players before training he said: ‘Make no mistake, I plan to steer this club to be the biggest and strongest in the country, right at the top of Australian football.’

Such a conversation cannot take place today given that the A-League is a closed shop. The opportunity, the right to dream that promotion/relegation provides is in Australia denied to fledgling clubs.

Just a few years ago Sydney club Hakoah was languishing in the NSW amateur echelons. Last year the Jewish community club was promoted into the state’s top tier, the NSWPL. An elated Hakoah fan told me, ‘Next stop, the A-League.’ I replied, ‘Not with that name.’

2) It's unnatural not to have promotion/relegation in the A-League’s future.

In football just as there have to be trophies and rewards for the winners there should be repercussions and consequences for the losers. Otherwise why avoid losing?

After all, so it is in life. If you or I do well and get results in our jobs we will get a raise and a promotion. If we do badly and fail we get fired. These are golden rules in life and so they should be in sport.

At the moment the Central Coast Mariners sit at the bottom of the A-League ladder with a paltry 12 points, having lost 16 of their 22 games. With the top six now out of their reach and ten points behind second last Wellington they are destined to stay there. In any other country (except the United States) they would be doomed for the drop.

But the Mariners go through their motions, week in and week out, seemingly unruffled by their fate. The job of their coach, Tony Walmsley, is as safe as houses. Why? Because they are not in danger of being relegated.

This is unnatural and unhealthy for a quality competition.

As recently as a few days ago FFA chief executive David Gallop again confirmed that .

The arguments against introducing promotion/relegation are understood, including by me. It is not an easy problem to solve, not by a long shot.

Is there a middle ground that offers clubs outside the A-League hope and the prospect of losers suffering the consequences of losing?

Perhaps a way forward would be a system where the right of a club to remain in the A-League after finishing last is evaluated and assessed under the threat that, if it fails that assessment, it gets replaced. Such a scheme would require clubs outside the league being ready as commercial entities to come in. We can loosely call this non-automatic promotion and relegation.

As an example, if this system was now in existence, aspiring clubs from say southern Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra, would be ready to go, complete with political backing, funding, playing facilities and management structures in place.

Indeed, in my view, even now the FFA should encourage such new consortiums to spring up and get themselves ready to join the A-League if only to put pressure on existing clubs that finish last on the table. This would only be healthy for the league.

Another way forward could be the creation of a second division, as has been done in Japan, perhaps along a little more modest commercial lines than the A-League, with automatic promotion and relegation introduced at the same time.

Many will argue that Australia, where football has to compete with powerful other sports for market share, doesn’t have the market size to carry two professional divisions. I am not so sure.

Many countries much smaller than Australia have multiple professional divisions, not two but often three or four. Would say a ten team second division be viable? That would make 20 professional football clubs across a country of 24 million people. That’s one club for every 1.2 million people. Surely that is doable.

Nobody denies that introducing a promotion/relegation system that would be commercially viable is a huge challenge. But resting on laurels, allowing the present system to go on without any ambition to change it, is no way of rising to that challenge.

As President John F. Kennedy said in his famous 1962 speech, ‘We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.’

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8 min read
Published 10 March 2016 at 9:19am
By Les Murray