Promotion and relegation changes up for debate as Premier League and EFL talk

In the coming weeks, the government white paper that outlines the path to an independent regulatory body is due to be released. With that in mind, the Premier League and the EFL have resumed negotiations on a range of topics, including but not limited to financial distribution, fixture congestion, and the potential to align the number of teams promoted and relegated from all divisions. It appears there is an effort to self-regulate before the new authority is established. It is logical and sensible for the leagues to discuss collective issues and come to agreements, rather than have their hands weakened by individual rule-making.

Regarding promotion, League Two is the obvious outlier, with four teams being promoted and two relegated for no discernible reason. I believe a revised system with three teams promoted and three relegated is worth exploring but only as part of the negotiations on the broad range of issues set out by the Fairgame initiative, of which Grimsby are a founding member. This would have a knock-on effect of allowing three teams to be promoted from the National League, where many of the teams have the history, infrastructure, support and financial means to be in the EFL.

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You only have to look at three of the promotion-chasing clubs in the National League at the moment: Chesterfield can trace their origins back to 1867, Wrexham play at the Racecourse Ground, one of the world’s oldest international stadiums, and Notts County were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888. Add to that their average attendances and it’s not hard to argue that they are bigger than some League One and Two clubs.

For this change to be ratified, there will need to be a vote of the 92 Premier League and EFL clubs, with 50% being the threshold for change. Those in the higher divisions seem to be in favour, so it would be likely to happen. This should also be contingent on governance reforms for the National League.

In my experience at a club recently promoted from the National League, there are notable differences between the two leagues, beyond the financial loss of EFL support (which is in the region of £600,000) that relegated clubs suffer. When Grimsby were relegated from the EFL, the main worry was how we could legally protect and retain our talented academy players, because without the EFL legal structure, National League players can be poached by other clubs without recompense for the work the National League club has done developing them.

Paul Mullin after scoring for Wrexham against Sheffield United in the FA Cup
Wrexham are a National League side with greater resources than many League One and League Two clubs. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

More generally, the gulf in the standard of governance between the two leagues is significant. This was highlighted through personal experience of how the National League mishandled the location and pricing for the playoffs last year, moving the game away from Wembley to the London Stadium and charging £40 a ticket to add to the substantial travel costs for supporters of the two teams coming south for the final. There was little to no communication on the topic and when we raised the issue in person we were told: “There will always be some people who will be unhappy.” Some, in this instance, being all Grimsby and Solihull Moors fans.

The issues raised in the Gate Money documentary by Jasper Spanjaart are also concerning. The documentary questioned how the government support during Covid of £10m for National League clubs was distributed and seemingly favoured smaller clubs, many of whom were represented on the board. The National League board has yet to respond to the allegations, and the documentary team is trying to press the Football Association to launch an independent inquiry.

There is the lack of alignment between the leagues on the owners’ and directors’ test which seeks to see whether there are impediments to people becoming owners. It is possible that a club can win promotion from the National League and be disallowed from taking that place because the owners do not pass the EFL’s stricter criteria.

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In light of these issues, perhaps a more radical revision is needed. In 2016, the EFL proposed the Whole Game Solution, which sought to solve the above points by proposing five leagues of 20, allowing eight more teams from the National League to be invited into a new fourth division of the EFL. This would take time to implement and may not be without its detractors, but the idea that our national game can sustain five top leagues under the same governance structure looks more plausible today, considering that the lower leagues have improved significantly.

Professional football has always been in a state of becoming. From the introduction of a third division in 1920, the expansion from 88 to 92 clubs in 1950, the abolition of the minimum wage in 1961, or the foundation of the Premier League in 1992 we have always been updating and improving the conditions of our national game. The independent regulator and Whole Game Solution are ambitious steps that could solve a lot of the acknowledged issues. While we wait for new legislation the Premier League and EFL need to make sure that they agree on collective issues and that the necessary governance reforms are in place. It is a difficult task, but one that needs to be tackled for the game to continue to thrive for future generations.

Jason Stockwood is the chairman of Grimsby Town