Play-off, play on

BRINGING in a play-off system for England’s fourth Champions League spot is a great idea. The one drawback? It might kill off the FA Cup.

A lot of football punditry is based on received wisdom. If enough managers, players, ex-players, TV presenters, journalists and fans repeat a phrase often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.

Two of the phrases that have become generally accepted as truth this season through repetition are:
1) This is the most exciting and open Premier League for years.
2) The FA Cup has lost its magic.

(I am slightly disappointed that received football wisdom’s potential for mischief hasn’t been exploited more. For instance, Andy Gray would only need to spend half-a-season repeatedly growling “You can’t compete at this level if you don’t suck your isotonic half-time lemons” and I reckon we’d all be parroting it to each other in the pub as if it we’d just discovered the new corridor of uncertainty.)

But when people talk about this being an open Premier League, they’re not discussing the title race, which once again will come down to a straight fight between the blue team owned by the billionaire Russian and the red team managed by the angry Scotsman.

No, what they’re talking about is the possibility that a team other than Liverpool might finish fourth. It might be Tottenham, it might be Aston Villa, it might be Manchester City, it might even be – gasp – someone else.

The gap between fourth and fifth is now far more significant than the gap between first and second. Just ask anyone at Liverpool. Their financial worries have nothing to do with getting knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages, and everything to do with qualifying for it next season.

Those in charge at the Premier League finally seem to have cottoned on to the fact that their competition is secondary to the Champions League, in terms of finance, in terms of hype, in terms of global interest. The logical response? To do what the three divisions below the top flight have been doing with great success since 1987, and have a play-off system.

It’s an admission by the Premier League that it is effectively now a feeder competition, and that the same 1-2-3-4 every year is getting a bit boring. Introduce a play-off system, and there’s just a little bit more of a chance for an upset. A team could finish seventh, as Fulham did last season, and maybe just sneak through into the European big time.

The play-offs could work the same way as they do in the Football League; two-legged semi-finals followed by a one-off Wembley showdown. It would be the match of the season. Which would mean it would completely overshadow the FA Cup final. Hmm.

There’s a problem there, especially as the FA Cup has lost its magic, in much the same way that Tim Tyler lost his laugh. That is at least partly because the prize money for winning the FA Cup is about the same as a club gets for finishing a couple of places higher up the Premier League.

So how about a compromise? The top two Premier League finishers qualifying automatically for the Champions League, the teams finishing from third to sixth play off for the next spot, while the final place goes to the FA Cup winners.

I can’t see that happening, somehow – because every so often, a team such as Coventry or Wimbledon or Portsmouth will win the FA Cup. And who’s going to want to stick them on prime-time terrestrial TV on a Wednesday night when you could get more viewers with a repeat of Midsomer Murders?

All the same, a play-off system might just give the Premier League the jump start it needs.

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