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Cod Almighty | Diary

Disley was one thing – Pearson would be quite another

18 May 2017

Did you tune in last night to hear the latest twist in the race for a place in the top six of the Premier League, a 0-0 draw between Southampton and Manchester United? No, Middle-Aged Diary neither. If the day has a Y in it, there must be a top-flight game going on somewhere. Tonight, sure enough, you can watch Leicester v Tottenham. With Spurs bound to finish second, the only issue at stake is whether last year's champions can climb into the top half of the table.

Dribbling out all the fixtures like that must have seemed a good idea to someone, nine months ago. For football 'consumers', it could have been a real draw. Every night, from the comfort of their homes, they could watch the latest twists and turns of the race for... something or other. But with every issue except who gets their share of next year's European swag already resolved, it is a turn-off. And for actual fans, it must be the most almighty annoyance.

This isn't a purely English phenomenon, by the way. Phil Ball gets to the heart of it in his column about the conclusion of the Spanish league, a column which somehow manages to take in Grimsby Road. As he hinted when bringing the article to our attention, if ever there were a journalistic award for most gratuitous references to the Mariners (and there surely should be), Phil would be the runaway winner.

The excesses of the big clubs across Europe have been underwritten by TV money, and to their tune they dance.

I have a fantasy. Sometimes it is a nightmare. The two are not always so separable: Ron Counte's wonderfully executed tale of Laws and Bonetti taking Town to a top-flight title has some of the elements of my worst fears. My dreams have Shaun Pearson improving with the club as we climb back up the leagues, not being replaced by a job lot from Juve.

One day, in my imagination, the big clubs will overreach themselves. It might be a European super league. It might be the abolition of promotion to the top flight. From then on in, the integrity of the competition would come second to the needs of their paymasters. Our matches are so intense, they'd say, we need to break them into quarters. Coincidentally, they'd sell more advertising. Our players are so big and strong, we need bigger goals. Our game is so popular we need to cater for a global audience, so games are going to kick off at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, Beijing time. We could still reach a wider audience, so drawn games will end in a penalty shoot-out. In fact, we'll reduce the playing time to an hour, and have one after every game, because penalty shoot-outs are so popular.

Once the Premier League tried to claim it was the greatest in the world. That doesn't wash, so now it's just "the most entertaining". A sport it is still, but that becomes increasingly secondary. The sterility of the same teams competing for a top prize would lead to weirder rule changes, replacing competition with a sugar rush.

Meanwhile in my fantasy, as the top flight disappears into a world of song-and-dance, something surprising happens to those left behind. Shaun Harvey is long gone. For his work paving the way for the big split, he was rewarded with the post of business architect at European Football Incorporated. The Becchettis, the Oystons, the Vinces have gone too; there is nothing left in the Football League to massage their egos. The game is left to those who want nothing except to take part, as players, as coaches, as administrators, and all of them, and all of us, as fans. They wouldn't call it "the people's game". They wouldn't need to. And gradually, it would take root, because it would meet the need for belonging, for community, that a TV spectacle does not.

Let us have no doubt about it: the inclusion of B teams in any competition weakens that competition. If the funding for it comes from the Premier League, there is one reason only: because they know that long-term, that funding will increase their advantage over the Football League. It is a step to the nightmare vision, and if the Football League accepts it, it weakens their capacity to resist, and to build.

Two more years of B teams in the Trophy needs a response that is more than just a boycott. It needs a response that promotes our game as something rooted in community and in participation.

Shaun Pearson, in his years at Grimsby, has embodied just those values. And just now, when I'm refreshing every feed I have to learn whether he will remain a Grimsby player, I'm not capable of ideas for what that response should be.

If talks are ongoing, there is only one thing to say: SORT IT SLADES.