As the final whistle blew at Wembley, Aston Villa threw their arms up in the air to celebrate. Their decision to sack Steve Bruce earlier this season was justified. Yesterday’s play-off final was reportedly worth £170m to the winner – their financial future now secure.
After last year’s play-off defeat, Villa faced several problems. They had bet the house on bouncing quickly back to the Premier League and failure to do so meant they were likely to fall foul of financial fair play rules. This time round it really was make-or-break, amid more speculation about the health of the club’s accounts. While yesterday’s windfall may help Villa in the short-term, play-off cash is no guarantee of future financial stability.
Such a huge prize fund for the winner is irresponsible from those who administer it. It only encourages clubs like Villa who do everything they can to get promoted, even if it means signing several Premier League-standard players when they are already struggling to meet their financial fair play responsibilities. Indeed in many senses, the play-offs should be made more difficult so that clubs that do go up are more likely to succeed and stay in the Premier League for longer, therefore guaranteeing them more money, received in a stable fashion.
Four of the past five clubs to win promotion to the Premier League through the play-offs have been relegated the following season. This shows that is getting harder and harder to survive in the Premier League when in theory a side can finish sixth, 15 points behind the league’s top two, as Frank Lampard’s Derby County (to give them their full name) did this season. Nowhere else would such mediocrity lead to the chance of competing for the most lucrative prize in football.
Other countries have a play-off between the club that finishes third-bottom and the third-best team in the division below. This seems a more fitting way to decide who gets a place in the top tier. The team promoted through the play-offs is routinely relegated in their first season in the Premier League, often in an embarrassing fashion as Fulham and Queens Park Rangers have recently demonstrated.
There is already a gulf in class between the top six teams in England and the rest of the top flight. Teams getting promoted from the second tier should have to take on a side from higher up to prove that they are worthy of a run against the country’s finest teams. If Sky’s cameras insist that there still be more games on TV at the end of the season, then bring the next-worst side in the Premier League into the dogfight too.
There needs to be more safeguards against weak, financially ill-prepared teams playing in the top division. Villa will doubtless struggle next season, as all their play-off predecessors have done. It may serve to protect the Premier League’s status quo but given the dross that has been produced by many recently promoted sides – would that be such a bad thing?