OPINION | League One’s ‘Gang of Six’: It’s not all about you

On Thursday night, six clubs cast doubt over an amicable conclusion to the League One season with a joint statement relayed by Peterborough owner Darragh MacAnthony. From proposing expanded play-offs to threatening to sue fellow members, things have since got very messy. Those clubs may have the money, but they can’t be allowed to have their way.

“Peterborough owner Darragh MacAnthony suggests clubs could forfeit games if they do not want to return to League One season”

So read the headline atop the write-up of MacAnthony’s appearance on Sky Sports News on Friday morning. During the coronavirus crisis, we’ve been inundated by a wave of misleading headlines and journalism all-round – but this isn’t one of those cases; he actually said that. Look:

“What I’ve suggested is, the teams who don’t want to come back and play, if we do this and finish the season, we’ll forfeit your games. If it’s not possible for you to come back and play, you can forfeit the results, and that’s another way you can do it. We’re just trying to get football back, get our footballers off their couches, they want to get back and playing, and we want to get the season finished.”

Whether he’s speaking as Peterborough owner or on behalf of the gang of six – comprised of Posh, Oxford, Fleetwood, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Ipswich – is irrelevant; he’s wrong and his remarks are indicitave of the self-interest which was, sadly, inevitably going to surface as the debate over how to end the season reached this crucial stage. This isn’t about teams not wanting to play; it’s about safety and affordability. Talk of finishing the campaign out of respect for supporters and staff and in the name of the nausiatingly-bandied “sporting integrity” misses the point. Even if you wait until it’s safe to do so – which the statement did recognise would have to be the case – the majority of clubs in the third and fourth tiers simply do not have the resources to even contemplate playing behind closed doors, travelling while adhering to social distancing, and covering the cost of adequate testing – hence League Two’s provisional decision to call time on 2019/20 bar the play-offs.

Their vote “was truly unanimous” according to Port Vale chair Carol Shanahan – who, having put the bigger picture before her side’s very realistic play-off aspirations, will come out of all of this as one of the good guys. That the news of clubs working together for the greater good should be so laudable just sums up football’s self-centredness. Rochdale chief executive David Bottomley oozed class as he pledged to “act with what we see as the best interests of our national sport and not decisions that potentially are made stemming from financial greed”. The same cannot be said of the gang of six, nor Southend – decidedly doomed Southend – chairman Ron Martin, who earlier in the week called for the season to be voided because, you guessed it, sporting integrity.

In fairness, most owners probably do ‘get it’, but those who don’t are numerous enough to cause a rift and disrupt the “great collective” of League One to which Bottomley refers in his address. While the idea of completing 2019/20 even months from now still hasn’t gone away, it’s completely unrealistic; clubs need clarity in order to plan as effectively as possible for 2020/21, which they should be assuming will run to a normal schedule. There will doubtless be bridges along the way, but we can cross them when we come to them.

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Friday’s EFL statement suggested that League One clubs do understand the need to get a move on and come to a decision, as well as making mention of “the need to find innovative and creative solutions” to this problem. Unfortunately, that sparked talk of expanded play-offs. The BBC ran a surprisingly lazy article hinting at the idea but based on little to nothing, but Sunderland boss Phil Parkinson has come out and backed it: “So if it’s not possible to finish the full set of fixtures, another solution would be an extended play-off scenario, a mini-tournament to determine the play-off places,” he told ChronicleLive. Supposedly this imaginary tournament would feature eight teams, but why stop there? Why not ten? Why not let the whole of the top half compete? Scottish teams as well? How about Melchester Rovers? The England lacrosse team? Hell, let’s mix it up with 11 labradors too – I mean, they like chasing balls, right?

He continued: “League Two have decided to adopt the play-off places as they stand, but that’s only happened because Port Vale and Bradford City magnanimously decided that they weren’t going to be involved in that.” Exactly, because they don’t only give a stuff about themselves. Oh, wait, he said the magic words! We have to take him seriously now. It’s all about SPORTING INTEGRITY.

Owners and managers can dress it up however they like, but. And this is where we get back onto Mr MacAnthony, who on Saturday threatened to go legal on not just the EFL but also clubs he perceives to be standing in the way of Peterborough’s promotion push. He’s got a “blockbuster of a case” apparently … Tell you what, Darragh, you write a little note telling us how much you’d like and we’ll check if you’re allowed a bonus on top of your pocket money. Now off you go back to playing make-believe mercenaries.

All ridicule aside, though, the EFL need to clamp down on these bully-boy tactics – which are at best posturing and at worst a threat to the entire lower league game. If the likes of MacAnthony start suing their less well-off contemporaries at the worst of times, imagine how empowered they’ll feel to do so at the best of times. Accrington chairman Andy Holt, ever the voice of sense in a sea of nonsense, put it best once again: “The fact is these so called ‘top clubs’ don’t care if other clubs die on the alter [sic] of their ‘sporting integrity’… Priority should be clubs survive”. Amen. Everyone wants a shot at promotion, I think we all get that, but there is a right way to conduct yourself in situations such as this.

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And what have the rest of the Gang of Six had to say for themselves? Ipswich – not that we ever hear much from Marcus Evans – and Pompey – who, while in touch with the automatic promotion places, make the play-offs on unweighted PPG so may be more minded to take a backseat – have kept pretty shtum, but Fleetwood – whose CEO Steve Curwood, along with Jez Moxey of Burton, is one of two League One directors who actually sit on the EFL Board – and Oxford have not. Cod Army owner Andrew Pilley uttered the magic words, but who’s the manager up there? Oh yes, Joseph Barton. While he’s of the opinion that we carry on whenever it’s safe, however long that may take, and makes an important point about the mental health effects of the suspension, this is also someone who shares the delusion that some clubs don’t want to play – in his mind “the ones with either a relegation battle they want to avoid or nothing to play for” – and who has compared the danger of COVID-19 to that of crossing the road. So when the government say “STAY ALERT”, they mean look both ways for oncoming viruses? Got it.

Oxford manager Karl Robinson, meanwhile, while saying that he’s “hearing there are less people who want to play”, stated last weekend that he’s getting ready for football to resume. Posh, Sunderland and Fleetwood will all believe they can still make the top two, such is the tightness of the division, but at least Robinson has adopted a slightly more measured approach. Mind you, Oxford are guaranteed a play-off spot via raw or weighted PPG, so the likely cancellation of the campaign won’t harm them, per se. According to Matt Slater, whose Athletic story broke the news that Leagues One and Two would be abandoned using the latter method, the EFL have done a U-turn on their reported preference.

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So that’s where we’re at as of Saturday. League One clubs will reconvene on Monday – and probably still fail to resolve the matter. We need answers quickly, but one gets the feeling we’re talking weeks rather than days. However things pan out, though, ‘the rest’ will not be bullied into submission by the gang. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures; it’s not all about you six.

Fourteen-hundred words and I’ve not mentioned Wycombe once. Well, all I have to say is that others could learn a lot from the way we – sitting level on points with Posh and Sunderland, remember – have conducted ourselves over the last couple of months. The same goes for Doncaster and Gillingham, who won’t have counted themselves out of a late surge into the play-offs but have equally maintained their dignity. MacAnthony and co. may think they have a lot to gain from acting as they are, and to an extent they do (in theory anyway), but they stand to lose a lot more in the form of the respect and support of those without whom they wouldn’t have any football to play in the first place. This is everyone’s league, not just yours.

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