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Bigger, better, stronger’: why the EFL’s appeal has never been greater



It’s the time of year for celebrations. Up and down England and Wales, from Fratton Park to the Racecourse Ground (AKA STōK Cae Ras), Pride Park to Portman Road, mass jubilation has burst from the terraces as the structure of the football pyramid shifts once more. It’s a unique celebration and Trevor Birch, the former striker, accountant and administrator who is now the chief executive of the English Football League, has witnessed more than most.


“I think I’m qualified to comment, given I’m probably averaging about 75 to 80 games a season,” says Birch, whose life in football has led him to be present at many of the moments that have shaped the modern game. “Derby, I was there for that. There were 30-odd thousand people there which was extraordinary, and over 20 thousand at Portsmouth. Both of those clubs have been in administration so it was great to see these clubs vibrant again, with brilliant supporters. It’s a rejuvenation that the pyramid makes possible.”


Birch is speaking to the Observer at the end of a season that serves as a perfect example of what he calls the dichotomy of the Football League. As is almost customary, the EFL has served up stories of rebirth and growth in all three divisions, and relegation and promotion has remained in flux to the very end.


Spectators have walked through the turnstiles in record numbers, more than 23 million of them, an increase of more than 6% on 2022-23. Equally, the average attendance across the league is up by 10%, new investment continues to come into clubs from across the world, and a sea-change £935 TV deal with Sky that will mean 1,000-plus games are screened live in the UK each season comes into play in August. At exactly the same time, however, the latest financial filings from the 72 clubs that sit beneath the Premier League report cumulative losses of £471m from the 2022-23 season.


“On the one hand we have the brilliance of the competition, the excitement of it, the engagement from fans, the quality of the football,” says Birch. “On the other is the ever-present issue of sustainability, of the losses that are incurred in the Championship in trying to compete against the clubs relegated from the Premier League. That then permeates all the way through the leagues because of wage inflation.


“You have to have one eye on the stress that is caused by us basically running, as a football pyramid, a benefactor model where all clubs are more or less supported by their owners, which could potentially result in instability at any moment.


“You buy a football club thinking you are going to be successful and get promoted, so when that doesn’t happen, when you don’t win games or you don’t get promoted, you think: ‘What is going wrong?’ or: ‘Is it time to get out?’ All the administrations that have occurred over recent years have been an owner saying: ‘Enough is enough, I can’t afford to or don’t want to fund the ongoing obligations of the club.’ That in itself creates a very unstable situation.”


This argument is not a new one for Birch. He led the deal that sold Chelsea to Roman Abramovich in 2003, perhaps the definitive benefactor-owner of the Premier League era and a man accused himself of distorting competition in football. Birch then served as the administrator for Portsmouth in 2012 when the club were fighting a winding-up order after chasing the top-flight dream. More recently, the EFL has been making the case about competitive balance in discussions with the government and the Premier League over how to reform the English game.


“You don’t necessarily want to thwart ambition and optimism,” Birch says. “We are operating in a free market and you shouldn’t want to limit the investment in clubs and their ability to pursue their dream. But at the same time you don’t want it done in a reckless way that endangers the fabric and the sustainability of the club.


“We are trying to solve that with the so-called new deal with the Premier League because they have accelerated so far away from the rest of the pyramid. We are trying to at least recalibrate that relationship.”


That new deal has not been struck and the imminent independent football regulator does not have the preservation of “competitive balance” as part of its brief. Birch is hopeful that discussions with the Premier League resume this summer, however, and says there is “no particular issue” between the leadership of both competitions. “We might have similar views to their executive,” he says. “It’s their ability to pass a resolution with their clubs [that’s the issue], they haven’t been able to get the necessary club approval. We’re still here waiting for an offer, which leads to an uneasy relationship.”


Birch says the EFL has little leverage in trying to strike a deal with the Premier League. But he is hardly pessimistic about the state of the Football League and in its appeal to both fans and investors. Looking over the course of his career, he is confident English football is in a better state now than it was a generation ago.


“We are much stronger as a 92 collective,” he says. “When you look at the quality of the games, if you look at the structure of the organisation, the structure of the teams, all the way through the league I think things are bigger, better, stronger. Look at League Two pitches in the winter, there’s grass on them. And of course we don’t have VAR, so that is a plus for the supporters as well.


“When I was at Leeds in 2004 [during the club’s financial crisis] I couldn’t get anybody interested in buying the club. Now we have increased investment from foreign owners, we are continuing to develop and attract interest in the EFL. And, yes, it is proximity to the Premier League, because that gets attraction globally, but then they just look down slightly and see the EFL and see the quality of the product. Perceptions have changed.”



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