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Endangered ecosystem

The over-reaction to Manchester United’s loss at Brentford revealed a lingering disdain for the English pyramid

Brentford last finished in a higher league position than Manchester United in . They were sixth in Division One that year while United won promotion, having spent six of the previous seven seasons in the Second Division. Manager Matt Busby was to transform United after the war, when Brentford went into immediate decline. Relegated in , they only returned to the top division last season. During Brentford’s win over United on August , a radio commentator declared that the scoreline would produce “celebrations in this part of London”. In fact the result will have been enjoyed nationwide, as was the case when Brentford won at Chelsea in April. The result represented a cataclysm for some United fans but social media talk of relegation struggles will soon blow over. The club have not even finished in the bottom half since , a season in which Alex Ferguson was nearly sacked before going on to win the FA Cup, the start of over two decades of consistent success.

Brentford’s recent rise serves as an inspiration to every lower-division club but the system through which they progressed is coming under attack again. On July , the Premier League announced their “New Deal”, ideas for how they might help the lower leagues in response to the government’s recent fan-led review. Various measures, including new controls on spending and a cut to parachute payments, were offset by an alarming proposal. This was that Championship sides should all be required to take a certain number of under- players on loan from Premier League clubs. The Fair Game initiative, set up last October to promote better governance in football and now supported by over League clubs, was unimpressed, saying: “The football pyramid is not the Premier League’s plaything.”

This plan’s proposers are likely to have a longer-term goal in mind, which is to have their under- s function as distinct teams within the league structure. In , the then FA chairman Greg Dyke (also a former chairman of Brentford and director of Manchester United) proposed that “B”


Erik ten Hag watches his Manchester United team’s humiliation at Brentford teams be allowed into the lower divisions. His suggestion was quickly shot down but the principle has been supported by leading managers, notably Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, both of whom come from countries where it is the norm. In Spain, B teams are permitted in the Segunda División, though only Villarreal’s will be there this season. In , Real Madrid’s reserves were second-level champions and lost the cup final to their senior team, though they

Brentford’s recent rise serves as an inspiration to every lower-division club but the system through which they progressed is coming under attack again are currently at the third level along with five other B teams. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund II and SC Freiburg II play at the national third level, with another such teams in the five regional fourth divisions.

The inclusion of reserve teams in senior level leagues has been a creeping trend throughout European football lately. Within the last few seasons, it has been permitted in several medium-sized leagues – Belgium, Portugal, Greece and Austria among them. The overall effect will be the same everywhere. As some smaller clubs are pushed further down the league their development will suffer, which makes it more likely that they will be reduced to becoming a nursery team for a larger neighbour.

We have not reached that point yet, though lower-division fans have cause to feel that they are being disrespected. Last month, Radio Live scrapped the reading of the classified results at pm on a Saturday. There is never a full fixture list of top-level matches on a Saturday afternoon any more but almost all other games are played then and it only takes a few minutes to acknowledge them. Since live football has been divided up between multiple broadcasters, BBC TV’s coverage of teams outside the Premier League tends to be restricted to the FA Cup. Perhaps that sense of disconnection lay behind Match of the Day deciding to joke about the disappearance of the classified results. The edition on August began with the previous weekend’s Premier League results being read out in the style of a radio announcer over goal footage which, Gary Lineker said, was “just in case you couldn’t find the scores anywhere else”.

During Match of the Day’s early years it would regularly feature games from below the top flight, recognising the importance of the pyramid as a whole. Their modern-day nonchalance about the axing of the classified results is symptomatic of a wider snobbery about life outside the Premier League from those at the top, but if threats to the structure of football are ignored, there will be fewer stories like Brentford’s that enrich the game.


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