Monday, 21 May 2012

A brief history of promotion and relegation

There is nothing more British than promotion and relegation in sport.  Just like those cucumber sandwiches we are always eating, it is an intrinsic part of our national identity.  Now Andy Burnham has repeated the claim, and as a former secretary of state for sport he must surely know what he is talking about.  In the Guardian he is quoted as saying "I don't think the closed shop approach that we have in rugby league at the moment is consistent with the British way of doing things.  The dream factor is the lifeblood of any sport – it keeps hope alive within the club and it keeps fans going through the turnstiles."

But when even football's famed pyramid system only came into being 25 years ago, it does make you wonder how so many sports have survived without any lifeblood.

There are 14 different top-flight leagues for professional team sports or which are regularly televised in the UK.  Only half of these have promotion and relegation, of those four are the home nation football competitions.  Outside of football, the longest current example of promotion and relegation only dates back to 1984.

In England, rugby union has had promotion and relegation since the RFU first accepted the concept of leagues in 1984.  While it still retains this for its Premiership, it is regularly accompanied by  discussion as to its suitability.

The first official Scottish league system in rugby union was introduced in 1973, while in Wales it took until 1990.  But in 2003 the Celtic League replaced those as the top domestic competition in both nations and Ireland.  A closed shop where the only admittance is by invitation.

Cricket's first class counties, another closed shop, split into divisions for the first time in 1999.  Initially with the limited overs National League, then the following year in the County Championship.  The turnstiles probably did not notice.  Changes to the first class game were neither to keep hopes alive or attract fans, but to provide a better development environment for England test players.

Meanwhile, competition from the new Twenty20 format, which uses regional divisions, saw attendances at domestic one-day matches decline.  After ten seasons the divisional competition was scrapped and a new 40-over competition replaced it and the knock-out trophy.  This swapped the system of promotion and relegation for a random draw, each season the 18 first class counties and three invited representative teams placed into separate pools.

Following the second world war, ice hockey had struggles in Britain.  In 1982 the British Hockey League was founded, and four years later added a second division with promotion and relegation.  This lasted for ten years until the top division was replaced by the Ice Hockey Superleague.  Like its successor, the Elite League, this was another closed shop where admission was by invitation.

A similar history exists for basketball, which was first organized into a league in 1972 and added a second division three years later.  But after 13 years of promotion and relegation the top division of the National Basketball League was replaced by the British Basketball League, a franchised closed shop.

Although still an amateur sport, netball's Superleague has been televised by Sky Sports for several seasons.  This, like its predecessor the 2001 Super Cup, is a franchised closed shop with teams created for it.

Finally, speedway has a tumultuous history of leagues breaking away and merging but it was not until 1991 that promotion and relegation was introduced between the top two British League divisions.  At least until being lost to further restructuring in 1995.  In 2008 the Elite League introduced a promotion playoff, however no Premier League side has ever won this.  Despite that, teams have still switched between leagues through resignation and election, as they did when it was a closed shop.

Say what you will about licensing or the way the RFL administer it, as many do, regularly, but the idea that Britain has a strong tradition of open and automatic promotion and relegation is a myth.  Even those sports which do employ this system require promoted teams to meet minimum standards to ensure they will also be viable as a business.

Beyond football, no other sport has the money or depth to provide a suitably graduated system between its top tier and those behind it.  If there is a British tradition, it is leagues constantly reinventing themselves as they struggle to find sustainable structures.  Only football and rugby union have continuously maintained promotion and relegation between professional and semi-professional levels. And this only for the last 25 years in England, although the Scottish Football League has combined the two for longer.

Burnham is correct in saying the closed shop approach of rugby league is inconsistent with the British way.  If it were it would mean Super League only allowing teams to join through invitation.  For as long as the RFL continue to guarantee a place to qualifying Championship clubs the game will be decidedly un-British.

Follow the author on the twitter, @emijy

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Little Grubbers Exiles XIII

With Nathan Brown getting tetchy about what people look like and how they sound, we're pretty sure that he's going to start pontificating about the Exiles squad soon, perhaps even as early as this Friday's game with Wigan.

In an attempt to head him off at the pass, we're going to come up with a side that will meet his exacting standards, by which if you're going to pick a team called the Exiles, then they'd better look and sound like actual exiles and not people who are choosing to do a job of work in a different country to their own.

With that in mind then:

Dalai Lama (Tibet). Exiled in: India. Exiled for: Chinese political expediency. Position: Coach.

Idi Amin (Uganda). Exiled in: Saudi Arabia. Exiled for: Systematic corruption, killing of political opponents, general dictatorly shenanigans. Position: Nutrionist.

Napoleon (France). Exiled in: Elba, St Helena. Exiled for: The French got fed up of his increasingly bizarre Empirical behaviour. Position: Full-back.

Umberto II (Italy). Exiled in: Portugal. Exiled for: Being the king of Italy when the revolution came. Position: Wing.

Karl Lowenstein (Germany). Exiled in: USA. Exiled for: Critical of the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. Position: Centre.

Bohumil Laušman (Czech Republic). Exiled in: UK. Exiled for: Member of Czechoslovak government-in-exile post WWII. Position: Centre.

Cicero (Rome). Exiled in: Ancient Greece. Exiled for: Conducting extrajudicial executions. Position: Wing.

Bartolomé Calvo (Colombia). Exiled in: Puerto Rico. Exiled for: Ousted as President of the Granadine Confederation in Colombia after a coup. Position: Stand-off.

Jhonny Haikella Hakaye (Namibia). Exiled in: Angola, Zambia, Uzbekistan. Exiled for: Demanding freedom for Namibia, socialism. Position: Scrum-half.

Raphaël Alibert (France). Exiled in: Belgium. Exiled for: Royalist tendencies. Position: Prop.

Bernardo O'Higgins (Chile). Exiled in: Peru. Exiled for: Deposed dictator of Chile. Position: Hooker.

Stanisław Thugutt (Poland). Exiled in: Sweden. Exiled for: Ousted as Minister for Internal Affairs after Nazi invasion of Poland. Position: Prop.

Yilmaz Güney (Turkey). Exiled in: France. Exiled for: Making films while being Kurdish. Position: Second row.

José Sisto (USA). Exiled in: The Phillippines. Exiled for: Seizing power in Guam, embezzlement. Position: Second row.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Russia). Exiled in: West Germany. Exiled for: Dissident writing. Position: Loose forward.

Teodoro Picado Michalski (Costa Rica). Exiled in: Nicaragua. Exiled for: Being in charge when the military decided to take over. Position: Replacement.

Paul Magloire (Haiti). Exiled in: USA. Exiled for: Organising two military coups, embezzling relief money after Hurricane Hazel. Position: Replacement.

Abdulrahman al-Nuaimi (Bahrain). Exiled in: Syria. Exiled for: Organising political opposition. Position: Replacement.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev (Kyrgyzstan). Exiled in: Belarus. Exiled for: Autocratic ruler that brought his country to ruin leading to popular uprising that overthrew his givernment. Position: Replacement.

And we'd very much like to see Nathan Brown argue with that.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Hooker duck: Brown, Henderson and aquatic fowl

It must be the time of year, the dawning of spring (eventually) heralded by serial whinging about Rugby League international selection criteria.

"If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's a duck isn't it?" postulated Nathan Brown in relation to the selection of Ian Henderson in the England squad for the upcoming Exiles games, seemingly suggesting that he can deduce someone's nationality by looking at them and listening to them. Clumsy he may have been with his phraseology, but his comments have struck a chord with many in the Rugby League fraternity.

The thing is that people - including Brown - are railing against different things at the same time and as such, the argument is incoherent. Brown's contention is that Henderson is Australian and therefore has no business playing for England. This is plain wrong. Brown went on to criticise the selection of Rangi Chase - possibly more fairly - but again he's clumsy in his reasoning, saying "Chase says 'bro' and has Maori tattoos". If we're barring people with Maori tattoos from representing England, we're not going to get thirteen players on the field, but that's obviously not the point he's attempting to make.

To get to a resolution, the argument needs breaking down into it's constituent parts:
  • Nationality
  • Rugby League's international selection criteria
  • Switching allegiances

Nationality is not and never has been the same as being eligible to play for a given country. It's an element, sure, and back in the day was tantamount to the same thing as global travel and the opportunity to settle away from the country of your birth were not as easy. The chances of people being able to claim multiple nationality has also never been higher. Neither is residency the same as nationality. Nobody is claiming that Rangi Chase is English and until such time as he takes citizenship, nobody will. He is, however, domiciled here and, by all accounts, planning to settle here in the long-term. The two things are subtly different. The argument about nationality has become one of 'if you were born there, that's who you can play for', but nationality isn't as simple as the place you happen to have first drawn breath and it never has been.

For now, residency of three years is enough for you to become eligible to play international Rugby League for a given country. So is having one grandparent from a given country, a passport or citizenship of that country. If these definitions are too loose for you, then by all means argue that point. The English cricket team has recently been bolstered by a number of South African ex-pats and in response to concerns about that - from the English and South African game - the ECB upped the residency requirement from four years to seven, a move which if implemented seven years ago would have seen Kevin Pietersen ineligible for the 2005 Ashes. Again, if this is the issue, then by all means compain about it.

The one that raises a lot of hackles - perhaps more than any other - is that of people playing for more than one nation. This is a by-product of two things: the difference between the top three (maybe four) and the rest and the scrapping of Great Britain. Henderson has played for Scotland, as indeed has Danny Brough, and previously could have played in GB teams without a bother and go back to Scotland for the World Cup. Now, they are not afforded that opportunity. If a player wants opportunities to play against Australia and New Zealand more than a maximum of twice every four years, then they've no option than to declare for England and the goalposts were shifted from when they first made a decision about international rugby. There are rules on switching allegiance and many don't think they're strong enough, or should even exist. But to deny someone an opportunity under the systems in place now that weren't in place at the start of their careers hardly seems fair and it's never as simple as saying 'how can someone be Scottish and then be English?' as both are nebulous concepts that one person's interpretation of and significance placed in are quite different to the next. To reform this properly would need every Rugby League nation to be on an equal footing which simply isn't the case. If you introduced a rule that says if you've played a competitive game for a country, that's who you're with throughout, what would happen to the Cook Islands, Lebanon, Tonga, Samoa, Ireland, Scotland, even Wales? Rather than strengthen those, the consequence is equally as likely to be that few will declare for those countries - at least until they're much older - and end up retracting the world game rather than expand it.

Given those three areas, a fourth enters the equation. Whatever your thoughts are on each individual area, the rules laid down in those areas are clear. Is it not incumbent upon the head coach of England to select the best possible side from players eligible for England under those various rules? It is perfectly possible to argue for change to those rules while accepting the situation the rules have created. I was in Ireland during the 1994 football World Cup where Jack Charlton's Irish side did extremely well, including beating Italy in New York. Talking to people in the pubs where I was staying, there was a general acceptance that there's little about John Aldridge and Ray Houghton to call Irish and maybe it'd be nice for an all Irish-born side to be playing, but these were the best players available to the country. If Chris Heighington is the best second-row available to Steve McNamara and he can pick him, why wouldn't he? Ditto Chase, Henderson, Danny Brough or Maurie Fa'asavalu.

Too often, all the separate threads of this whole area get mixed together which makes it very difficult to reach a consensus on how to reform things should reform be needed, especially when unhelpful language akin to that of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu (he used the duck analogy in describing Iran, but added that the Islamic Republic is "a nuclear duck") is used. But while that argument is being had, can we just agree to allow a coach to pick what he sees is his best side? it would save us all having to fall out.