Inside the grave injustice of Tranmere Rovers being relegated by PPG
Today, Tranmere Rovers became the first club in the history of English football to be relegated in June despite being undefeated since February. Attempting to end the League One season amid a global health emergency, a thoughtless majority sacrificed Tranmere at the altar of self-serving capitalism.
Won on the sacred fields of Prenton Park and Wembley Stadium, our third division status has been revoked by a computer, operated by insensitive peers with no real love for this game. After years of relentless hard work and improvement, growth and resurrection, our fate was sealed on a single Zoom call, without a blade of grass in sight.
According to a paper published by Tranmere owner Mark Palios and substantiated by media reports, the final league table, simulated using a flawed points-per-game model, has Tranmere in the relegation zone by 0.04 of a point. Only our beloved Rovers could be dumped out of a league based on a unit of measurement that does not even exist in the lexicon of world football.
If three points represents the outcome of 90 minutes, or 100% of one game, 0.04 of a point represents the outcome of 100 seconds of one game, or 0.0004% of a 44-match season. In real terms, then, Rovers have been demoted based on the length of time it takes Scott Davies to take a single goal-kick. That such a concept was even considered, let alone ratified by a formal vote, is a scandalous affront to the purpose of competitive sports. It makes you wonder why we bother at all.
How the coronavirus pandemic has affected English football
Now, please do not misconstrue the priorities of Tranmere Rovers and their fans in this endeavour. We appreciate the unprecedented climate in which this ludicrous decision was made. More than 40,000 people have died in the UK after testing positive for COVID-19, and those health concerns must always come first in our thinking. We understand why the English Football League (EFL) suspended all of its fixtures in early-March, and we agreed with that decision, which respected elements of the state-mandated lockdown and social distancing measures designed to halt the spread of a pernicious virus. Those factors are non-negotiable.
However, quite frankly, every subsequent edict from the EFL has been shrouded in chaos, confusion and collusion. The governing body has shirked its responsibility to lead at every turn, placing hugely emotive decisions in the hands of individual clubs, creating a cesspit of self-interest where once integrity reigned.
The lack of firm guidance and leadership from the EFL has exposed it as a conflicted, vacuous and corrupt body that is unfit for its purpose. Time has been wasted. Information has been obfuscated. Double standards have grown from complicit cliques. Turkeys were asked to vote for Christmas, and we should not be shocked by the results.
As a fanbase, we are not blind to the myriad challenges - in terms of health, logistics and finances - that lent difficulty to playing out the 2019-20 League One season. English football has never faced a problem like this before, and the resultant sense of invincibility is reflected in the lack of regulations to deal with such an unforeseen work stoppage. The EFL could certainly have been better prepared for events like this, and perhaps it should have been, but there are more important injustices to focus on at the moment. We will leave historic ineptitude and chronic failures of preparedness for another day.
Due to the financial chasm that exists between the Premier League and League One, third division clubs rely hugely on gate money and income from fan-attended games for sustenance. Aggressive social distancing severed that revenue stream, likely until 2021 at the earliest, putting many clubs in serious financial peril. Indeed, all League One clubs would lose considerable amounts of money playing games behind closed doors, hence the self-absorbed campaign to curtail the season as soon as possible.
On a philosophical level, the economics of such a decision seem to make sense. Any business that is haemorrhaging money just bringing its main product to market will seek ways to cut costs and quell the bleeding. That is a logical strategy for long-term survival. However, Tranmere estimated that it would cost each League One club between £250,000 and £600,000 to play out the season, which had nine games remaining for each team in most instances. Admittedly, with limited revenue coming in from the other side, it can be difficult to offset such expenditure, but the fact that most League One clubs do not have £600,000 in working capital is a sad polemic against football’s fragmented economy.
As time progressed, and as a decision on the season’s future lay in controversial stasis, clubs were fed increasingly grim propaganda, influencing their respective stances inaccurately. When it became apparent that a regime of coronavirus testing would be needed to continue playing games, wildly inaccurate costs were bandied about. Moreover, the impracticality of player contracts expiring on 30th June – with more than 60% of EFL players becoming free agents – was enough for some clubs to wave a white flag.
When the EFL refused to take action, a cabal of clubs in the murky middle ground essentially decided everybody else’s fate. The debate quickly became about how to end the season as swiftly as possible, tying a tourniquet around the floundering corpse of English football. A majority of League One football clubs gradually eked away from actually playing football, pushing towards a vote against the very exercise that defines them. It was akin to schools deciding not to educate their students.
Of course, there are health concerns here, as well. I know. I get it. There are wide-reaching implications for communities if even one EFL player tests positive for COVID-19 during competition. That cannot be downplayed. However, the way in which certain clubs have hid behind the pandemic to disguise their own fiscal shortcomings and their embarrassing lack of appetite for playing competitive football matches is utterly disgraceful. The key decision-makers at those clubs have no place in our game.
Why points-per-game (PPG) is an unfair method of ending a football season
Amid increased lobbying in May, the EFL eventually outlined a blueprint for ending its League One season, suggesting an unweighted points-per-game (PPG) algorithm to decide the final standings. Two months earlier, Laurence Jones, the FA’s head of our national league system, opined that PPG was an inadequate method of deciding the outcome of a season. Still, the EFL pressed ahead, crafting the proposal that eventually relegated Tranmere by four one-hundredths of a point.
I could write an entire book about why PPG is an unfair tool for deciding the outcome of an unfinished football season, but let me briefly address some of the more egregious oversights here.
Firstly, PPG does not account for the varying strengths of fixture lists faced by each respective team. For instance, before all hell broke loose, Tranmere were three points from safety with nine games remaining. Rovers had won three consecutive matches, scaling the league’s form table, and still had to play the three clubs immediately ahead of them in the standings: Wimbledon, Rochdale and MK Dons. Oh, we had a game in hand, as well, but the elite does not want to publicise that. In essence, then, during the portion of the season from which the EFL sourced its faulty PPG data, Tranmere faced more difficult opposition than was scheduled for their immediate future. Unweighted PPG makes no allowance for that fact.
Likewise, the EFL’s formula does not account for home or away advantages. How all games can be considered equally through a PPG prism, with no regard to expected result changes based on host stadium, is incomprehensible. Furthermore, PPG does not allow for upticks in performance, nor does it accommodate efficiency of club management, changes to squads, alterations to training practices, in-game tactical proficiency or human responses to mounting pressure.
For instance, if you ended League One at the same point last year and applied PPG to decide the outcome of relegation, three of the clubs such a system would have doomed actually survived in reality, including AFC Wimbledon, supposed bastions of morality in football who today voted to relegate Tranmere Rovers for the sake of their own bank balance.
Inside the Tranmere Rovers proposal for an equitable end to League One
This strikes at the heart of Rovers' counterproposal, which was dismissed by most League One clubs. Rovers argued for logical adjustments to PPG, accounting for such margins of error - between +6.3% and -5.45% of the unweighted PPG total - derived from a pool of data stretching back three years. Fashioned not from a starting point of self-service, but instead motivated by doing the least damage to the most amount of League One clubs, our proposal was altruistic and logical. It offered an end to the suffering and outlined a way forward, allowing clubs to move on and address bigger problems, such as the financial cataclysm engulfing our sport.
While other clubs stayed on the sidelines, silently frustrating negotiations with wilful intransigence, Tranmere did the honourable thing and tried to build consensus. We ventured into the middle ground and put our heads above the parapet. We tried to balance the need to recognise success through promotion while also safeguarding clubs from an unfair plunging into the aforementioned chasm. The vast majority was too blinkered to see our point, and it did not care enough to do the right thing.
Whereas other, richer clubs bickered from their partisan fiefdoms, Tranmere tried to create a compromise solution that blended raw statistics with the prevailing mood music of ethical football fans. Rovers did not want to force clubs to play if they did not harbour such a desire, but they also did not want to be surrendered for the financial benefit of an egotistical, tone-deaf majority. We did not want to be relegated by a calculator, in essence, preferring to decide our sporting fate on the field. Others were content to accept the EFL’s deluded PPG model because it did not harm them unjustly. I hope those people look themselves in the mirror this evening and question if they did the right thing.
I have criticised Mark and Nicola Palios in the past. Sometimes, I have been off the mark in my assessments. We are all human, and I own up to those mistakes. As a reputable fulcrum of fan opinion, Planet Prentonia has a duty to hold any ownership group to account, and we occasionally overstep the mark. However, I commend their efforts in recent months. They devised the fairest possible solution to a messy problem, but the majority was unresponsive to shouldering even a marginal element of additional risk.
EFL clubs vote to relegate Tranmere Rovers while other clubs play on
For clubs in the centre ground, the EFL’s fixation on unweighted PPG offered vital support to their biased plans to destroy the remainder of League One’s season. Similarly, those clubs who were safely assured of their third division status by such an arbitrary system were disinclined to vote for any amendments thereto. Rather than acting out of compassion and backing their instincts on the field, they voted to subvert competitive integrity and save money that does not even exist.
This is a dark day for English football. Not only were Tranmere Rovers relegated on a technicality, but the game’s total surrender to omnipotent cash was finally complete. Our game has been edging towards this cliff for generations, with crude finances dictating decisions in an emotional vacuum. Today, football fell over the edge, perhaps never to return as we know it. All sense of sportsmanship is dead.
Contrary to prevailing wisdom, EFL clubs did not vote to end League One today. They voted to end League One for some participants while allowing it to continue for others. Wycombe, Oxford, Portsmouth and Fleetwood will now proceed to the traditional end-of-season playoffs, fighting for a place in the Championship. Meanwhile, in League Two, Cheltenham, Exeter, Colchester and Northampton will compete to take Tranmere’s place in the third division while we watch on helplessly. Any attempts to label that ‘fair’ are doomed to eternal failure.
If the football cognoscenti actually cared about public health, as it so purports, why can a handpicked group of teams play matches while others cannot? If these people seriously wanted an equitable end to the 2019-20 season, how can four teams compete for our place in League One, but we cannot compete to retain said place? If anybody really cared, why would Tranmere Rovers be fed to the wolves so that everybody else can get on with their lives?
The EFL seems to love capricious mathematics justifying deleterious ends, so I have a conundrum for it to consider. In an unweighted paradigm, any one football team has a 25% chance of getting promoted via the playoffs. Remember, we are told not to consider form, strength of squad or managerial ability in these things, so let’s toe the line. Tranmere Rovers also had a 25% chance of avoiding relegation, in such a simplistic probability model, because Wimbledon, Rochdale and MK Dons all could have finished 21st – the final relegation place – if the season was played out naturally.
Therefore, if one nondescript team has the opportunity to grasp its 25% chance of gaining promotion by playing football matches, why does another nondescript team not have the chance to grasp its own 25% chance of avoiding relegation by also playing football matches? At best, the answer focuses on self-centred determinism, and at worst, it speaks to systemic bias at the heart of EFL operations.
How the EFL botched its response to the coronavirus pandemic
Yesterday, news leaked that Oxford, Portsmouth, Fleetwood and Wycombe all began training again, upon advice from the EFL in preparation for the League One playoffs. Alas, the vote was sewn up before a word was even uttered today. Some EFL clubs did not even bother to attend a meeting where Tranmere’s proposal was discussed. Proxy voting put a final nail in our coffin, adding insult to injustice at a time when the world is already brimming with both.
In August, our beloved football club entered a race monitored by clear rules. It got off to a slow start, falling behind the leaders early on, but by February had come back to the pack. Just when it was about to overtake the third-to-last competitor, gaining momentum at every turn, the rules of said race were abandoned, rejected and rewritten on the fly so that some participants could thrive while others fell away. Let it never be forgotten, therefore, that Tranmere Rovers were unfairly relegated in 2020 by a corrupt system of whimsical constitution.
In a certain light, contrary to the EFL’s garbled message of financial fair play, we are being penalised for operating budgetary caution at the beginning of seasons. Whereas other clubs blow through their salary ceiling in July, front-loading their campaigns for promotion, Tranmere have been steadfast in their ethos of spreading expenditure throughout a season, making great use of the January transfer window to identify gaps in the squad and draft in suitable reinforcements.
That approach has resulted in three consecutive playoff final appearances, including two straight triumphs. Rovers’ late-season surges have therefore become part of football’s expected subtext, only to be derailed today by bitter rivals who are sick of our steady rise.
Historical data shows that Tranmere likely would have stayed up if games were played
Drilling deeper into the statistics, there was still 22.8% of the League One season remaining until it was summarily curtailed today. Unweighted PPG relies on a fictional even spread of points, but since three-points-for-a-win was adopted before the 1981-82 season, Tranmere have, on average, outperformed that supposed even spread by 0.72% in the final 22.8% of games in respective seasons.
If we apply that average uptick – drawn from 38 seasons’ worth of data – to a hypothetical 2019-20 conclusion, Rovers figured to end on 0.23 more points than their raw, flat PPG. Not a great amount, some may believe, but when you are relegated by a mere rounding error, even such fine margins make a gargantuan difference.
Additionally, in the four seasons that Micky Mellon has completed as Tranmere manager, his teams have outperformed the even spread of PPG by 1.38% in the final 22.8% of games. Again, translated to the 2019-20 season, such a typical upswing in results would give us an extra 0.44 points beyond the haphazard total apportioned to us by the EFL this afternoon. Enough to keep us up, in other words.
For illustrative purposes, if unweighted PPG was used after 77.2% of the 1988-89 season, Tranmere would have been denied the automatic promotion that catalysed a dynasty under Johnny King. If the same model was used in 2012-13, Rovers would have secured an unfair playoff place in League One rather than finishing eleventh. This system does not work.
It has often been said that somebody would have to be unhappy to break the stalemate and help English football move on, but the way EFL members have selected the most vulnerable among them to bear that ignominious load smacks of triumphalist insouciance.
As outlined above, I have analysed 38 seasons’ worth of statistics, considering every Football League game in history where three points have been available for a win. Tranmere have played in four different divisions during that span, but they still outperform their mythical points total prescribed this afternoon by unweighted PPG across the general arc of that period. Every way you dice it, we had a terrific chance of avoiding relegation this season, until our progress was upended by nonsensical responses to a global pandemic.
Dealing with another Tranmere Rovers heartbreak
Tranmere could have been selfish and campaigned hard for a total voiding of the season, but they recognised that promotion - and rewarding success on sporting merit - is important to upholding the integrity of future competition. We factored other clubs into our decision-making, whereas other clubs did not care one jot about us.
During this convoluted process, the EFL has repeatedly censored Tranmere Rovers fans, deleting their comments on social media posts and failing to address any of the concerns we have raised about the gross unfairness infecting modern football. Well, here is one message the EFL should hear loud and clear: fuck you, and fuck your pathetic PPG system that resembles the least creative way of ending a competitive sporting tournament.
As a club, we have faced worse adversity in the past. We are no strangers to relegation, but having it imposed from above by a minuscule fraction in an engineered formula is knew even by our standards of heartache. It is especially galling to see League Two continue with their playoffs, fighting for a third division place we cannot actively defend.
Still, we are tough up here. We know how to deal with setbacks. When the dust settles, and when the ball of angst melts from our throats, we will be ready again, just as we always are. We will fight with all we have to regain on the football pitch a proud status that was taken away in a sparsely attended teleconference.
Right now, this hurts. I feel it. You feel it. Even after all these years, I’m still hooked on this star-crossed club from that rough and rugged town. Even while the world turns to shit, and even as we think our footballing passions have been restricted by the dull embrace of maturity, something like this happens and we realise how much it means to us. We realise that Tranmere Rovers will trickle through our blood forever, and that our sequestered crusade for justice will last just as long.
- Falling in, out and back in love with Tranmere Rovers
- Tranmere, Watford and the meaning of proper football
- Free book extract: When Tranmere beat Newport at Wembley