BY JAY FREEMAN
Since FA Chairman Greg Dyke unveiled his England Commission’s report last week, there’s been a lot of discussion over the plans laid out for the future of youth football in England. The headline idea of a new League Three, slotted into the Football League pyramid, has been met with derision, whilst a ‘strategic loan partnership’ plan has also been heavily criticised. So what of Dyke’s foreword? Just how controversial a report is this from the beginning? What are we being told and what aren’t we being told? We took a look.
Dyke’s foreword in italics, my response in bold.
In twenty years the number of English players playing in the top division of English football has fallen by more than a half and the trend remains downwards. Our Commission was set up to ask what, if anything, could be done about this.
Brilliant. You’ve identified a problem of which you, the Chairman, has a vested interest, as you were influential in setting up the Premier League which has stifled youth development in this country in favour of stockpiling young players from home and abroad. It’s a good job you’re doing something about it then, but the fact you say ‘if anything’ doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
This decline is a problem in countries right across Europe but is a significantly bigger problem in England than anywhere else and if the trend continues we fear for the future of the English team. If this cannot be reversed a future England manager will have fewer and fewer top level English players from which to choose.
This is a legitimate point and one that many would agree with, but why the England national team should take any sort of precedence puzzles me. What’s so special about the national team and international football in general when club football and league success seems to be so important? Or does it mean that a successful England team would bring in more sponsorship money for the FA?
We want to continue to have the best foreign players playing in England and to strengthen the quality and excitement of the Premier League and the rest of English club football. But we also want to develop ways of giving more English boys the best chance of achieving their potential by enabling them to play football at the very highest level.
We’ve heard this before when the Premier League was formed over two decades ago and besides, why bother to ‘develop ways of giving more English boys the best chance of achieving their potential’ when there’s already a relatively new and revamped youth development league in this country?
We believe that this is not only in the best interests of the national team and the young English players themselves but also in the interests of the professional football clubs who are spending millions of pounds on youth development programmes and are currently getting only a very limited return on their investment.
I don’t know what shocks me more, the fact that there’s no mention of the fans here (who are absolutely integral to football as a sport, not just in England), the fact you seem to be acting largely in the interests of ‘professional football clubs who are spending millions of pounds’ or the fact that this one paragraph bluntly makes clear that money is the actual issue here when the rest of the report isn’t as explicit. This paragraph condenses the FA’s attitude to this situation to what really matters to them.
As a Commission we set ourselves the challenge of finding ways of reversing the trend and getting the total number of English players playing regularly at the top level of English football back up, to a figure closer to 50%. This would mean increasing the number of English players playing regularly in the Premier League or other top leagues in Europe from the current 66 to more than 90.
This is fine. It’s not a problem that youth development should be improved in this country. After all, there’s clearly a lot of talent in England and the passion for the game here means that there’s certainly a decent level of interest in future generations. No one is denying that England has the means to be world leaders in youth development, the problem (which is clear for anyone to see but you admit is a ‘challenge’) is that what you propose in this report favours a rich minority and doesn’t actually solve the problems you’re addressing.
It quickly became clear to us that this could not be achieved without some radical and ambitious proposals to change English football and that is what we are outlining in this report. Tinkering will not be enough if we are to achieve our goal. To use the analogy I used when I launched the Commission in September 2013, the tanker that is English football needs turning if we are to reverse the trend.
‘Radical’ and ‘ambitious’. ‘Tinkering will not be enough if we are to achieve our goal’. Funny choice of words, this. I can think of two very simple ways to address the problems we face that might be ‘ambitious’ but aren’t ‘radical’ and only require a small amount of ‘tinkering’. 1) Subsidise the cost of coaching badges in this country. 2) Train all PE teachers to UEFA Pro standard.
Of course, there’s a cost implication here, but it could be easily funded by sponsorship (which you lot at the FA love) and would cause minimal disruption whilst addressing the lack of coaches in this country. Maybe this would be a better idea instead of disrupting a league system that’s so unique and works so well.
We recognise that making changes in football is often a slow and difficult process but we urge those in the football world to consider our proposals constructively and with open minds. We urge them to balance the specific, narrowly-defined concerns of their particular club or league with what will be of the most benefit to the game overall, to the development of young English players and to the success of the England team.
Nothing like considering proposals ‘constructively and with open minds’ when that seems to be the opposite of what you’ve done by not properly consulting the two biggest fan groups in England. Also, ‘narrowly-defined concerns of a particular club or league’? Bit ironic given that the proposals of the report are overwhelmingly in favour of the top teams of the Premier League who at best will end up with a new league to develop their stockpiled talent and at worst will end up with a loan system where they can boss smaller clubs around. Anyway, why should the success of the England team outweigh the importance of the current league pyramid which has worked in the past when nurturing young talent?
In researching this problem in English football we identified four key obstacles which we believe need to be overcome if we are to be successful. Work is still continuing on two of them – how to improve coaching and how to increase the investment in grassroots facilities.
Arguably, coaching and grassroots facilities are both more important than youth development and also solve the problem. So why weren’t those reports released at the same time? Seems like the timing of these proposals are quite convenient at the end of the league season and right before a World Cup when it’ll all be forgotten about within a few days.
This report, however, concentrates on the other two areas – the lack of meaningful playing opportunities for English elite players in the final stages of their development; and serious weaknesses in the system designed to restrict to the very best the numbers of non-EU players playing in England.
There are meaningful playing opportunities for English elite players; it’s called the loan system, which is addressed in the report but only by implementing fleeting changes to the system to allow bigger clubs to bully smaller ones. Also, where has this sense of territory come from regarding non-EU players? Just how much of a problem are non-EU players? If they’re that much of a problem, why do managers buy them? Surely it shouldn’t matter – in 2014 – where a player is from. They’re hardly the main reason why youth development has stalled.
This reports sets out our findings in these two areas and proposes a range of possible solutions, which the Commission believes would help overcome these problems.
Or what the commission believes would favour the clubs who’ve effectively caused the current situation and means the Football League has to pay the price for their actions..
I thank our Commission members for giving their time freely and for bringing energy,
wisdom, experience and frequent challenge in serving on this Commission. My
thanks also go to the 650 people from across football and beyond who have willingly
contributed their experiences, opinions, suggestions, data, advice and differing views
to the Commission and its research team.
650 people, but not the Football Conference (whose leagues would be directly affected by these proposals), the Football Supporters Federation (whose members comprise the very people who keep football relevant in England) and Supporters Direct, who did supply feedback to the commission, but weren’t responded to.
Greg Dyke’s forward strangely omits the real changes that he plans to make to English football. There’s no mention of the B teams he wishes to introduce, or the new League Three that would have to be formed, he also doesn’t mention any reform of the loan system. Obviously it’s meant as an introduction to the report but what kind of introduction doesn’t highlight exactly the route that the commission wish to take given the importance of the subject matter? The most worrying part of this commission is that the B team proposal could be said to be a trojan horse to bring in strategic loan partnerships. On the surface, for bigger teams they’re a fair compromise. They allow them to supply a good amount of players to a lower league club whilst specifying exactly where they should be played and how they should be trained. In effect, they’re B teams apart from the name.
Why it’s a dangerous idea is that it robs the smaller team of its identity whilst potentially takes advantage of poorer clubs. Unscrupulous chairman of League Two could jump upon the chance to take a strategic loan partnership with a top Premier League club. To them, it would benefit their push for promotion and also mean that they could spend less on their own youth development. For this reason, it’s important that the timing of this report does not mean that the content is forgotten over the summer during the World Cup. It’s unlikely that a new League 3 will be implemented but that doesn’t mean that this report won’t bring serious changes that might not be welcome and might negatively impact English football for years to come.
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