BY PETE SPENCER
Greg Dyke is not a man unfamiliar with controversy. A man, in some quarters, credited with the introducing of ‘tabloid’ television broadcasting in this country. He was also responsible for reviving the failing TV-AM, and having senior positions at LWT, Channel 5 and more latterly, BBC. As Chairman of The FA he set up a commission to look at English football to discover ways of improving the fortunes of the England team. They have come up with a ‘dossier’ including a number of proposals, but one in particular has caught the public ‘imagination’.
The commission has suggested an introduction of 10 Premier League B-teams to compete in a division between League Two and the Conference with 10 Conference sides. If the intention was to open up a debate the proposal has already achieved its aim. But there are many questions this suggestion brings up, as the whole concept is far from a perfect one.
If we assume Premier League B-teams will be stronger than other League 3 teams, it creates an unfair structure. Assume Bristol Rovers, who have just been relegated out of the Football League into the Conference, go into League Three, they could in theory be playing against stiffer opposition than if they were in League Two. In which case it could be three or four years before they ever get back to League Two, if they ever do. Already, League teams do not bounce straight back up from the Conference and that is with an organic system. The promotion positions for the next three to four years could all be occupied by B-teams and once they’ve all been promoted to League Two, then what?
The plan for these B-teams is that they cannot get promoted beyond League One. So, in theory League One now becomes the B-team division possibly reducing the chances of many clubs of ever getting as far as the Championship. One could argue this increases the competitiveness of League One as the gap between that division and the Championship is far greater than that of Leagues One and Two. Alternatively, if B-teams cannot be promoted from League One then a club only needs to finish 11th in League One to be considered ‘Champions’ and therefore only the 26 matches against none B-teams will become important, or indeed relevant.
In addition, if you have a 20-club league with 10 B-teams and 10 Conference sides, surely the only ‘competitive’ matches the B-teams will get is when they come up against another B-team? Therefore, of the 38 games they play, only 18 are really that competitive. Plus, you could find the relegation places are always occupied by Conference clubs, therefore stunting their growth further. That is until all the B-teams have moved up to League Two.
Forgetting the hypothetical theory of what may, or may not happen let us consider the main aim of the proposal. These B-teams must contain English-born players. But what happens to these players right now?
Dyke says they are being denied opportunities to breakthrough into Premier League first teams, but the result is Premier League clubs loan them out to lower league clubs.
Anyone who has ever played Football Manager and managed a club in Leagues One or Two soon discovers the route to success is to scour the squads of Premier League and Championship sides to identify young talent not getting an opportunity, and then try to negotiate a loan deal. The consequence is you can often loan the player without having to pay their wages. For the cash-strapped League One club this gives them the opportunity to select a Premier League trained player who they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford to pay, and have him play at zero cost to that club.
I wrote an article about the loan system as I believe it to be fundamentally flawed, and a system which just doesn’t work. This is one of the things which needs overhauling first, in my opinion. Perhaps we should introduce a cap on the amount of times a player can be loaned out. A little like we now have regulation for payday loans where they cannot be rolled over more than twice, perhaps clubs should be forced to decide what they want to do with a player and if they don’t want him, let others have him. In my article I highlighted the career of Josh McEachran, currently on his 4th loan deal from Chelsea in as many years. Chelsea is the best (or worst) example in this as they have an entire 25-man squad out on loan. Why don’t they just leave these players for other clubs to employ? The problem of stockpiling is one which blights English football, but the loan system is at least a way of sharing out this talent. Introduce a B-team league and you may just makes things worse.
What this proposal is in danger of doing is keeping those players within the Premier League clubs and consequently League One and Two clubs never get to use them. You could counter this by asking “why don’t they find their own players?” Well they do, or at least they try to but when faced with the choice of going to Darlington or being signed as a youngster for Chelsea, many kids and their parents will choose the Premier League club. The pressure on parents these days often results in the misheld belief they are being ‘unfair’ to their children if they don’t give them the opportunity to succeed. How often are we told the career of a professional footballer is very short and with the constant pressure of things like ‘talent shows’ ‘following your dreams’, many parents feel they have little choice than to take a chance at the bigger club, especially as the wages are often higher. But there are countless examples of this being more of a hindrance to the youngster’s career than if they’d worked their way up from the bottom.
A cap on the maximum squad size could also go a long way to improving the situation. When big money first came into the English game courtesy of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea bought up player after player. The sensible theory was there would be a limit to how many players they could attract, as their squad grew larger, and then many players would make the decision to go elsewhere as ‘the club was already full’. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened and there are countless examples of players still choosing a club such as Chelsea when first team opportunities would appear scarce and remote. In those early years, English-born players such as Glenn Johnson, Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell all found their careers damaged, or at the very least stagnated, by their choice of Stamford Bridge as opposed to perfectly good choices they’d already made.
One big problem is Premier League clubs stockpile players. If we use Chelsea as the example again, particularly as they seem to be the worst offenders, they have a 25-man squad for their Premier League games and another 25 players out on loan. What is to stop them simply recruiting a third squad of 25 players purely to fill their B-team? But then, Mr Dyke, is that ok as the B-team squad is predominantly English?
This proposal is in danger of denying lower league clubs one major source of income crucial to their continued existence; finding and developing a youngster to sell to one of the big clubs. When Notts County received £2m from Arsenal for 15-year-old Jermaine Pennant, they were in the third tier of English football. When Southampton received £5m from Arsenal for Theo Walcott they were a Championship side. They were still a Championship side when Tottenham paid them £5m for Gareth Bale. These fees can be vital for lower league clubs and the Premier League are less concerned with missing out on these youngsters too early as they know the price they will pay for them later on is a larger amount in the eyes of the seller than the buyer. But lower league clubs have been finding talent for bigger clubs for years. For example, look at the Liverpool side from the 1970’s which included a number of players plucked from lower divisions who all went onto win honours at club, European and international level; Ray Clemence (Scunthorpe), Phil Neal (Northampton), Emlyn Hughes (Blackpool) and Kevin Keegan (Scunthorpe) the prime examples.
There lies another problem. We are assuming it is all the clubs’ fault yet players can make some pretty poor career choices which can skew the whole system. Often their decisions are motivated by money and if we are to assume this new proposal simply swells the already burgeoning coffers of the Premier League clubs then they can always afford to pay players more money. More often than not, football mirrors society and if people are to be lauded for their riches and possessions rather than their achievements then the stick of “so if you were a professional footballer, how come I’ve never heard of you” is less of a deterrent for a player who is happy being paid to sit on the bench. Of course, the kudos of being able to tell a star-struck young lady you “played for Chelsea” may be all you need than to explain it was only for the B-team playing at such places as Gateshead, Kidderminster or Braintree.
This is certainly far from levelling the playing field as Premier League clubs can afford to pay their B-team players the sort of wages Conference clubs can only dream of.
Consider the situation from the League Two clubs’ point of view and they now find a valuable source of employment (loaning Premier League clubs players) has been closed down. By definition this will increase the wage bill of League One and Two clubs at a time when there is little guarantee more people will be flocking through the turnstiles to compensate.
Now presumably, there will be the usual prize money on offer based on league positions. So if we are to assume B-teams will be stronger than the other League Three sides then there is more money going to Premier League clubs at other’s expense. If my theory is correct about B-teams soon clogging up League One and often finishing in the top positions, this also reduces the prize money which is currently available to a League One side. Going back to my point about the possibility of the first promoted side to The Championship finishing as low as 11th one year, then by definition they will be earning less prize money than the B-teams above them which again is simply handing more money to Premier League clubs at the expense of others.
None of this sounds a good idea for a League One or Two club right now.
Other questions which arise out of this proposal concern the venues for these matches and the coaching staff. Where will these B-teams play and who will coach them? Many have called these proposals as the solution to providing more competitive football at youth level and so will the role of youth team coach become a bigger, and more important one? Does that then mean many talented coaches take up a youth team role at a Premier League B-team rather than choose overall control as manager of a League One or Two club? If so, this would appear to be another nail going in.
In recent years players at under-19 level get to compete in the Next Gen Series. This was the brainchild of Mark Warburton, current Brentford manager, and TV Sports Producer, Justin Andrews. Clubs throughout Europe competed in a Champions League style competition. This gave the Premier League players an opportunity to mix with some of the best young talent in Europe. UEFA has now introduced a Youth League which seems to have superseded this. But once players reach under-21 level the competition seems to fall away.
If we go back to the issue of venues and consider what they do in the Next Gen Series, many European clubs use their normal stadium as their venue, whereas Tottenham used Leyton Orient, Liverpool played at St. Helens and Manchester City played at Hyde. Will these grounds be enough to attract sufficient support to boost the profile of a B-team league?
Many managers and coaches have stated they are in favour of more competition at this level, with both Glenn Hoddle and Harry Redknapp giving it their backing. Brendan Rodgers also seemed to agree change was needed without endorsing this proposal as a solution, when he said “there is a lot of talent in this country, but the problem is it’s not coming through”. They didn’t actually claim this proposal would work, although Hoddle has experience in this with his academy project in La Manga where they often played against Spanish B-teams. Dario Gradi was another one in agreement something needed to be done, but was doubtful this idea would provide the solution.
This then leads to another issue possibly unique within English football. The pyramid system. English football below Premier League level is more supported than comparable leagues around the world, with many communities reliant on their football clubs. Examples are often given of B-team leagues elsewhere in Europe, but they are not as well supported as even some League One clubs are. Presumably for The FA to get this proposal accepted the Football League clubs will have to agree to it? If that’s the case then there will need to be some serious adjustment for it to become palatable for them. A comparison could be made with English cricket where we probably play far too much domestic cricket mainly because there are too many counties. But you are never going to get counties to agree a reduction in their number, why would they? Similarly, why would Football League clubs vote for a system which could affect them financially?
One solution could be to regionalise the leagues from League Two downwards. This could cushion the financial blow, reducing the cost of travel for both clubs and supporters. It could also create more possibility of derby matches which in turn could increase the attendances at some grounds. Personally, I would be a supporter of including the Conference in this regionalisation.
The concern about lack of English talent is not a new one. When he was England manager, Kevin Keegan voiced his concerns when he was preparing for Euro 2000. His successor, Sven Goran Eriksson was equally concerned when he took over in 2001. We had laughed from this side of the Channel when France failed to qualify for USA ’94, but when they bounced back with winning the World Cup in 1998 and European Championship two years later, we suddenly realised we might need to copy what they had done and invest in some youngsters. Plans were put in place for a Centre of Excellence to be built in Burton but that took so long to come to fruition that clubs set up their own academies to do the job. So, is the problem with The FA itself? Are there far too many committees? Why does it take so long for the organisation to do anything?
Yet for many clubs the academy system has been a success, but unfortunately it is too often filled with young talent not eligible to play for England. Do we need a form of quota system for the academies only allowing them a certain amount of overseas players? Of course care must be taken not to breach EU laws regarding employment, but academies haven’t solved the problem just merely improved things for a few clubs. This then brings me to my next point, for which I will expand in a further article.
If opportunities do not exist here, why does young English talent not move abroad?
In any economy and industry if the employment opportunities do not exist locally, people have the option of going to where the opportunities exist, which might mean in another country. Look across Europe and you find leagues have a reasonable smattering of foreign players. There are Brazilians in Russia, Africans in England and even Senegalese playing in the Faroe Islands. The climate in these countries must be so far removed from what those players are used to, yet they still take up the offer of employment. But other than Gareth Bale there are hardly any British players playing in leagues around the world. There has to be a reason for that, and I believe until we discover why that is and how we can put it right, we will always be decrying lack of home-based talent.
What is becoming increasingly clear is the young English talent coming through at the moment is of a higher quality which must be a result of exposure to some very good foreign players in the Premier League. Look at Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and you have some impressive young talent who are benefitting from playing every week with some fine foreign players. You can see why some clubs would argue the present system works. There may not be much talent coming through but the ones who make it are very good.
Within the commission’s proposals also contained suggestions for ‘Strategic Loan Partnerships’ between clubs. But these are hardly likely to work in practice as many lower leagues clubs will simply want to align with the biggest Premier League clubs and once they’ve been snapped up it puts the other clubs at a disadvantage. Plus, if you’re not careful Manchester United could simply agree to a partnership with the club who pays the highest fee, which again puts other less wealthy clubs at a disadvantage.
As I said earlier, this problem hasn’t just happened overnight so we will need patience to allow any changes to take effect before we see any improvement. It hasn’t gone wrong overnight so it will not be put right in the same time frame. We need to deal with the symptoms not the illness. We need to discover what’s causing the problem rather than simply impose a load of sanctions.
As with a water leak, you need to find out what’s causing the leak in the first place rather than simply plug up the hole, as water will simply find another way to get through. By the way this analogy is not a way purely to combine some awful pun about Dykes and plugging holes, tempting as it may seem.
Personally, I applaud Dyke for opening up the debate. What is the point of difficult subjects if you’re not prepared to confront them and welcome comment? Dyke could argue many of his predecessors should’ve put something in place. Adam Crozier would’ve been better served coming up with plans to solve these problems rather than looking for photo opportunities with Eriksson at England matches. As a media man, Dyke will know the value of ‘any publicity is the best publicity’ or ‘no such thing as bad publicity, there’s just coverage’.
What we do need are constructive criticisms and suggestions. Simply calling Dyke an idiot or clueless is unlikely to lead to change as you’re not necessarily stating how or why his proposals cannot work. A petition is also meaningless, in my opinion. Of course it does flag up how many are unhappy with the idea, but we can all press a button for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but when asked the question ‘well what would you do then?’ we need some answers.
In my view we need a range of adjustments, beginning with the loan system and moving onto squad quotas for clubs to avoid big clubs stockpiling players. We also need to address the issue of lack of English players moving abroad and you may uncover something rotten at the core of English football. We also need more resources spent on grass roots football as we cannot simply leave it up to local authorities to deal with. Many clubs were unable to play home matches for three to four months over the winter as they were waterlogged and that could easily have resulted in clubs folding and players lost to the game. Mind you, I do subscribe to the opinion if you’re good enough at that level you’ll be seen by someone and snapped up. The problems seem to start after that. I agree we need more competition for players at under-21 level but do we need to mess around with lower league clubs to create this?
So, over to you. What would you do? How would you change things?
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