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FA’s latest proposals threaten identity of the Football League
TWO weeks on, the prospect of the Football Association’s League Three proposals actually coming to fruition still fills me with dread.
The recent FA commission’s report was designed in its own words to “start a very serious debate within football”. Through shock and awe tactics it’s succeeded in that aim but Greg Dyke and friends haven’t just leapt on the hustings in front of the football-loving public and announced a harmless ‘free carrots for schools’ policy, they’ve pulled out a knife and threatened to chop up everyone’s packed lunch.
While it must be noted that the 84-page document published earlier this month picks up on half-a-dozen alarming trends in the English game - the lack of homegrown scholars given the chance to progress and the bulk of non-EU imports that are filed at the back of the cabinet after a year being two cases in point - there are grand assumptions lining the commission’s analysis that flick aside the proud traditions of the lower leagues like dust off a doormat.
The notion of League Three makes a mockery of the identity of teams in the bottoms two tiers of the Football League and, to an even greater extent, the Conference.
The report suggests, in the sort of carefree matter reserved by an aristocrat for his staff, that “all Premier League clubs would have the choice of having a B team starting either in that division (League Three) or the Conference”. What sort of message does that send to non-league football? It’s a thousand middle fingers being waved at once at the likes of Gateshead, who recently took 5,000 fans to the play-off final at Wembley, and Bristol Rovers - a club with an average gate of 6,500 now preparing for life at the fifth level.
Ordinary clubs matter to ordinary people. Perhaps the men and women at the top of the sport are prone to forgetting that. From my own very personal experiences, developing a love for football didn’t come from watching England fail to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. For me, an obsession was started by Steve Finney, Wayne Allison, Shaun Taylor and Kevin Horlock and that title-winning team of 1995/96.
Small clubs have a huge part to play in nurturing passion for the sport, the sort of passion that encourages kids to become coaches and administrators in later life and makes sure grass roots football - where it all begins - can continue to function.
Forcing Premier League B teams into the Football League is devaluing an age-old brand with a loyal and passionate following. While the premise is admirable in the grandness of its design, the concept is disrespectful to the decades of hard work and loyalty shown by chairmen, players, owners and fans of the smaller clubs.
Trying to merge academy squads with long-standing institutions is like a maverick chef attempting a fusion of lamb shanks and ice cream - an unappetising, unattractive mess made from two delicious ingredients.
There are, of course, other ways.
The notion of B teams in itself is hardly novel. Once upon a time they were reserve sides, playing in competitive reserve leagues against other competitive reserves, all of whom were trying to prove themselves good enough to make the step up to the first team.
Now we call these teams development XIs.
They play friendlies as and when clubs can be bothered, have no real structure or overall guidance and do very little good other than providing a platform for trialists and players recovering from injury.
Instead of shoe-horning an entirely new division into a structure which is loved and cherished by all its members, why not establish a formal reserve league once more - mirror it to run concurrently with the Premier League and Championship, draft academy graduates together with fringe first-teamers, stick to overseas player quotas, encourage competition through relegations, promotions and cups and appoint a full-time coach (he can be English, too).
Stick it on a Saturday when the first team is away from home and you never know, ordinary local folk might just turn up to back their local club. More football for a football-hungry population to watch, more football for aspirational teenagers to play.
Of course, that model would only succeed with initiative and investment from the FA and commitment from the clubs. And the latter part of that is where English football falls down - we simply don’t believe in what we produce or, in some cases, we just don’t care.
The top teams in the Premier League need to be responsible and cooperative enough to work in tandem with the game’s governing bodies to give the kids a chance.
They’ve already manipulated the Football League’s production line, through the Elite Player Performance Plan, to the extent they can cherry-pick the best young footballers in the country out of smaller sides’ academies for a nominal fee, while the little guys have to fork out extra wonga to maintain glorified donor centres for the Premier League.
There is extraordinarily little benefit to sides on the bottoms rungs. They were hardly given the option to turn against it, either. If the lower leagues hadn’t agreed to it, the drip-down funding to League One and League Two would most likely have been substantially cut. Ordinary clubs were stung by a protection racket.
And now the top teams, seemingly unaccountable to Financial Fair Play guidelines, free to poke legal loopholes in non-EU work permit legislation and happy to flout authority guidelines like adolescents do a curfew, get to have it all their own way.
You want the best young players? No problem. You want to hoard your billions while clubs like Hereford rely on donation buckets to survive? Your call. You’d like to disassemble a 150-year-old structure so a uniquely talented English winger, who can’t get a place in a first-team squad stuffed with uninspiring Venezuelans, can get a 60-minute run out at Plainmoor? Absa-bloody-lutely.
The problem doesn’t start at the bottom of the Football League. Clubs like ours here in Swindon produce their own talent, encourage youngsters to play football and give them the opportunity to thrive. The problem starts right at the top.
Between them, the cabal of clubs at the summit of the game in England hold Tardisimal power (with apologies to Dr Who). A small selection of wealthy individuals and corporations have the ability to dictate the direction the sport heads in, in almost every single way.
Many of them handle that extreme power with minimal responsibility to the English game - the very same game this commission is trying to protect.
They employ managers who are happy to sign unqualified foreigners while ignoring homegrown stars of the future; they stick to strategies that favour panic buying over long-term development, their eyes led more by the countless millions of prize money and TV payments reserved for already uber-rich clubs; they choose to concentrate on the future of the football played in England, not English football.
Dyke’s report highlights every troubling aspect of the sport in this country but panders to the big boys once again.
It doesn’t go to any great lengths to criticise top level recruitment, it doesn’t question the extravagant frittering of money; it says what we all knew was a problem and then suggests a solution that would only make football fans fall further out of love with highest echelons of the sport.
The commission provided many good theories in their report.
League Three was definitely not one of them.
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