Right, this is going to take a while, so I’ll keep it as short as possible. Parts need fleshing out, of course, but that won’t happen due to a consideration of people’s time and eyes. Anything in italics is a direct quote from the FA’s report.
The stated aim behind the proposals is “to consider the lack of available quality English players appearing regularly at the top end of English football, it was attempting to address an issue often raised, occasionally debated, but rarely confronted by the game.”
So basically try to come up with a way to increase the amount of English players playing in the PL/comparable leagues in Europe. Fine.
Why does that matter?
The two stated reasons are: 1) to improve the England team. 2) to increase the amount of opportunities for young English players.
How did we get here?
The Commission blames:
1+2) The huge amount of money swilling about in the game since the Sky Sports got involved and the PL breakaway in 1992.
3) The Bosman ruling, which allows players to move where they want to when they’re out of contract.
1+2 are fair enough. 3 seems a bit bizarre to me but I’ll ignore that (bigger fish to fry).
The Commission ignores:
1) The failure of the FA to control the continued avarice of the PL and the FA’s own move towards adopting the PL’s standards and practices.
2) The laissez faire attitude towards club ownership by the FA, allowing football clubs to become investment vehicles that concentrate only on the short term and sellable.
3) The utter failure by the FA and other relevant bodies to invest properly in the ‘grassroots’. (By which I mean facilities for youth and adult amateur football, a lack of qualified coaches and an increasing lack of engagement with anything that can’t make money.)
4) Increasingly hysterical coverage of football by a 24 hour news culture that ignores the meaningful and substantial in favour of the attention grabbing, but ultimately vacuous.
1,2+3 are all the FAs fault for ceding power to a self-interested PL for a hollow, Pyrrhic victory over the Football League in the early 90s. 4 admittedly has little to do with them, but is much more relevant than the Bosman ruling.
Diagnosing the Problem
The FA states:
1) Most importantly inadequate competitive playing opportunities for 18-21 year old elite players at top clubs
2) The ineffectiveness of the regulation of the player market in preserving the desired balance between English, EU and non-EU players
3) The quality and impact of coaching and coach education especially in grassroots football
4) The quantity and quality of grassroots facilities, especially all weather pitches
Apparently grammar is not in vogue at the FA. However, the problems are all, well, problems. The rest of the report then concentrates on points 1 and 2 because “Further work is underway on iii) and iv) and further reports will be published on these later in the year.” Can’t wait.
Anyway, the report then goes into impressive depth on all of these problems. For space reasons I will not go into that here, but instead move on to the solutions it proposes, but reference the appropriate section where necessary.
Guiding principles to the Solution
1) We must do nothing to impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League overseas.
2) Proposals must not damage (indeed they should support and build on) the English football pyramid and in particular the strengths of the Football League.
3) Our plans must not compromise – and should preferably improve – the financial performance and stability of individual clubs throughout the leagues including the Conference.
4) Whilst challenging, we believe it is important to try to negotiate changes in a way that accommodates the needs, values and strategies of all the organisations that manage, govern and support English football.
5) Simple solutions are better than complex ones, but we believe no change at all is not an option if the current trends are to be reversed.
1, fine. 2 and 3 are especially interesting. 4 obvious, 5 bombastic but understandable given they’re trying to push reform.
History of Development (or doublethink)
This bit is hilarious.
“Some people believe that English football should be preserved exactly as it has always been and that history bears out the success of this stance.” - nice easy straw man there. The ominous ‘they’ invoked as justification. Nothing like academic rigour, eh?
“There are even still those who believe the creation of the Premier League was damaging to English football despite the fact that it has become the most popular, successful league in the world.” – imagine that! People disagreeing with Big Brother?! Yes, the PL is successful and popular. This does not mean it is good for English football. I mean, with few English players playing at elite level and grassroots participation falling, you could argue that the PL’s been bad for English football. I haven’t even mentioned ticket prices either…
“The Premier League was formed in 1992 and has transformed English football’s world standing.” - another nice piece of revisionism here that nicely ignores the changes introduced by the Taylor Report after the Hillsborough tragedy (JFT96), the 1990 World Cup performance, the successful reintroduction of English teams to European competition and other myriad factors. I’d also be tempted to argue that it was more the fact that English football was on the telly, rather than the competition in which the teams played, that was more important with regard to international reputation – though I can accept that may be splitting hairs.
“The critical question now will be around how much change is good for English football and there is no doubt that there are those already queuing up to condemn any proposals for change – let alone radical proposals – which the Commission comes up with. But our argument would be that change has certainly been a larger part of the success and development of English football than many might believe.” - a critical question indeed. The point about queuing up to condemn any proposals is quite relevant to this blog, so I should be clear. Change is probably necessary, radical change may even be desirable. However, I do not accept that the FA’s proposals are the only way to go. Let’s see why.
Proposal 1 – the introduction of Premier League B teams into English football
Proposal 2 – the development of Strategic Loan Partnerships between clubs in the top two leagues and those in the divisions below
Proposal 3 – the gradual expansion of the number of Home Grown Players each Premier League and Football League club must include in its squad
Proposal 4 – changes to the non-EU immigration procedures, to properly deliver on the declared aims of that regulation
Righto, we’ll look at these in order.
Proposal 1 – B Teams
Why? To “provide the crucial first stage of an effective bridge between the academy and first team [...] providing competitive football from a younger age.”
Who/When? “All Premier League clubs at the start of the 2015-16 season would be eligible for a B team to be playing in the lower leagues in 2016-17. It would be up to each individual club to decide whether or not it wanted one.”
How? “Space for these clubs would be made primarily through the creation of a new League 3 within the Football League in 2016-17. This division would initially be made up of 20 clubs of which up to ten would be Premier League B teams and the other ten places would be taken by the top teams from the Conference Premier.”
Also: “At least 19 of the B team squad of 25 should be players under the age of 21 (at the start of the season) and only three on the match day team sheet of 18 players can be over 21.” And: “At least 20 of the 25 players should qualify under the Home Grown player rules.”
Finally, the Easter egg: “The eventual structure and distribution of B teams would clearly be a decision for the clubs in the Football League and the Conference.”
There are other points, but I feel these are the most relevant.
What’s good about this?
Let’s start off by being nice about it. The good points are:
1) Guaranteed opportunities for young players (though not necessarily English players).
2) The B teams would be excellently resourced, and should be fine places to play football.
What’s bad about this?
Ok, let’s really get into this.
1) The FA’s own evidence indicates that PL clubs don’t want players who play at the equivalent level of a Conference club. In the 2013/14 season just 14 English players where loaned from PL to Conference clubs, whilst 49 moved to Championship clubs, 40 to League 1 and 1 to the PL. I would suggest that the reason there are relatively few loans to Conference clubs is because PL clubs don’t regard that level as appropriate to the needs of their player’s development. I suggest that this trend would continue, with B teams becoming little more than dumping grounds for players. Of course, the best B teams would get promoted to League 1, which is theoretically a good thing for player development (based on the above figures), but creates different problems.
2) Despite appearances to the contrary, this proposal will not encourage a competitive environment for the players involved. Yes, on the surface they’re playing in the pyramid, against proper teams and so on. But, what it’s actually doing is creating an entrenched oligarchy of clubs with the capacity and permission to horde players. This is a terrible idea. Oligarcies are generally bad for competition. Think of energy companies – they all offer the same product (electricity for example) and only differentiate themselves via price and the various levels of incompetence within the company. The theory is that the companies will compete to drive prices down and offer better customer service, but the reality is that they all increase prices by the same amount and offer terrible customer service. It is a (legal) cartel in all but name. This will become true of football (it is already true to an extent). The big clubs, who already have all of the advantages, will gain more advantages. The players who end up at lower league clubs will definitely be worse compared to their counterparts in the B sides (because why would you leave a B side if you can play at the same level and have a chance of playing in the PL?) and the competition will stagnate. And what then? Allow B sides into the Championship? The FA Cup? It is a very, very slippery slope.
3) The FA counter the above concern by stating: “The idea that B teams would automatically fill all the top places in the lower leagues or cluster together in one league isn’t borne out by the experience in Germany, Spain and other countries with B teams. [see exhibits [24a] and [24b]].” This is true, but it misses the point. Lower league football in this country is highly competitive, vibrant and enjoyable. B teams ruin that vibrancy and will damage the competitions even if they don’t occupy the top places in the league. In fact, if the B teams are awful (and there is a real danger they would stagnate), they may actually damage the competitiveness of the league! Furthermore, in Germany, one of the Commission’s favourite examples, teams are getting rid of the B team system - a decision they have come to by experience. Also, in Spain, aside from Real Madrid and Barcelona, title challenges by other teams are very rare (go Atletico!). Why? Because resources, of which B teams are a major one, are concentrated in the hands of the few. Other teams are blown away by the production capacity of these teams.
4) The Commission states it wants players “playing in front of real crowds, against older men whose livelihood is dependent on winning and experiencing the pressures of a game where the outcome has real consequences”. Ok, that sounds good (ignoring the patronising tone), but the evidence suggests that there won’t be much of a crowd at all. Eight non-league teams (including one at step 7) had better crowds than Real Madrid B this season. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but playing in an empty stadium against a bunch of players who don’t care about your bleeding ‘development’, so will snap your leg if necessary is not the solution to England’s woes.
5) Last one, not because there aren’t more, but because we need to move on. What about the fans? These proposals are terribly narrow-minded. Designed only with improving players at the expense of any consideration for what fans of lower league clubs might actually want. The Commission stated in the History section that it believes that English football has been benefited by the success and popularisation of the PL across the world. But is the Football League and Conference not successful and popular? Sheffield United did brilliantly in the FA Cup this season, Wigan had a decent campaign in Europe, ten teams in the Conference averaged over 2,000 fans. This is beneficial to English football by the FA’s own measure. Why do they want to jeopardise an already successful set-up for the benefit of a handful of clubs, for a clutch of uncaring players? It is madness driven by greed and vested interest, pure and simple.
Ok, that’s all there. There are more, there really are loads more. But we must move on.
Proposal 2 – Strategic Loan Partnerships
Why? “existing Football League rules effectively prevent clubs from controlling the development experience that their players receive when out on loan. It is up to the club that takes the player to determine how the player gets played, in what position, how frequently, how they train, the club’s playing philosophy and the sports science approach used.”
Who? “Premier League and Championship clubs will be able to supplement the existing loan system with Strategic Loan Partnerships (SLP) with up to two clubs in divisions below the Championship.”
What? “[with] an SLP the lending club would be able to guide the loaned player’s experience more closely while on loan.”
How? “Under the SLP system, a Senior club would be allowed to lend up to eight players to its Partner club at any time.” (Though only five will be allowed in the matchday squad, as per current rules.)
The fantasy section: “The SLP could involve the Senior club sending coaches to the Partner club”, “There could be further exchanges of sports science, nutrition, education etc”, “All or part of loaned players’ and coaches’ wages could be paid in full by the Senior club.”
Easter egg: “The current limit of 10% on the equity ownership of one club by another might be extended to 25% if this were to bring greater financial stability to the junior club. This is a matter for the Football League to decide.”
Again, there are other points, but these are the most relevant.
What’s good about this proposal?
1) Reforms the currently messy loan system into a theoretically more transparent system.
2) Parent clubs have more say over how their players are developed, ensuring that they develop in a way that is desired by the parent club.
What’s bad about this proposal?
1) Eight players from a PL team on loan at one club?! This is B teams by another name.
2) This further emphasises the Commission’s desire to give all the help it can to the big clubs at the expense of the small. Yes, the smaller clubs get players, but the implication (though not explicit) is that PL clubs will be able to interfere with the smaller club’s affairs. It betrays the fact that the Commission do not trust smaller clubs to be able to handle the PL’s ‘developing’ players and points to a future where big clubs will be allowed, encouraged even, to chuck a load of youth teamers at a club and force the club to play them. The terms of these partnerships has not been disclosed but, given the FA’s main aim is to develop elite players for the national team, you can almost guarantee that playing the youth players will be a key part of the terms and conditions.
3) There aren’t any benefits for lower league clubs enshrined in these proposals. Yes the teams could get financial benefits, they could get advice about nutrition and so on, but where’s the guarantee? There isn’t one and it will not emerge. Don’t fool yourselves into believing it will.
This is a truly terrible idea. Ok, the loan rules need sorting out, but this is an awful way to do so. Ok, on to the last two proposals.
Proposal 3 – Home Grown Player Requirements
Why? To increase the amount of English players playing in PL squads.
What? Increasing the number of home grown players required in a PL squad whilst simultaneously reducing the amount of non home grown players in a squad.
Seems like a reasonable idea to me. I’ll nod it through.
Proposal 4 – Non-EU work visas
Why? To decrease the amount of foreign players across the divisions.
What? “No players coming in on overseas visas should be allowed to join clubs in any league in England other than the Premier League. The players are either of exceptional talent or they are not. No players on overseas visas should be allowed to be loaned to other clubs in England even if they are in the Premier League. A cap, of say two players, should be introduced on the number of non-EU players allowed in any one club, squad or team sheet.”
Again, seems like a reasonable idea. It’s certainly in keeping with the Commission’s aims and is achievable. I’ll nod it through.
Ok, to sum up: The Commission has missed the point completely by proposing B teams and the new loan system. The home grown player requirements and the visa changes seem reasonable. If you don’t agree with me by now then there’s little hope for you I’m afraid. I’ve tackled the supposed ‘benefits’ of the proposals head on and exposed the fact that they are not what they seem. I haven’t even mentioned the emotive and historical reasons for not employing B teams and the new loan system – here’s a good, quick summary though. I can expand on my points if you want, of course (this is terribly short in some ways), but this has gone on a bit too long!
Right, I’m going to get on with a post explaining some of the alternatives to this proposal, as apparently there haven’t been any. There will be soon!