It took barely three weeks for the blue sky thinking to start again in 2012, but this time the idea came from one of the more unlikely of available sources. In an interview with The Guardian, Andres Villa Boas has stated an opinion that Chelsea should be allowed to field a ‘B’ team in the Championship. In some respects, he is merely verbalising what the vast majority of us already hold to be a truth in any case - that the Premier League doesn’t give damn for anything other than itself - but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at how his idea might play out and why it might not work out for anybody.
First of all, there is the small matter of legislation. The first hurdle that any serious attempt at establishing the Football League as some of feeder league would come up against would be to require a change in Football Association rules on the ownership of clubs. Currently, people are banned from owning more than one club in the league system. Proponents of a feeder league system might well argue that reserve teams would not fall under this rule since they are already part of a club, but the rules in ownership are written under the system that we have in place already and may prove difficult to change.
Next up, of course, comes the hurdle of getting the agreement of the Football League. This sometimes byzantine organisation is, in terms of its voting structure, largely run by the clubs of the Championship, and they would have to agree and then get the permission of the FA – who have overall control of the English league system – to allow it. This might have the feel of turkeys lining up at the polling booths over the Christmas question, but some may argue that the clubs of the Championship could – as they were over EPPP towards the end of last year – be browbeaten into voting for it. The difference this time, however, is that the clubs concerned would voting over something that would have an even greater effect upon them than EPPP is expected to.
This is significant, because it ties into the overall unworkability of such ideas. Chelsea would, in all likelihood, be the tip of the iceberg should such an idea ever gain any traction. If they were to benefit from this, other Premier League clubs would almost certainly want in as well, and the obvious next question would have to be that of how many clubs should be accommodated under such plans. What would happen if all twenty Premier League clubs decided that they wanted a go at having a feeder club? It seems inconceivable that anyone would want a system that would force the en masse relegation of up to twenty Football League clubs, and that’s before we even take into account which divisions of the League they would go into.
Of course, an alternative option for the clubs of the Premier League to buy up those clubs that they wished to use as feeder clubs and rebrand them in their own livery – an extension, arguably, of the deal signed between Manchester City and non-league Hyde FC which has seen City’s reserve team playing at a Ewen Fields from which the former red colours of Hyde (and, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, with the “United” suffix from their name having been removed as well). Premier League clubs may or may not find willing sellers depending on what was on offer, but even clubs in lower divisions – especially those that own their own grounds – may prove to be expensive to acquire and it would be expected that supporters would fight tooth and nail against such moves if they were to result in their clubs being little more than training grounds for bigger clubs. On top of this, the running costs of squads on Premier League contracts would be high, and this is before we factor in the lack of income that these feeder clubs would bring in. Attendances for reserve team matches have never been high, running to no more than the low four figures at even the biggest of clubs and it seems unlikely that this would change much just because these teams were playing in the Championship or League One. As such – and especially if we consider the possibility of clubs having to vastly increase their squads for two simultaneous league campaigns – the costs of running feeder clubs could end up being quite high.
In the eventuality that such blue sky thinking did go any further, it is likely that we would hear a great deal about how this would benefit the England national team, and so on. In other words, the same as we were repeatedly told when the Premier League was being formed twenty years ago. It would be nothing of the sort. It may be possible to argue that it could be used a way of Premier League clubs bypassing Financial Fair Play regulations by enabling clubs to maintain huge squads with what would effectively be a “shadow” clubs carrying the financial costs of a proportion of it. Regardless of what the motives behind it were, however, the result would be the same – the decimation and total devaluation, whether quick or eventual, of the Football League as a competition.
If Andres Villa Boas wishes to stockpile young players for Chelsea FC, then that is his right. He and his club – indeed all Premier League managers and all Premier League clubs – should, however, be aware that such a policy comes with advantages and disadvantages. The argument that it will strengthen the national team seems unlikely to win too many admirers – we’ve been down that particular road before – and the impression left by such comments from the manager of a Premier League football club merely reinforces the idea that the Premier League as an entity and all contained therein don’t give two hoots for anything other than themselves, which may well be true but is no more palatable for being repeated so regularly.
One of the common themes of the current generation of football’s blue sky thinkers is that their “radical proposals” for the future of the game always seem to benefit themselves above anybody else. This could be seen a couple of years ago, when the former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook put forward the idea of a ten team Premier League with no relegation just after City had established themselves as a top ten club. It was there when Ian Ayre suggested ending the collective bargaining of overseas television rights, and it is there in Karl-Heinz Rummenigge et al’s agitation for a European Super League. It may feel unlikely that academy sides will be allowed to compete in English football, but the Premier League has a tendency to get what it wants. One of these days one of the blue sky thinkers will chance upon something that gains traction. If would be nice if, just for once, one of them could put something forward that would benefit a wider audience than merely them and their employers.
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