Perhaps this moment marks the final stages of a coup d’etat that started more than twenty years ago. With the Football Association preparing to examine the idea of allowing formal relationships between bigger clubs with “feeder clubs” lower down the league pyramid in England, there will be a fundamental change in English football which will benefit the clubs of the Premier League to the detriment of the entire remainder of the English league system, and should the Football Association, upon completion of this examination, conclude that it is a good idea to do so, then its role will change from being the ultimate custodian of the whole of English football to being, effectively, the people in charge of trying to give the national team a better chance of winning the World Cup. And nothing more.
We’ve been here before, of course. At the time that the Premier League was being established, soothing, ameliorating noises were made by the biggest clubs in line with the FA’s failed Blueprint for the Future of Football. Yes, yes, yes, it was implied at that time, the creation of a new top division which keeps all of the television money will definitely benefit the England team. The FA wanted the number of clubs in the division reduced to eighteen clubs and for the new division to be governed by a committee including the FA chairman and chief executive. As soon as the clubs had what they wanted, both of these ideas were jettisoned, and it’s not difficult to believe that the owners of the current batch of Premier League clubs are having to pinch themselves at the fact that an organisation which ceded so much of its authority over the formation of the division in the first place could be preparing to do so again.
The clubs will make the right noises, of course. The traditions of the game in this country do, in spite of the relentless modernisation that we see around us all the time, continue to appeal to many supporters and there would be a PR battle to be won if they were to get their own way. So it is that it will be unlikely that Premier League clubs will stand up say publicly that the introduction of B teams will mean that twenty, thirty or perhaps more clubs will be shunted down the league pyramid to make way for, say, Manchester United B In A Thin Disguise, Chelsea Academy Under Another Name or Spurs Under-21s Incognito, even though everybody will say, for the time being, that renaming clubs is a non-starter. Lip service to the flotsam and jetsam that make up all bar the gilded few will have to be paid, so instead we can expect a lot of this sort of thing, taken from The Guardian’s report on the subject this evening:
Senior figures responsible for youth development at Premier League clubs are pushing for more formal relationships between Premier League sides and lower league clubs. They believe it could help alleviate the financial difficulties of many lower league clubs and at the same time provide a useful outlet for promising 17- to 21-year-olds schooled in new upgraded Premier League academies to play more competitive football.
Perhaps Premier League clubs really do think we’re stupid enough to believe that they are suddenly concerned about “alleviating the financial difficulties of many lower league clubs.” They seem to believe that the FA are, and the sad fact of the matter is that there is every chance that the FA actually is that stupid. Just as the governing body was blinded to what was being taken from under its nose by its desire to “win” a struggle for power with the Football League at the start of the 1990s – a struggle which, as we can now see with the benefit of hindsight, left both bodies effectively impotent – so it is showing disturbing signs of being blinded again by the nebulous notion that, somehow, winning the World Cup will prove to be some sort of panacea for the ills of the game in this country.
It is possible that Greg Dyke is oblivious to the facts that desecrating the pyramid system in this game would be the ultimate dereliction of its duty to the whole of English football, that doing so would far from guarantee any increased success for the national team – what difference would academy and youth team players playing each other in, say, the Football Conference rather than in the competitions that they now inhabit? – and that even in the remote event of this coming to benefit the England national team, international football is a slowly dying business. The supporters of the biggest clubs have already stopped caring about the England team, and they’re not coming back any time soon. The supporters of smaller clubs – many of whom are the poor buggers who actually follow the national team – may never forgive the FA for such an act of betrayal.
The clubs of the Premier League – and, perhaps, the Championship – however, would have much to gain. For a minimal financial outlay, they would get to almost complete their monopoly on the club game. Once a toe is in the door, it is surely highly likely that the gloves will come off. Names and colours will change to reflect the new owners, all in the name of progess. Then, Premier League clubs could market their second teams – and perhaps third teams: after all, who is likely to stop them? – as loss-leaders, advertising them as “affordable” football for fans that are unable to afford higher ticket prices, and make their money back from television money and merchandise sales. Clubs that didn’t get on board – and there is little to suggest that those that run smaller clubs wouldn’t leap at the chance to become “affiliated” to more glamorous names – may well find themselves frozen out of this brave new world, relics of the past as the biggest clubs hoover up all before them.
We already know from previous experience that when the Football Association and the Premier League lock horns over this sort of issue, it is habitually the Football Association that emerges as the losers. Even the national team winning the World Cup would not an acceptable price to pay for the costs that would have to be paid in order to do so, and even that eventuality is far from guaranteed. None of this is to say that the current loan system isn’t an absolute mess. It’s a farce and a disgrace that Chelsea should have twenty-five players out on loan at other clubs at the moment. But this is a situation that is an inevitable result of a failed system which has handed too much power to too few, and too much reward to too small a number of clubs, and what is going to be examined by the FA is not a solution to that problem. It’s a solution to a problem that so few care about that we might even reasonably conclude that it doesn’t even really exist. Unfortunately, however, we trust neither the FA nor the Football League to realise that.
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