There’s been time for a period of reflection after Greg Dyke’s introspective narrative on the trials and tribulations of the English game, and what needs to change in order to get the national team back in the higher rankings of the world game from our currently lowly status of seventeenth, tucked in behind Chile and the USA.
I’ve heard and read many ideas of how to change the scenario to give young English players a better chance of playing first team football and developing the potential that they have. Some, such as Everton manager Roberto Martinez have declared that there isn’t so much wrong with the ability of players at the early stages of their careers, but unlike in Spain, there isn’t the chance for them to play in many competitive matches, to case-harden their techniques with real game time experience.
Over in Spain, many clubs have ‘B’ teams that play in the lower divisions, which offer a far more stringent test of ability than reserve football, or the occasional semi-meaningless cup tie. This means that when they are then promoted to the first team squad, they are what Martinez describes as “men” compared to the callow youths of their equivalent in England. There may be some merit in the argument, and a few pundits have declared their support for such a system. On the surface it appears a process only slightly removed from our system of loaning out players to lower league sides for a period to gain experience. There is one vital difference however.
When you’re loaned out to a different club, you go to a different environment and culture. The potential of course is always that a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ may accrue as the parent’s club manager is well-removed from any player’s performances. In Spain, Barcelona’s B team players, for example, remain part of the club ethos even when in the B team. They retain the club connection, and also as importantly within the focus of the manager.
The problem of course is working out how a B team set up would work. For instance, you couldn’t just parachute such a team into the Championship without elbowing some teams out, or denying promotion to clubs that have earned it. Legal shenanigans etc would doubtless follow. An alternative that has been suggested is that some Premier League clubs could adopt lower league clubs as ‘Feeder Clubs’ receiving young players on loan, and then sending the back as experienced players. It would be difficult however as such clubs would be locked into a position of perpetual deference. Aspirations to progress through the leagues, the very essence of the the domestic game, would have to be sacrificed for the thirty pieces of silver on offer from the Premier League. How many fans of such clubs would tolerate such a ‘locked into mediocrity scenario’ for long? Again, it’s difficult to see how it could work.
It’s equally difficult to apply a ‘cap’ on foreign players that would in theory allow more English players to progress to the first team. Not only could it be deemed contrary to UEFA regulations, Restraint of Trade laws would also probably be deployed to stifle such a plan. I have an idea that could work however, and I arrived at bit, by looking at the problem of why young players tend not to be worked through academies into first team football in the majority of Premier League clubs.
For obvious financial reasons, club chairmen would probably enthusiastically encourage club managers to develop players already at the club’s academy and youth system. Strangely however, it is those same people that largely prevent it happening. With the average ‘life expectancy’ of a Premier League manager’s job being less than two seasons, pulling young players through the system, taking an almost inevitable loss of team efficacy as this happens before the bonus is gained in the longer term, is not going to happen. It would be folly to sacrifice your job just to let your successor get the benefit. Think about it for a moment. The clubs that have brought most players through, tend to have long serving managers. Manchester united with Ferguson, Arsenal with Wenger and Everton with Moyes are prime examples. Whilst Chelsea, with a revolving door of managers have an exceptional FA Youth Cup record of late, players graduating from these successful youth teams to the first team squad are rare indeed. There are always exceptions of course. It’s a track taken by Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, but last season could have seen him lose his job, as the introduction of so many young players saw the club flirt dangerously with the disaster of relegation.
The very system operated by clubs therefore almost prevents the development of players, so this is what needs to be addressed. It’s a radical suggestion, but if any manager appointed was guaranteed, by contract, a minimum five years at the club, the whole perspective may change. Suddenly, instead of the need for ‘success today’ that generates the need for ‘quick fix’ purchases and cheap foreign imports, there would be not only a chance, but also an incentive, for managers to look to bring through the young players, and therefore offer opportunities to progress English lads that could then feed through to be potential international players.
It’s probably not going to happen, but just give it a moment’s thought and see if you can see any holes in the idea. It won’t disadvantage anybody, in that all clubs would be operating under the same rules. There’re no UEFA obligations being disregarded, and no legal downsides. Sure the press will have less to write about with less of the old managerial merry-go-round, but I think we could all live without that for a while.