Whenever English football wants change, developing young players, especially home grown ones, is a good justification. And so it is with the latest plan for change, this time the proposal to introduce a B league that’s been popped into the public domain as a proposal from the commission headed by FA chairman Greg Dyke.
The plan, being put to the FA board today, is to insert a new division between League Two and the Conference that would be made up of B teams from leading clubs. Regulation would enforce strict age limits and a “significant” number of home-grown players. The B teams would be able to win promotion to League Two and be relegated to the Conference, but they would not be allowed to go any higher than League One, and barred from the FA Cup.
It’s said that Dyke believes the plan preserves the traditional pyramid system of English football, the one that is valued by fans and clubs because it means a club can theoretically start at the very bottom of the system and progress to the top on merit. Of course, injecting vast amounts of money into a club means some have a better chance of progress than others, but the principle remains firm. But not if this latest proposal is accepted.
Quite how inserting a division at level five of the system made up of clubs that have bypassed the lower levels preserves the traditional pyramid structure of the English game is beyond me. Preventing promotion above a certain level also totally undermines the principle of promotion on merit – something every club except MK Dons and Arsenal owe their current position to.
Capping progress at League One also presents the following, not entirely improbable, scenario. The top six places in League One are taken by the well-resourced B teams of six Premier League clubs, meaning the clubs finishing seventh and eighth in League One would go up as champions, with the final play-off place decided by a series of matches between the clubs finishing ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.
As for clubs in the Conference, well, this plan would put league football further out of their reach and cast the non-league game into the wilderness.
When the Premier League was formed in 1992, we were told that one of the main aims was to develop young, home-grown talent in order to help the English national side. And look how that’s turned out. When the Elite Player Performance Plan was introduced in 2011 we were told that one of the main aims was to develop young, home-grown talent in order to help the English national side. What that really did was entrench the power of the big, well-resourced leading clubs and reduce the ability of smaller clubs to commend a decent transfer fee when the big clubs came sniffing around for their talent.
So now we have Greg Dyke’s Plan B, the aim of which is to develop young, home-grown talent in order to help the English national side. Perhaps Greg will forgive the cynicism.
If the plan goes through, it will mean the end of the pyramid system that has shaped the character of the game, and upon which much of the passion for it is based. Before long, it won’t be a surprise to see the big clubs arguing for a lifting of ‘uncompetitive’ restrictions on age, nationality, and that cap on progress beyond League One. It’s a free market game, after all, so how can restricting the progress of the most rich and powerful be justified?
The idea of a B league, or a reserve league, is not without merit. It would put an end to the practice of big clubs placing their players with clubs further down the system – creating feeder clubs by stealth. It would enable coaches to develop not just individuals but teams, using a group of players in what is, after all, still a team game. And a shadow reserve league with a decent financial prize comprised of the reserves from each team within the top divisions, or a regionally-based edition, would attract a considerable amount of interest from fans.
Years ago, we had the Football Combination, or the Central League for clubs in the Midlands and North. It was a fierce testing ground, and there was pride at representing the club and in getting results. Decent crowds used to turn out too. I’ve heard it said that staging reserve games on Premier League pitches would ‘ruin the pitch’. Is it really beyond the ken of modern groundsmanship to ensure a pitch can sustain extra games?
And, to use an argument the big clubs understand, those reserve games could be money-spinners. There’s already evidence of fans kept out of Premier League fixtures by season ticket waiting lists or high prices turning up to see the reserves.
A proper reserve league that didn’t wreck the essential character of English football is an idea that might claim support from fans. It might even be an idea that the fans came up with. But that’s the other flaw with Greg Dyke’s commission of the future of football. There are no fans on it. And it’s not asking us what we think.
So far, so much the same.
Martin Cloake is a journalist and author who writes about football, the football business and football culture when he’s not doing the day job writing about other stuff. That other stuff has included finance, politics, music, celebrity and real life stories – and fruit and veg. His most challenging commission was delivering a 5,000-word epic on potatoes. Sadly, this is no longer available. But his books, in ebook and paperback form, plus some rather handsome hardbacks, are available direct from his website.