Debate surrounding the state of English football’s been rife recently, with many of these conversations now being muted a little following England’s qualification for next year’s World Cup. But whilst England’s immediate woes might have elapsed, there are real problems that continue to hinder the future of our national game, at every level. A matter that the Football League’s chairman, Greg Clarke, believes has reached a ‘crisis point’. I agree.
The Premier League product is throttling the English game
Since 1992, the Premier League’s developed into a fantastic, global product that brings a fortune into the UK market, no question about it, and I’ve loved my career in it. A powerful brand that other markets want to buy into. Unfortunately, despite this wealth, the Premier League remains focused on its economic growth, it’s own product and brand, often at the expense of the wider health of the game. I don’t think this is unusual for any corporate machine – no different to a Microsoft or Coca-Cola. And whilst the FA’s shown encouraging signs of improving the game at a grassroots level this week, the FA have little influence over its prized asset, the Premier League, they at best only have the ability to fine and ban players. They get little more than a seat at the boardroom table of a much bigger corporate machine, which they created.
Greg – please clearly define the problem before you fix it!
Our country’s inability to produce more homegrown, global stars is alarming. Greg Dyke must take an honest view on the quality and quantity of players currently coming through the ranks. The issue here starts with asking the right questions and defining the problem before you go trying to fix it (if only our national leaders would do this, too). Instead, the FA commission is currently proposing the introduction of ‘B teams’ in the lower leagues, which would be catastrophic to an already struggling homegrown system. I don’t see how applying early ideas makes sense when the actual issues don’t seem to be clear. I’d be more incline to discuss the FA thoughts, on the development of coaches, particularly the importance of nurturing great coaches. As it stands, there’s an obvious void in this space for younger coaches and it needs addressing. But that’s for another time.
A lose-lose-lose-lose scenario
One of the main issues experienced during my time as a professional, is that Premier League teams are zapping the lower leagues, in particular the Championship, of their most talented and prosperous players. They’re taking players who’re destined for success and maturing at that right level, and assimilating them into their academy setup too early, thereby robbing them and the league of valuable experience. For most, academies will never prepare a player for real football, here’s why everyone loses:
- The player: loses out on hunger and a determination as well as a valuable playing experience
- The lower league club: loses out on income by selling early and having playing talent to help them succeed and aim for promotion to the Prem
- The Premiership team: loses out by hindering the growth of the very asset that they wanted to be successful
- Team England: loses out by having limited British talent to chose from and experiencing poor performances in tournaments
- The fans: lose out because they have to sit and watch the gulf between the Prem (and everyone else) and Team England (vs everyone else) get bigger
We create a scenario for a young player where it’s ‘sink or swim’. Like a Rooney or a Wilshere, some will swim, a lot more will sink – name true sustainable, British talent from those academies – you’ll struggle, but it’s easy to name matured and expensive foreign imports – there’s too many to mention. Young players under pressure are more sensitive to drops in confidence, they are suddenly exposed in lower leagues, return to their Prem club, drop down the pecking order, they go back to their clubs again and confidence is less.
I don’t think we will ever forbid clubs from buying young talent, it’s such an unrealistic achievement – what player wouldn’t want to play for one of the top teams after all? The FA should however, seek alternatives. Particularly, those aimed at protecting young talent from the big clubs. Whether, it’s a way of creating a breeders premium for the clubs that develop the talent and if the youngsters signed aren’t given sufficient playing time, then money’s pumped back into grassroots. Or pump some of the transfer fee back to the seller, this way they can invest in replacing their recently lost asset. A no brainer for the lower league clubs dependent on additional income.
Wilshere and Cleverley are two recent examples of an academy system working well. But Chelsea’s 20-year old Josh McEachran, who’s worked his way through Chelsea’s academy system, is a much more common example of a player going the opposite way. Despite playing 11 games for Chelsea and making his debut in the Champions’ League at just 17, he’s struggled to establish himself in Chelsea’s star-studded squad. Inevitably, McEachran’s gone back out on loan to the Championship, this time with Watford. Three different loan clubs, in three seasons and he’s only played 11 games for his parent club. Chelsea’s established themselves as a major European team, with a vast squad and McEachran’s future looks bleak with Chelsea as a result. So a permanent move to the lower leagues is probably best for the young lad now. Let him establish himself in the Championship and if he’s good enough, a Premier League team will come knocking – and pay properly for him – everybody wins.
The Championship is weak
The Championship is our second tier league, I’m playing in it – it’s an exciting league though much more like a third or forth tier when realistically compared to the Premiership. The lack of strong Champ players improving that league only helps widen the gap between the Championship and Premier League – the gulf in performance and monetary terms is now enormous.
Academy football does not prepare you for when mortgages are on the line (irrespective of the league that you’re playing in), that’s where the devilment is, when the Championship’s notorious heavy hitters want to kick the living daylights out of you and you have to find a way round it. Youngsters, who’re left to incubate in the academy have that stolen from them.
Why do the FA, The Premier League, and those Prem clubs do it then?
The answer lies in that they have different, short term, income orientated goals. It’s not right or wrong; it just is what it is. So if we’re happy with that then let’s not pretend to solve the problem. Importing lots of foreign players works too:
- Signing names is good for the Premier League brand – a global league in every sense
- A global merchandise opportunity at every level occurs from fans buying shirts to TV license deals selling to foreign TV stations
- Money explodes – it’s TV, along with selling merchandise, where the income lies
- Premier Clubs start to look at where the money comes and focus on that – gate receipts start to look small in comparison, so the local fan is less relevant in direct cash terms. It’s increasingly a global fan base, not a local one
- Team England is an after-thought – a consequence that is hard to fix
The above scenario is not wrong, it’s just a genuine conflict of interest created by the trappings of a globally successful brand, the Premier League.
Give young players time to earn their stripes
Premier League teams are able to offer youngsters dream moves, more often than not these dream moves are nothing but a nightmare where everybody loses out. If I were on that committee I’d be inclined to suggest that we deter the bigger clubs from snatching the Championship’s up and coming stars, make it impossible even. Leave these players where they are, in lower leagues for longer, let that awesome talent of a 13-year old grow and play every week from 16 or 17, to mature properly, to get used to the life. Let those Premier League clubs then part with proper money, to pay a fair price, at the right time and pass some of that mega wealth downwards to lower leagues in the process. Everybody wins. Sure, Premier League clubs may have to fork out a few extra notes to buy a player of 16-17 years old, and currently they’re paying tens of millions of pounds for overseas stars anyway – this way you’re keeping the money in the country and within our national game.
At a time when England’s current generation of world-class players; Gerrard, Cole and Lampard, are close to retirement, and Greg Dyke’s claiming he’s up for useful change, rectifying the real issues have never been so important. The thing is, the FA needs to be prepared to take the right medicine. Over to you, Greg.