When, in 2013, FA chairman Greg Dyke announced his grand ambition that England would win the World Cup within a decade, he was greeted with wry smiles from world-weary football writers, myself included. ‘Yes of course, Greg’, we all said, ‘and perhaps you can teach pigs how to fly while you’re at it’. It was, at least, a nice comforting motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of vision. No one could possibly disagree with his sentiment – unless you happened to be Scottish – even if none of us believed it was remotely possible. How Greg must yearn for the feel-good glow of that honeymoon period when we all thought he was a well-intentioned dreamer. Now, everyone is queuing up to give Greg a good shoeing. The poor chap thought he was the saviour of English football but found himself cast in the Vincent Tan role, an evil Bond villain whose proposal for B teams would take a wrecking ball to English football’s hallowed traditions. Even Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has taken time off from salvaging his own reputation to stick the boot in. At the risk of being accused of not being a contrarian, I’d like to give the proposal a kicking of my own.
The FA Commission’s report on B teams was always going to be greeted with a degree of scepticism, because nobody believes the FA is competent to run our national game. We’ve also heard these radical-sounding blueprints for revolutionising English football before. We’ve had the national centre at Lilleshall, youth academies, another national centre at St George’s Park and, most recently, the Elite Player Performance Plan. Remember the EPPP? We were told that EPPP would lead English football out of the dark ages. EPPP got a shoeing, too. And rightly so. It meant, as anyone with a few brain cells could figure out, that big clubs could poach kids from lower-league clubs without having to fork out as much in compensation as they had to under the old tribunal system. It was also doomed to fail, as I explained at the time, because it wouldn’t guarantee the very thing that young players needed for their development – first-team experience. The new under-23 development leagues, as many of us suspected, aren’t sufficiently competitive to aid the development of young players. Although no one from the FA has had the good grace to apologise for leading us up the garden path with the reforms, the Dyke commission’s latest proposal is a tacit admission that a central plank of the EPPP has failed.
I do feel a tad sorry for Greg Dyke. Firstly, he has correctly identified one of the key barriers to developing homegrown talent, namely the lack of first-team opportunities for the 18- to 21-year-old age group. Nor is he the first person to propose B teams or feeder clubs. Roberto Martinez has been calling for the introduction of B teams for some time. Arsene Wenger, too, has expressed his support for the idea. Nobody shouted them down at the time. However, it seems that everything the FA touches turns to shit. Now that the FA chairman has proposed their introduction, the notion of B teams, or ‘nursery clubs’, has become toxic. The proposal, its critics tell us, will destroy the traditional league pyramid as we know it. While I agree that B teams will distort competition in the lower leagues, it’s not true that nursery clubs are wholly alien to English football. Before the Second World War, many of the bigger Football League clubs had nursery agreements with non-league outfits. Margate, for example, were affiliated to Arsenal while Northfleet United had a similar relationship with Spurs.
So, if there is some historical precedent in England, why is there such hostility to the B-team idea? Greg Dyke argues that there will be a financial benefit for lower league clubs if B teams and strategic-loan partnerships are introduced. But, however much you may try to sweeten it with a wad of cash, the integrity of the lower leagues will be damaged if we allow B teams to compete on a different basis to other clubs. Essentially, the Football League will be reduced to the role of a glorified finishing school for the Premiership, rather than meaningful competitions in their own right. More importantly, the proposals spectacularly ignore the elephant in the room. And that elephant, in case you’re wondering, is the stockpiling of young players by the elite clubs. Whether it’s through B teams or strategic loan partnerships, the FA is just accommodating stockpiling rather than trying to put an end to it. If the FA wanted to force the big clubs to reduce their stockpiles, it could prohibit loans altogether. Or, if that’s too drastic, it could impose tougher restrictions on the number of players a club is allowed to farm out on-loan. Chelsea, for example, have 26 players currently out on loan, which is just ridiculous.
And if feeder clubs were introduced would that guarantee a rejuvenation of the England team? Not necessarily. The fact that B teams are allowed in Spanish football doesn’t in itself account for the recent success of their national team. Spain were international underachievers for years, even with B teams in place. So clearly there were other reasons why the Spanish national team was transformed from serial chokers to world beaters. One of the glaring omissions from the commission’s report is the role of coaching. Where’s the blueprint for the transformation of English coaching? Supposedly, a second report will look at this question later in the year. But unless you can develop technical footballers who are tactically literate and able to play in a variety of positions and formations – as is the case in Spain and Italy – the big clubs will simply stuff their academies full of foreigners poached from European academies, as Arsenal and Chelsea have done.