In the past week, FA chairman Greg Dyke has created controversy and debate within the football world with his comments about the future of the England national team and the Premier League. Not that his concerns are invalid. After all, in the Premier League of 2013, fewer than one in three players is English. With English players not being given time at top clubs, it's easy to put two and two together and link the scarcity of English players at the top level to the decline in fortune of the England national team.
Then again, there isn't really the hard data to suggest that the two are linked in such a one-to-one manner. Don't get me wrong, the lack of first-team opportunities certainly can't be helping, but it's probably just a part of the problem. There are also certainly attitude and dedication issues at play with some young English talents which have only added to the problem. One could go on for days with explanations, but it's lazy and an over-simplification to view any one aspect of the problem as the definitive one.
No matter the proportion of causes, of unwillingness to risk results to play youths, youth attitude issues, and youth simply not being good enough, one simply can't ignore the fact that there's a problem with youth football in England. Well, not all youth football. At lower age levels, top English academy sides routinely do themselves justice against the best sides on the continent. Chelsea, for example, reached the final of the now-defunct NextGen Series last season.
Somewhere between academy and senior levels, however, it all goes astray. Too many young footballers end up plateauing and failing to progress to a first-team place. It's certainly the case that a good many of them are simply not deserving of such a place, but every club has a laundry list of players who've gone from "next big thing" to "never was," seemingly overnight. These days, everybody seems to have their own opinion on the matter and what should be done about it.
Each separate factor has its own separate solution. For example, the current home-grown player squad restrictions could be expanded to increase the number of players and remove the incentive for clubs not to play youth products; attitude problems might be solved by youth wage restrictions and behaviour penalties; and outright quality issues have myriad causes of their own, from coaching to natural talent.
Unfortunately, each of these has its own set of severe drawbacks too. Take, for example, increasing the number of required home-grown players in Premier League squads. It's probably the biggest of those, in terms of effect. The economics of English football mean such an increase is both unlikely and utterly-impractical. No matter the effect it would have for the future of English football, the consequences for the present are just too demanding for it to ever be implemented. The same incentives which have reduced the number of English players already would simply become more-pronounced, and start to have major negative effects.
As it stands, English players are, for better or worse, simply more-expensive than their foreign counterparts, and most of the time they're just not as good. Adding the need for more domestic players would only serve to increase their desirability yet more. Due to the law of supply and demand, this would only serve make them yet more-expensive relative to their quality. Right now, clubs can pay more or less minimal attention to the home-grown portion of their squads. In this hypothetical future, they'll have to pay more for talent or find another solution.
Presumably, this other solution would be the greater inclusion of youth products. On one hand, it would go a long way toward addressing the lack of opportunity for young players, but only out of necessity. There's even a chance it could be a net negative, only serving to exacerbate the now-moderate problem of entitlement. Even if it were to avoid having negative consequences for the players, it would come at a cost to the clubs and even the Premier League itself. The problem is that an artificial increase in the number of home-grown players would almost-necessarily decrease the overall quality of the Premier League.
Whether clubs filled their squad spaces with senior players or youths, there would definitely be a step down, at least for a while. The fact that foreign players are often better and cheaper is not insignificant. Clubs suddenly spending more on lesser players would both lower squad quality directly, through missing out on better talents and also leave less money for the better-quality imports a club are able sign. Playing youth prospects, on the other hand, would end up reducing quality more-temporarily.
Hopefully, those quality issues would cycle through eventually as young players develop, but, until they did, English club teams would suffer in international competition. If English clubs were to struggle for several years on the biggest stages, it's likely that their international reputations would slump. This would make them less-likely to attract the top playing and coaching talent than now, possibly negating some of the effect of the increased opportunity for young players. After all, exposure to talent helps development.
With the brand-new TV deal and a reputation as "The Best League in the World" to maintain, it's hard to imagine the Premier League voluntarily-agreeing to lower its footballing quality for the sake of a high-minded goal like youth development. The risk is simply too great for them. On the other hand, it's not as if there will be no English youth getting through at all. There's no risk of losing all connection to the local populace by only buying foreign players. England will always produce some top talents who will find their way to the top clubs. The problem remains that neither the clubs nor the Premier League has any big incentive to bring through talent directly from academy to senior level, apart from hoarding talent and hoping for an early bloomer.
Recently, the FA have implemented the Elite Player Performance Plan to help improve the quality of young, English players by increasing the freedom of movement towards top academies where they'll face competition from other top talents. Remember, increased competition is good for generating talent. From the early evidence, EPPP seems to be working, at least somewhat. However, the other recent change, the U21 Development League, is not, really.
With top clubs, particularly Chelsea, looking toward the loan system to develop their young players, rather than the U21 League, the quality of the competition hasn't exactly increased. Instead, with clubs viewing playing time in the lower leagues in England as superior to U21s matches, these matches are often filled with younger boys, who, because of their age, can't and don't need to offer the same sort of entertainment and challenge as older boys might.
In any case, the economic facts currently-keeping youth out of the Premier League places aren't likely to change drastically any time soon. Logically, the gap between the two levels will remain as long as the need to to maximise results over development remains in the Premier League. In a league where the maxim "If you're standing still, you're falling behind." is as true as anywhere else, voluntarily-going backwards is both stupid and suicidal. As I said earlier, it's highly-unlikely that that will change in the near future. What, then, is to be done to fix this pressing problem?
There is one real option left, but there's a reason I've called it the nuclear option. It's not ever going to be a popular one, but it tear apart the fabric of what English football means. B teams in the English pyramid would almost certainly help the national team, and would definitely help bridge the gap between academies and senior clubs. That said, the vast majority of lower-league supporters would prefer to let the England team wither and have the English-born Premier League player become extinct than suffer the iniquity of co-existing with B teams.
For all the good it would do for top clubs, academies, and England, and it definitely would, the consequences for lower-level teams could and probably would be dire. For one thing, they would probably spell the end for the current loan system, which many clubs outside the Premier League use to merely survive. Plus, anything which would widen the Premier League-Football League gulf is going to be extremely-unpopular. B teams, which aren't the best-supported out there, can lead to lowered revenues for their lower-league colleagues, further exacerbating their financial peril.
Beyond the merely-pragmatic issues surrounding finances and competitiveness, there are also significant issues regarding the massive upheaval of English football culture and traditions B teams would represent. Such a sea change would only increase the reticence in the lower leagues to adopt any kind of B team system. Put frankly, England doesn't do B teams, and England doesn't do change. It would take an awful lot of convincing to even get the Football League to even hear a modest proposal on the subject.
Why, then, am I advocating something which is so deeply-unpopular and likely never going to happen? Because it's probably the only way to solve a number of the more pressing problems in English football. It will help the national team and Premier League by allowing young players to develop more-naturally and smoothing the massive transition to senior football. It will help the young players for similar reasons, and by giving them more of a chance at a successful career in football, and, who knows, it may even help with the high ticket-price issue.
Yes, I said the ticket-price issue. It's no secret that the need to remain financially-competitive has caused Premier League clubs to extract every penny they can of matchday revenue, mostly by raising ticket prices. Unfortunately, many long-time supporters are being priced out of the game by the high ticket prices. Through B teams, there may just be an opportunity to bring some of them back through B team matches. It doesn't cost nearly as much to attend a match in a lower league, after all. Obviously, B team football isn't ever going to be an adequate substitute for the real thing, but those fans who can only afford to attend a few senior matches per year would have a new avenue of support.
Of course, that's only a minor point in favour of B teams, but, unlike in some countries where B team matches are sparsely-attended, there's probably a chance to avoid that in England. People will attend youth matches when they mean actually something. For example, last year's FA Youth Cup Final drew nearly 40,000 people over two legs. That's unrealistic week-in-week-out, of course, but it shows that there's a decent appetite for youth and reserve matches in England, so long as they mean something. In an interesting parallel, the low cost of tickets would be a great way to get the next generation of supporters through the gates.
As I said before, the biggest logistical issue is going to be convincing the Football League clubs to hear, let alone agree to, such a wild and revolutionary plan, given how financially-disastrous it could prove for those clubs in the lower leagues. Fortunately for the Premier League, though, they have a huge bargaining chip. Money. The Premier League has an awful lot of it, and could easily increase the solidarity payments to the Football League clubs many times over, easing the financial burden for a lot of clubs, in exchange for the right to have B teams in lower divisions.
Of course, any such plan would lead to some Football League members losing their places. Or would it? I don't think it does, really. The easiest way I can see to integrate B teams into the Football League is to create a series of links between clubs and relaxing the loan rules. For example, Chelsea could pay, say, Brentford to be their exclusive Premier League partners and send them a bunch of players on loan, creating a de facto B team structure. It's not a perfect plan, though. I'm not sure many lower-league supporters would relish their club being subservient to a Premier League one. In fact, that may even be worse than losing their Football League status.
On the other hand, even adding B teams directly doesn't necessarily need to involve demotion from the Football League. In my head, an easy way to do this would be to increase the number of leagues within the existing structure. Of course, that would lead to the demotion of many clubs from their current leagues and create a degree of friction, but I don't believe it's necessarily the deal-breaker full-expulsion would be.
What would I do, personally, though? That's a very good question. Without, admittedly, knowing the legal intricacies involved in doing so, I would expand the Football League as mentioned above, creating a new, five-league system. I would simply create another league from scratch, call it League 3, and would also incorporate the clubs of the current Conference Premier, most of whom are fully-professional these days,[ and maybe a few from the lower divisions of the Conference, if needed,] into a new League 4.
Adding the 24 teams from the Conference National leaves 96 Football League clubs for five leagues. Up from 72 in three leagues. Ideally, each lower league in England would have around 24 clubs, to make up the revenue due to the lower demands of cup competitions compared to the Premier League, but there's no hard and fast rule to that extent. For the sake of this thought experiment, however, I would keep all the leagues at 24 clubs, except the Championship which would be reduced to 20 to mirror the Premier League.
To make up the numbers, then, we're definitely going to need some more teams. The most-obvious solution would be to simply fill in with B teams scattered among Leagues 1 through 4. Right now, the U21 Development League's top division contains 22 teams, which could create a nice, even system throughout. 20 clubs + 2 B teams in the Championship and 19 + 5 in each of the remaining leagues. Unfortunately, though, that's probably too many B teams for the moment.
Overloading on B teams would be a huge mistake, I think. You don't want a situation where B sides are constantly playing each other, lest it become just another failed U21 stunt which isn't taken seriously. There's also the issue of the point behind a B team. It's not designed to be a place for poor games against similar teams. The purpose of a B team is to allow a club to expose its young players to regular challenging football in a risk-free environment.
To make an extra two leagues viable, however, and to reflect the sheer quality in the top U21 sides, the minimum added would probably have to be 16. Any fewer than that, and it makes more sense to only add a single league, or to scrap the idea altogether. In the case of 16 new teams, I'd drop each of the five leagues to 20 senior clubs, adding four additional Conference North and South teams*, and add four of the top 16 teams in the U21 Development League into each of Leagues 1 through 4.
[*You could potentially replace these club in the Conference with U21 finishers 17-20, leaving a separate 22-team U21 league.]
B teams aren't necessarily exclusively-U21 teams, even if they do mostly-cater to players who are between 18 and 22 and between academy and senior football, and would likely be based on the existing U21 structure. It probably would have to be different to the old reserve system, though, and feature players from the senior team using the B team as essentially a loan destination, just one wholly-controlled by their parent club. In that sense, not a lot would really change from now, apart from the parent club owning and controlling the loaning club.
Of course, this is merely my own opinion and approach. Everybody will have their own. Most will probably avoid the idea like the plague. I like this one because it strikes me as the right balance of senior clubs to B teams in each league and avoids any really major demotions within the Football League. It would have to follow similar rules to other leagues with B teams, where B teams can't play in the same division as their parent club, or be promoted to the top level, but otherwise-free promotion and relegation would be in play.
If you remain unconvinced, that's perfectly-fine. It's certainly not the sort of thing which will happen overnight. All in all, it would probably take quite a bit of convincing and, let's face it, cash, to convince the Football League to go along with any plan for change, let alone one so radical as this. If it's going to happen, though, I'm convinced it will be in a huge shift, rather than in a piecemeal fashion where only a few top clubs participate.
As I said earlier, adding B teams to the Football League would go against pretty much every tradition in English football and according to many, destroy everything good it has going for it. Of course, when the alternative is something so serious as the decline of the English-born Premier League player and the increasing-irrelevance of the national team, maybe it isn't such a bad bargain, really. After all, the two biggest footballing powers in the world at the moment, Germany and Spain, both employ B teams in their leagues, and both have more good players than they could ever use in their national sides, and majorities of home-grown players at most of their clubs.
Of course, both Germany and Spain also have issues with competitive balance, and, obviously, success abroad is now guarantor of success in England. No matter your opinion, now is the best time to start the conversation about it. Do I think it's going to happen, or even kind of likely? No, not really. Even if the massive logistical, pragmatic, and financial obstacles were successfully-overcome, I doubt England could truly ever give up its proud and noble tradition of fiercely-resisting necessary change and having a good whinge about decline due to a lack of necessary change. Actually, even I'm not sure I want them to.