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When news broke back in early May regarding the FA Commission’s radical new plan to restructure and realign the policy towards youth development in this country there was a great deal of intrigue. FA Chairman Greg Dyke, who headed up the review, presented four key areas of the English game that he and his team would focus their efforts on in the coming years, promising that the proposals were being suggested with the intention of “winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar”. However, in previous years, the FA has been notorious for what many see to be unnecessary changes to the English football pyramid – for example, the restructuring of the old Division 1 to the Championship is still seen by many, despite the extra revenue generated from a more advertisement friendly format, as having weakened the extremely recognisable lower-league system. When considering the wider ramifications of Dyke’s newest proposals, it appears once again that, rather than strengthening the position of the English game, the FA will be undermining it.
One of the four key areas identified by the FA as needing a great deal of attention is the lack of regulation over the number of non-EU players in all leagues below the Premier League. On that basic outline alone, this appears to be a strong proposal – reducing these players will surely create a greater number of playing spaces for English players. However, when you consider quite how many non-EU players actually play in below-Premiership leagues, it quickly becomes clear that this proposal is limited to almost being rendered pointless. Based on the most recent available data on player nationality, for the 2011-2012 season in the Championship, over 76 percent of the players used were from Britain or Ireland. The vast majority of the rest of the players were from the EU. It is also crucial to bear in mind that this is the Championship – further down the league pyramid, the percentage of British and Irish players used registers at above 90 percent. To ban non-EU players, as Greg Dyke suggests, would create pointless red-tape and would bring no discernible benefit because, quite simply, they are seldom used in the lower leagues. It is even arguable whether banning them would create new spaces for English youth players at all – clubs would still be allowed to shop freely within the EU, meaning that the – extremely small – gaps created by the ban could easily be remedied by a purchase from Continental Europe. Put simply it is inefficient and demonstrably futile to attempt to create rules banning the purchase of non-EU players in the lower leagues.
Linked in to the proposals of a ban on non-EU players is the suggestion that Premier League clubs should be capped to just two non-EU players per squad. Whilst there is more merit behind this suggestion, it begs the question of how much the FA truly values the Premier League brand around the world. We are constantly reminded that the Premier League is the ‘Best League in the World’. There is little to dispute this – last season, the League was broadcast in 212 different countries and territories. To put this into perspective, there are, according to the CIA Fact-Book, 254 countries and territories in the world. The Premier League is thus a truly global league – people tune in to watch the best players in the world on the biggest stage. It therefore seems counter-productive to attempt to limit the number of non-EU players in the league to just two per each team’s squad – it is inconceivable that a team such as Manchester City would have to choose between Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta – amongst others – for just two places in the squad. Whilst it is appreciated that this is a direct attempt to increase the number of English players given opportunities at top clubs, it would unquestionably weaken the League as both a brand and as the world’s most recognised platform for the best talent in world football. The recent proposals to stage a number of Premier League games per season in places such as Japan and the Middle-East show that the Premier League is continuing to move away from being an English institution – if the Commission was to implement the quotas on non-EU players, the standard of players would decline and the strong brand it currently portrays would be vastly diluted.
On this matter, I do sympathise with the FA Commission – there is no easy fix because, as is so often the case in modern-day football, the issue is money. Clubs in the Premier League are pushed at a relentless pace towards success – as is demonstrated by the almost farcical nature that managers lose their jobs, clubs cannot afford to wait for success. Rather than developing young English players, it is easier and more conducive for success to poach developed players from overseas. To this end, whilst improving world football and generating billions in advertising revenue, the Premier League has irrevocably weakened English football. The vast amounts of money on offer for winning means that it is not conducive to spend five years attempting to develop a home-grown player when A) he may not even become a good enough player and B) there are quality players on the market who can be bought immediately. Player development has, therefore, become obsolete in the Premier League – whilst owners and clubs have got richer, the English game as a whole has got poorer. Yet because of the strength of the brand and the money brought in, it is impossible to reverse this trend without experiencing a radical overhaul of the elite game in England, something the FA and Premier League will be loath to undertake.
If a ban on more than two non-EU players is refused, the FA still proposes to create a B-League artificial structure within the current football pyramid. The idea is simple – 10 Premier League B teams and 10 from the Conference would take part. Not only is this idea patronising to the extreme to the lower league clubs, it would do little to improve the quality of English players that could be developed. Premier League teams under these proposals would be allowed to hoover up young players from the lower leagues before placing them in a league five tiers below the elite division. Not only would this mean that the quality of football would be extremely low and not conducive to technical development, it would also dissuade clubs from attempting to bring through their own talented players – why would they when, if they succeed, a larger club will poach their talent? It also makes a mockery of the status of the lower league clubs – clubs that have been followed passionately for in certain cases well over 100 years. By placing them in a league of reserves, it almost suggests that they are considered nothing more than a practice club for larger, more important teams. This is plainly wrong. Football fans around the world envy our lower league system, complete with its passion and strong fan support – introducing such artificial measures as a B-team would significantly weaken this.
Clearly, there is no easy answer to the problem of English youth development. At its current state, the Premier League is hindering the progress, but because of the amount of money involved, reform is unlikely. Where the Commission turns next is unpredictable – until a solution is found to successfully integrate English players into the Premier League without damaging its brand, an adequate one may never be established.