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Tackling symptoms not causes – the FA Chairman’s England Commission Report May 2014

The FA Chairman’s England Commission Report contains some good analysis but is deeply and seriously flawed, taking the document as a whole. Let me start by agreeing that there is a huge problem – none of us expect great things for Brazil 2014; South Africa 2010 was an embarrassment in so many ways; 2006 saw a disciplinarian exhibiting lack of control over players – there is no point in raking further back.

Playing for England should be the pinnacle of every (English) player’s career: it should be an honour that eclipses all else in the game. It was for many of us who support two teams (our clubs and the national side) the only hope of one of our two teams of ever having a (now increasingly fading) chance of winning anything. It is not for no reason that you see so many flags of St George from the likes of Preston, Torquay or Crewe at England matches. We have traditionally dropped our distaste for some of the clubs that those players come from and for their lifestyles and got behind ‘our boys.’

The problems are well known. I have never been a fan of Chris Waddle, but in his 2010 post-World Cup rant about the problems besetting the English game he articulated what many of us felt. So it is positive that the FA are trying to do something and their report also summarises those problems well. Where it fails is in its logic and its root-cause analysis. Like diagnosing a disease in a body, the only way to effect a cure is to tackle the cause, not to just try to treat the symptoms. This report confuses causes with symptoms. In Section 3 headed “The causes of the problem;” they refer to diagnosing the problem and come up with 4 key areas “identified as the primary obstructions to development of elite English players:

  • Most importantly inadequate competitive playing opportunities for 18-21 year old players at top clubs

  • The ineffectiveness of the regulation of the player market in preserving the desired balance between English, EU and non-EU players

  • The quality and impact of coaching and coach education especially in grassroots football

  • The quantity and quality of grassroots facilities, especially all weather pitches

The first two at least are not root-causes of the problem but symptoms of the disease at the heart of the English game. The FA give themselves away here when in Section 1 they analyse reasonably well “why this has happened” (i.e. the decline in the number of English players playing at the top level). They identify the growth of pay-TV combined with the formation of the Premier League: this poured money into the game – not that investment was necessarily a bad thing given the state of football emerging from international bans, Hillsborough, Bradford etc., but the money did not go into the game as a whole but was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few clubs and the pockets of the Premier League players. It was a disaster for the pyramid structure and raised the stakes for membership of that league so high that only by having an unsustainable business model propped up by a foreign billionaire sugar daddy could a club afford the ridiculously high prices needed to buy success. The dog fight for players capable of keeping teams in the league led to monstrous wage inflation and short-termism in the buying talent rather than building it.

The riches lead to top teams hoarding players as an insurance policy – though many of them will never see first team football. They hoover up players that show promise – often robbing lower league teams of players they have nurtured – at times you wonder whether this greed is as much to stop their competitors getting their hands on a player rather than an identified need – like a 6-year-old with buns at a children’s party. This wage inflation turns players’ heads. Rather than sticking with a club they grew up with, working hard, learning the game alongside seasoned professionals and in clubs where they are appreciated, working with managers who can guide them and provide pastoral care, they are lured by the Porsches and huge wage hikes and by agents promising them the world (in return for a sizeable cut). Then they fester in the big clubs and when they become a nuisance are put out on a succession of loans that often do little for their development. The report calls this waste of potential ‘the black hole’ or the ‘Bermuda triangle’ of English football.

As an example take the case of Jordan Slew, a striker who came up through Sheffield United’s academy having signed as an 11 year-old. Those of who saw him in the FA youth cup final in 2011 causing havoc amongst the Manchester United golden boys and getting his first team debut at the age of 18 could recognise a prodigious talent. He was capped for England at Under 19 level. We saw him sign a new contract at the start of the 2011/12 season and looked forward to seeing him develop, guided by Danny Wilson. Instead he went off to Blackburn Rovers at the end of the August transfer window lured by huge wages and promises. He was treated to a derisory 89th minute debut in December and then went out on loan to Stevenage. Even in a Championship Blackburn he couldn’t break through and was loaned to Oldham and then to Rotherham in League Two. In January this year he was loaned to Ross County. He has only scored one goal since he left Sheffield United; though he has been hampered by injury. I really hope he can still come good, and escape the black hole, but you can only wonder what would have happened if he had stayed like others from that FA Youth cup final, focussed on learning, sensibly tutored and given wise counsel.

So it is clear to everyone who follows the game what the cause is, but the FA seem reluctant (or totally lacking in power) to do anything to tackle the root cause. The Premier League is too powerful – money being power. The FA just tags along like the Vichy regime trying not to upset the beast too much. It says at para. 4.1.2 “There are even still those who believe the creation of the Premier League was damaging to English football despite the fact that it has become the most popular, successful league in the world.” Oh dear, how torn they are! Of course football must adapt and change but English football does not equate to the Premier League and if the FA can’t face up to this there is no hope.

So what is to be done and what about the report’s proposals. They start off by saying that the guiding principles for developing solutions include doing “nothing to impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League.” It is not a good place to start if that is the first guiding principle and yet the root cause is the wealth and power of the Premier League. How can it ever hope to effect a cure? The problem is caused by the Premier League and yet the burden of tackling the problem is to be foisted on those that didn’t cause it because the Premier League is sacrosanct.

A campaign is already underway to challenge one of the so-called solutions: the league 3 idea – allowing powerful clubs to mess about in the lower leagues with their B teams which would debase competition and is an insult to clubs of long tradition and independence – it is condescending to those fans to make them watch their team play against a B team. It might work abroad but we have a 125 year tradition that is worth defending.

The other dangerous proposal is that of Strategic Loan Partnerships: lower league teams being liege to the Premier League feudal lords – making Tranmere a franchise for Liverpool or Oldham a franchise of a Manchester club – in hock to them, at their beck and call, forced into dependency on the bigger club. They try to sugar this pill by saying that “visiting friendlies with the Senior club could add to gate receipts and fan interest.” As if that will happen except in meaningless pre-season games! Also hidden on page 71 it says of its proposals that “in return for agreeing to this re-organisation there should be a significant financial settlement from the Premier League to clubs in the lower divisions of the Football League.” Look out of your window: there goes a flying pig!

Other proposals just favour Premier League clubs too – the suggested tighter restriction on non-EU overseas players just being allowed into the Premier League. That gives those clubs more power – widens the gap even further – will further shift the balance of power in cup ties and make it harder for Championship clubs to compete at the higher level without a complete overhaul of their teams – which brings potential instability from the off.

They talk of enlarging the JP trophy to allow B teams to compete – which would further compound fixture congestion problems in the lower leagues to the detriment of all but the B teams.

However, I mustn’t be too negative – there is much in the report that can be salvaged. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the Premier League will never agree to sharing its wealth or power, or kicks its greedy habits of sucking talent into their black holes, or, God forbid, that there should be a return to one football league where some sort of democracy prevails and takes into account the interests of fans. Where does that leave us? The report talks of the Under 21 Premier League not being competitive – well that’s in the hands of the Premier League to correct. At page 77 it says: “One problem is that clubs often play their third or even fourth string of players in the Under 21 Premier League, and it is unlikely that Premier League and other clubs limit their squad sizes or loan practices sufficiently to achieve any improvement in Under 21 Premier League competition.” Staggering complacency! Let the Premier League sort themselves out. The current loan system is not good for lower league teams – unless a loan is very well managed it can wreck team cohesion, creates uncertainty and instability, dependency on loans as solutions to problems rather than building of squads. It seems the Premier League want it all ways – they want a competitive structure for 18-21 year olds but can’t be bothered to build it themselves. The report says at page 67: “The Premier League itself has recognised the problems of the current Under 21 Premier League and has proposed a range of changes. From next season the Under 21 league will have two divisions, with promotion and relegation, which some believe will give more purpose to games. Some games will be televised and fixtures will be scheduled more regularly and the number of games clubs are required to play in their main stadium will increase from three to five for each club.” Let them work hard on this, make it attractive and competitive as the report says as an alternative to B teams in the lower leagues (page 68) rather than drunkenly gate-crashing the lower leagues.

Secondly the FA should have a serious go at reforming and strengthening the Home Grown Player requirements (para. 4.6). They also suggest at 4.9.5 that EU employment law might not be quite so rigid as everyone assumes when it comes to restricting EU players. They should test that fully before taking a wrecking ball to the pyramid.

They should also look to fix the problems of grass roots football and its is to be hoped that the reports due out in the Autumn on coaching and on investment in grass roots facilities are well focussed. We kill off prospects of talent at an early age for so many kids – my son’s school for example has no access to football pitches – not even grass ones never mind all weather ones. Even in the yard football has been banned because it is so over-crowded that teachers have deemed it unsafe. There is no school team. He can’t even play in the street like we did as kids. If we reduce the base of the pyramid so much how can we possibly hope that those at the top will excel?

A final thought: are the Premier League even bothered about the international team anyway? If not does it even have a future?

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