It was a day of rich pickings for the media as Greg Dyke took his head out of the ground for long enough yesterday to deliver his commission’s report on the future of English football. Before that Arsène gave them his views on FFP and the raft of penalties about to hit home. Labelling the punishments “sophisticated” was a polite way of noting that they are a fudge, designed to be nothing more than a slapped wrist and more importantly, leaving the sour after-taste. He would approve of the punishment suggested so eloquently by Pamela Stephenson; “kick them in the goolies“. Other than that it’s all a con; “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”
Arsenal have built a raft of partnerships at various levels with international brands and regional partners such as Bodog promoting the brands’ relationship. The likes of PSG and Manchester City have this structure as well but coming from lower starting points, have ridden roughshod over the rule books and are now ensnared in the murky world of settlements. Reports yesterday suggested the Parisians had halved their fine coupled with escaping playing squad caps and reductions. It seemed unlikely that, being worse transgressors than the soon to be crowned Premier League champions, they would walk away with a lighter sentence. Those French media assertions were quickly quashed by contradictory claims that neither club had agreed anything with UEFA ahead of today’s deadline.
A number of legal positions have been aired in recent days, reinforcing the view of some that the regulations contradict various European laws, rules and treaties. Perhaps they do but given the EEC’s previous direct interventions in football over the free movement of labour, it is surprising that if FFP is such a contravention, it has reached this stage. Perhaps it is and those with more knowledge of such regulations might well see their bank balances improve if the clubs feel so inclined.
Wenger, you sense, feels let down. A principled man, it was inevitable that it would come to this with the politics of self-interest coming to the fore and preventing what might have been actions for the common good. He is just keeping the bed warm for Dyke, the pair soon to become strange bedfellows with wagons already circling. Whilst improving the native talent pool is a laudable an aim, the overwhelming feeling I had on reading the FA Commission’s report was the beneficiaries are primarily the Premier League clubs, the national team improvement is a by-product disguised as a key target. For the rest of the game, it comes down to redistributing wealth to compensate them for adopting Dyke’s proposals. Or as most of us call it, bribery.
Self-interest rules in English football and looking at the most contentious proposal – ‘B’ teams – it is not hard to see why the Premier League clubs favour it. Personally, it is not something I have a problem with as I have advocated their integration into the league pyramid on these pages previously. It made the regionalisation of Leagues One & Two, in tandem with the Conference, work numerically. For me, the current proposals place too much hope in supporters adopting a second team from the same club, missing the fact that the appeal of Premier League clubs is not based on local communities to the same extent that smaller clubs enjoy. It strikes me as unlikely that supporters will travel in any great numbers to watch the first and second strings on alternate weekends; it harks back to an era when fans went to Highbury and White Hart Lane week after week. That era died long before the advent of the Premier League, a moment identified as the root of a lot of the problems the game currently endures.
Yet the proposals defy logic. Why, for example, would you halt a ‘B’ teams progress at League One if they are too good for that division? Surely promotion to the Championship makes more sense in the development of young players? I understand and sympathise with the heartfelt belief that smaller clubs will suffer as a result of this. I am not convinced the nuclear scenario of the second tier of English football being heavily stocked with ‘B’ teams, will ever emerge. I do however see the point of view which suggests it will suppress the ambitions of smaller clubs. Adopting the ‘B’ teams raises an immediate conflict with the FFP regulations domestically. Who are the second teams answerable to in this sense, the Football League or Premier League?
It is the sort of issue that would be managed through if (when) the proposals evolve into reality. The devil will be donning a wetsuit, hoping on a surfboard and riding the wave of self-preservation once the details are released. The ‘B’ team issue got the headlines but I wonder if that was the intention, diverting debate away from what I consider to be the two biggest areas that need to be addressed.
At a youth level, my youngest son (#2) is fortunate enough to play for a team which has access to 3G pitches. They didn’t lose a single home match or training session to the weather this season. A less harsh winter might have contributed significantly to that but the pitches are always available, all four are in constant use weekday and weekend. Do they help technique? Of course, players at their age can control the ball better than we could and thanks to having a coach who refuses to be drawn into route one football, they can pass for England most matches. They can pass better than England most matches. It is this last piece of the jigsaw which is missing from most youth football. There is still an English psyche to overcome, #2’s team frequently out-muscled even in an Under-11’s league although they have toughened up and are beginning to mix that with technique. It is that balance which English football is going to be drawn toward in the long-term, the blood and thunder with a lot more passing thrown in.
There is no use denying that the fundamental ‘battling’ element of the game is going to change; it won’t, the Premier League product is based on that. It can improve with the likes of Arsène and younger men such as Martinez and Rodgers who believe in passing the ball as opposed to the lumpen unsophistication of Mourinho. They have to prevail whilst drawing on the Portugeezer’s organisational skills, to ensure that English football and by extension, England can adapt to the international arena. Some of the graphs included in the report show English players being used to a similar level as their Belgian counterparts, in the Champions League. I’d say that is accurate, it reflects the echelon of the international game England occupies; the next level down from the real elite nations.
Crucial to this is funding. Some, myself included, believe that government at a national and local level has a role to play in providing that. However, more money is floating around in the game than ever before and it is beholden upon Premier League clubs, the organisation and the FA to lead the way in providing facilities for now and future generations to benefit from. Those who claim it is nothing to do with the professional games are naïve. As well as being players of the future, they are the supporters of the future, more importantly the revenue drivers upon which football depends. If the game won’t invest in revenue streams now, football is irreparably damaging its existence.
Aspirations to improve the game, giving players more opportunities – overhauling the Work Permit scenario is something which will contribute toward that – is a lengthy process. #2, if he were that good, is still half a decade away from being of an age where first XI football is considered key by the FA. He is of the generation of players at grassroots level who will among the first to benefit from improved coaching beliefs and techniques. For England to improve, it will take time. Is this the silver bullet? Not in its current form but at least someone is loading the gun.