AVB cited the example of having a ‘B’ or ‘C’ team that play competitively in English football’s lower leagues, a format like they have currently in Spain. For example, Barcelona recruited Lionel Messi for Argentina aged just 11 years old, Messi progressed through the youth ranks and started playing competitively aged 16. He spent almost two seasons playing for Barcelona C and B sides, before breaking through to the full Barcelona team aged 17. We all know what Messi has gone on to do and the talent he possesses, but his progression through the ranks at Barcelona may have been a little quicker than others, but the way in which it happened has not been unique. Xavi, Andreas Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and Victor Valdes are just a few of the world’s best players who have followed the same path and been blooded in Barcelona’s B and C teams, the system works well for its purpose.
There have already been attempts to mimic such a setup in this country; Everton manager David Moyes tried to set up an Everton ‘B’ who he wanted to play competitively in the Blue Square Conference in order for his reserve and youth team players to gain competitive experience playing a good level of football, in a setting that the club could oversee. This attempt was thwarted by the FA who told Everton they would have to start at the bottom of the amateur leagues and work their way up, a process that could take 10 or 11 seasons. Unsurprisingly this put Everton off, but fair play to the FA, the rules are the rules and will be no exceptions no matter who you are.
So AVB’s suggestions of B and C teams competing competitively in England seems an unrealistic proposition, is there anything currently out there?
Well we have already seen competitions like the Next Gen Series (NGS) come in to affect this season, which is a Champions League style tournament that clubs with the best youth academies around the world were invited to take part in. The NGS has had some success in its first season, the competition has some strong teams and gives youth teams esxperience of playing against European teams in competitive setting competiting for a trophy that the players want to win it. This is a competition that could attract TV rights in future and become a nice little earner that could help fund youth level football.
The problem is, it is not all-encompassing, only 16 teams are currently competing although plans to expand the tournament are in place, this is an elitist tournament of Europe’s top sides/academies. Saying that, this doesn’t ring true as the competition has had quite a few large scorelines, suggesting the quality is not fully there. Younger players are getting better earlier, 16, 17 and 18 year olds need to be playing a good standard of competitive football earlier against players who will offer a similar experience to playing for a side first XI and there are doubts as to whether this tournament plugs that gap.
This is only one initiative, so we have to think about football in a wider context and there are some big issues in football currently: Firstly the proposals for the Elite Player Performance Program (EPPP) put lower league clubs at a serious disadvantage both financially and in terms of developing youth who will turn into first team players, everything is against them. They will get less money for players they produce, that is if they even get the chance produce them in the first place as under the new guidelines big teams could easily pick up players by offering them a much better environment to develop in. The dangers are the standards of football in the lower leagues will diminish, with all the better players at bigger clubs not getting competitive experience, therefore a lesser quality of football in the lower leagues and if the standard drops, who will want to watch League One and Two for example?
We need to be aware that the lower leagues are slowly dying financially and some are fighting a losing battle just to stay in existence. This may not seem a huge issue now, but it will be more apparent over the coming years as more and more teams cease to exist. As the Premier League expands and gets more glamorous, growing as a world brand, the prospect of supporting Premier League sides, instead of so-called smaller sides, becomes more and more appealing to future generations - there is only so long that family heritage can continue to recruit supporters for clubs and the numbers are getting less every year. When you combine that with advances in technology which mean you can watch Premier League games, anytime, anywhere and have access to 24/7 news and content, the smaller clubs who are the lifeblood of english football will struggle to keep up.
- Geographical linkups between clubs in different divisions
- Clubs stay seperate, but share things like training facilities to cut down on costs
- Larger clubs loan a set amount of development players to smaller club each season
- Multiclub youth development centres
- Safeguards in place to stop poaching and clearly defined rules over ownership
- Key perfromance indicators (KPI) would determine player development
- If interest from top sides for a player, they would enter a draft system with predetermined fees that are realistic and dependant on KPI
- Seasonal team performance will determine the levels/quality of loan signings a club recieves
- Path of progression that players can aim for
- Stops poaching of players and more appealing than EPPP suggestions
- Money saved for smaller clubs (training facilities, coaching and equipment ment costs, player transfer fees and wages)
- Quality raised nationally
- Competitive experience for young Premier League players
- Better environment for lower league players to develop
- Raised standards in lowers leagues that can attract new supporter base
Now I understand this ‘conflict of interests’ from a fan and business perspective. This tries to combine the major issues football faces, drawing on other experiences like the regional development centres all over France.
Fans will probably not like this, but the years ahead are important and this is why I think proposals need to be thought out more practically and sentiment, tradition and history need to be put to one side if we want the life span of lower league football to be prolonged.