Date: 14 May 2017 04:13
Allowing rich teams to effectively sponsor teams in trouble at the bottom would help develop young English talent as well as save crisis clubs
The presence of any Premier League “B” teams in the lower leagues is considered beyond the pale in England. The very idea of it appears to cheapen and degrade a proud footballing structure that stretches back more than a century and one quarter.
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It is well known that certain Premier League teams would be in favour of this idea - first floated by ex-FA chairman Greg Dyke in 2014 as a way of increasing the production of young English talents.
But the 72 EFL clubs said no last September when they voted against any structural reform that would facilitate Premier League clubs fielding “B” teams in their divisions.
The fate of the EFL Trophy – known as the Checkatrade Trophy this season – is interesting to consider as a case study.
That competition - traditionally open to clubs from League 1 and League 2 – was expanded this season to include 16 under-23 teams from clubs with Category One academies. It didn’t go well. The initiative was met with an overwhelmingly negative response from fans while Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham declined their invites with Championship clubs stepping in to fill the gaps.
Record low attendances were registered with some games attracting spectators only in the three and four hundreds. There would appear to be no appetite from fans of clubs down the pyramid to mix it with the youngsters from the top tier.
But another idea is worth exploring – the idea of turning troubled lower league clubs into “foster” teams affiliated with bigger, richer teams further up.
Coventry City won the Checkatrade Trophy this season but have been relegated to the fourth tier for the first time in their history. The dispute between hedge fund owners SISU, the club’s fans and the local council shows no signs of slowing down. SISU – in fact - have provided the case study of how not to manage a football club.
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Leyton Orient – relegated from League 2 - face extinction in court next month due to unpaid bills and despised owner Francesco Becchetti left players and staff payless in March.
Yet these all passed the FA’s so-called fit-and-proper persons test. Once clubs are in the hands of owners there is nothing the FA or the EFL can do about it despite widespread disapproval.
Surely, then, it would be more favourable for crisis clubs to be aligned with Premier League teams. Current EFL rules forbid it due to legitimate concerns over the integrity of any competition featuring two teams owned by the same people.
But football clubs would have football and not asset stripping or stadium sales on their minds; only player development.
Pep Guardiola stated after Manchester City played Leicester City on Saturday that he’d like more opportunities to field younger players. Up to now he hasn’t had much of a chance.
Kelechi Iheanacho has started only five times in the Premier League despite his promise. City fans are excited too about Aleix Garcia and Pablo Maffeo but have yet to see them have a meaningful run in the first team.
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City are still not mathematically sure of their Champions League place and even the EFL Cup gave Guardiola few chances to blood his youngsters. He has compared the situation to other nations he’s worked in.
"The second teams in Spain, at Barcelona or Real Madrid, play in front of 40,000 people and every weekend in the second league in Italy or Germany [too], it is so tough, so demanding, the guys are playing with guys who are 28 or 29 or 30 and that is the best way to improve, not training with the first team sometimes," he said this week.
"And here they don’t compete, they don’t play with each other. They are good guys, they shake each other's hands, but after they need to play in Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, sometimes it’s too early, I don’t know if they are able to compete with them, but the league is what it is here and we have to deal with that."
Guardiola broke through as a coach in charge of Barcelona’s famed “B” team where he was in charge of players such as Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez. Bayern Munich’s younger players meanwhile have the opportunity to compete in Germany’s fourth tier.
And yet City are about to sign off a contract worth £25,000 + for 19-year-old central defender Tosin Adarabioyo. He’s featured three times for Guardiola’s first team this season. They dare not risk a hot academy prospect just in case he ultimately proves good enough for the top level. However, Guardiola would surely have preferred to see him in men’s football rather than with City’s Elite Development Squad.
The differences between youngsters having opportunities in men’s football and under-23 football are immense. One ex-Premier League manager reckons it takes 50 senior games before you can judge a youngster at the top level. How many academy prospects make it to 50 Premier League games? Precious few.
The loan system - used extensively by City as well as Chelsea – is not always the best way for a player to develop. Six months here, a season there with different managers, different systems and different expectations – it can be a disorientating experience for even the most robust of youngsters. There is first team football but little continuity.
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What prepared Busquets and Pedro – as well as Lionel Messi – for life in the Barcelona first team was working day by day with coaches in a system they understood and one in which they were comfortable.
There is no similar pathway for elite youngsters in England. Chelsea have a link-up with Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands where they send many of their prospects for first-team football, but not many have come back and slotted into the first team at Stamford Bridge.
City Football Group operates clubs in the United States, Australia, Japan and now Uruguay with Atletico Torque but it is hard to see how loaning players to those leagues would benefit either the players themselves or – ultimately – Guardiola’s first team.
What might work is a relaxation of the law which dictates no owner can run more than one team in any competition. Premier League teams and their counterparts lower down the leagues could sign fixed-term agreements during which financial support could be given and players and coaches moved between the two. If a team shoots up the leagues and the prospect of competing with the mother club is on the horizon then the deal could be cancelled early.
It would serve the twin purposes of stricken clubs being rescued and Premier League players getting the first-team football they so desperately need. When the team is rescued another club in danger could be sought.
With the current restrictions on takeovers involving teams from the same country, buying clubs are simply looking further afield.
AS Monaco have taken over Cercle Brugge in Belgium’s second tier. Atletico Madrid now have an interest in Atletico San Luis in Mexico. Cercle will take on Monaco’s emerging talents and train them in a way the mother club approves. Here Monaco retain control over what their youngsters are being taught and what they are up to when they are away from the field. Throwing players on loan to the four corners of Europe is not a model Monaco are seeking to follow.
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For City and Guardiola, right now it’s all they’ve got.
There is a huge problem in English football because young talents are simply not getting their chances in first-teams in decent numbers. For every Tom Davies that breaks through there are 10 more players on the teams he emerged from who will probably never put on a senior Everton shirt.
Kids like that are exceptional; they would get their chance anywhere and probably take it. The other ones though, the ones who are not yet big enough or quick enough or strong enough or match aware enough who are being denied the crucial football they need between the ages of 18 and 21.
They need senior football in the right context – against men in intimidating stadiums with systems they understand and instructions they can comprehend. The concept of B teams might strike the wrong chord with the English but foster teams might be worth consideration.