On B Teams, the EPPP, and Change

The subject of B team football within the English football league structure is a complex one with no lack of sensitive issues.

Andre Villas-Boas has twice this season added his name to a series of high-profile names who have called for a restructuring of the way young talent is developed in this country.

Naturally, the issue causes some consternation, and perhaps quite rightly. There are many valid points to be made both sides of the argument, and there are appropriate forums in which to discuss them.

However, one thing everybody appears to agree on is that something must be done. The introduction of the much-vaunted and equally controversial Elite Player Performance Plan ahead of the 2012/13 season has the intention of solving many of the well-documented problems.

Whilst the focus on schoolboy and ‘grass-roots’ football is laudable, the chasm which currently exists for players aged roughly between 18 and 22 is as important an area to address as any. The EPPP looks to do this, in the form of a national Under-21 development league which will replace the current reserve league structure.

Many a rumour has done the rounds as to quite what this will entail, as there has been precious little made public about what is a major change to youth development in England. Fortunately, here at TheChels, we occasionally have information fall into our laps, and can reveal some of the lesser-known details (all of which are pending final ratification, of course).

Currently, a handful of Premier League clubs have opted not to take part in the reserve league, deciding instead to schedule their own fixtures and play on their own terms. From 12/13 onwards, membership in the ‘Premier Development League’ will be mandatory for Premier League clubs, and indeed a requirement for any club which has ambitions of achieving Category One status.

There will NOT, however, be an age limit on player eligibility, which taken at face value renders the term ‘Development League’ useless. The people behind the EPPP note that the average age of a current reserve league player is 21 and therefore anticipate that “it will serve those players in transition from youth to professional football”.

It continues by indicating that a selection of matches may be played at first-team stadia and that there will be opportunities for Category One and Two clubs to play matches against overseas outfits.

Unfortunately, everything documented is currently possible in the existing structure. A presumptive home-and-away fixture list against some twenty other teams (nineteen other Premier League reserve teams plus Southampton, the only non-PL team set for Category One status) increases the number of fixtures to a suitable level, but it misses a series of other areas by a wide margin.

Unless there is some form of competitive element to reserve league matches, it is highly likely we’ll still end up with stale affairs between groups of players who would rather be playing elsewhere in front of healthy crowds and for tangible reward at full time.

All too often, second-string fixtures are played out before a sparse crowd (or behind closed doors) on a weekday afternoon or evening with limited reward at the end of it. When some of these players then go out on loan to play in the football league, they all speak of the same thing; how happy they are to be taking the next step in their careers, playing regular football for ‘three points’.

This brings the discussion back around to B teams and the football league. Realistically, this is never going to happen, not least because of the vehement and staunch opposition to the notion by what appears to be a vast majority in the game.

It’s not for me or anyone else to convince others of the many valid reasons for their inclusion, but what is important is to have an open mind about change rather than clinging onto some ill-formed notion of tradition.

Tradition is a wonderful thing. However, it can equally be a terrible hindrance. The bi-annual summer navel-gazing period which occurs when England are knocked out of a major tournament usually calls for an overhaul of youth development and an improvement in the way we develop players.

When plans are drawn up and published, many of the same people who complained with their England hat on remember that they’re a club supporter too and find issue with such proposals.

Ultimately, something has to change. Undoubtedly, allowing clubs to operate a B team at some level of the pyramid would be one of the most fundamental changes to the game in this country perhaps ever, but let’s take a look back at the last major change; the introduction of the Premier League.

The past twenty years have been amongst the most successful in this country’s long and illustrious history in the sport, with the game becoming a multi-billion pound industry marketed to near enough every country around the world and the leading lights making waves at the highest level of club football.

Supporters of lower-league clubs will undoubtedly tell you that whilst the rich have gotten richer, the poorer have been left behind and the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has never been bigger.

Is this really the case though? A cursory glance of historical attendances reveals that the average number attending games in England has steadily risen since 1992 across all four divisions.

The likes of Blackpool, Burnley, Fulham, Hull City, Norwich City, Stoke City and Swansea have been able to make their way up from much lower down the ladder to become respectable Premier League outfits, pouring a certain degree of scorn on arguments that it’s impossible to break through that ‘glass ceiling’.

Yes, there are some serious financial problems, but whilst there have been over 30 cases of football league clubs entering administration in the last decade, not one of them have ceased to exist. In the latter days of the pre-Premier League era, the likes of Aldershot and Maidenhead went to the wall whilst still in the league.

The point is that whilst the Premier League may be looked upon as the big bad boys in English football, taking all of the glory and money for themselves at the expense of their lesser neighbours, it isn’t quite so simple. A healthy chunk of football league income comes from Premier League handouts (something which is rarely mentioned), and the game in England is so far ahead of where it was 20 years ago that it’s not even a fair comparison.

People are naturally afraid of change. Familiarity breeds comfort, but it can also breed complacency. Fundamental change goes a stage further, and a fear of the known can lead to the reactions we’ve seen in response to Andre Villas-Boas this week.

For the sake of the game, it would be churlish not to approach ideas with an open mind. At the very least, you’re back where you started, holding the same opinion. However, you might just end up with a revolutionary idea which takes English football into a new, successful era.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

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