The FA Chairman’s England Commission – Another Fine Mess

The FA Chairman’s England Commission Report was published in May amidst publicity and controversy.  It had been a difficult birth.  When it was set up, the Commission was accused of not being “diverse” enough, as it did not include any black players (Rio Ferdinand was subsequently invited to join the Commission), or women. The Premier League declined to participate completely.

Copies of the report were provided to delegates at last weekend’s Supporters Summit at Wembley (see Picking Up Speed), and formed the basis of the afternoon plenary session at the summit, in itself a change as this had originally been billed as a panel discussion on how fans could make their voices heard in the media.  An article in this week’s New Statesman speculates that this session was in fact an attempt to head off accusations that there had been no consultation with supporters.

The report is physically impressive, with 82 thick pages on high quality paper, with a picture of a couple of young players in a youth/Under 21 international on the front.  It clearly sets out the problems facing England, the targets that the commission believe should be set, the causes of the problems the national association faces and then attempts to propose solutions to the problem.

There is some very interesting data in the report.  For instance, the headline at Section 3.2 states:-

“Regulation of the English player market is not effective in preserving the desired balance of British, EU and non-EU players”

This section is particularly critical of clubs’ recruitment of non-EU players.  The work visa system in football aims to allow the UK “only those ‘non-EU’ players who are “internationally established at the highest level” and “whose employment will make a significant contribution to the sport at the highest level” “. However, the report goes on to state that of 122 non-EU players who have entered England since 2009 on work visas, 60 (nearly 50%) did not meet this criteria and were granted permits on appeal.  Of these 122 players, 23 (19%) did not enter the game at the highest level, joining Football League clubs.  Of the 54 players who joined Premier League clubs, 55% played less than the average number of minutes played by Premier League players, and the number of those playing in the Premier League in their second season in England dropped significantly, with only 58% of non-EU players granted visas playing any Premier League football at all in their second year in England.

It is difficult to argue with this issue. Work visas should only be granted to exceptional footballers, and not journeymen filling places that are potentially blocking the development of home grown players.

But then you have to ask yourself the question why English clubs buy abroad so often.  You only have to look at transfer fees paid recently for the likes of Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana to see that English players represent staggeringly poor value for money, leaving clubs desperate to comply with FFP little alternative but to seek better value abroad, as Chelsea did with their recent signing of Filipe Luis.

Section 3.3 is critical of coaching and coach development.  It argues that too many coaches at grassroots level have only the basic Level 1 qualification and too few go on to more advanced course.  A comment such as this appears to be is nothing but a slap in the face for the many dedicated volunteers who take up coaching simply with the intention of being able to coach a kids’ team, thus giving young people an interest and exercise in an age where it’s becoming easier for children to become couch potatoes.  For these coaches, it’s about making playing football enjoyable for kids.  It’s not about the holy grail of youth development, and it’s certainly not about bailing out the England football team.

You can trace the decline of English football back to the start of the Premier League.  That was the point at which football sold its soul irretrievably to the devil (or to give him one of his aliases, Rupert Murdoch).  TV rights money flooded into the game.  Football League clubs got greedy and suddenly saw that they could maximise income by hoicking transfer fees through the roof, making English players further down the level a less attractive proposition.  At the same time, with the advent of the Bosman Ruling, Premier League clubs saw that they could buy players of the same ability, or better, from Europe at half the price, and took full advantage of the lifting of restrictions.

The first wave of panic about the dwindling number of emerging English players led to the setting up of the Academy system.  And to be honest, this is where the game started going wrong.  When I was growing up, in the 1970s and 80s, if you were talented you’d get picked for your school or you’d join a local club (Olton Ravens in particular had a knack of turning out players who went on to sign apprentice forms at local clubs). If you turned out to be any good for your school or club, you’d get invited to a County trial.  You then might go on to play for the County and be seen by a club scout, the result being a club trial and an opportunity to sign what were called “associate schoolboy” forms. But you’d still play for your school, club, and your county, only joining a professional club at 16 (or, more occasionally if you had any kind of pretentions to academic prowess, 18).

Of course, that doesn’t happen now.  The very “best” boys as young as 8 are signed up by academies, they work their way up the system, playing against the same players at every age group.  They simply don’t play for schools or counties anymore. The divide between the “fortunate” ones, and those marked “reject” now in football is as cruel as any 11+ exam.  There is of course an argument that we are breeding a generation of highly-trained footballers capable of earning a good living in the game, even if it’s not at the higher level.  The contrary argument is in fact that we are breeding a generation of automatons, who have every ounce of character and the sheer joy of the game squeezed out of them by the time they reach their teens.

One Academy Manager at a Premier League Club is quoted as saying “at our club, players aged 8-12 are certainly technically good enough”.  I’ve no doubt they are.  But at that age, it’s unlikely that these boys have started to be swayed by the prospect of materialism. At 12 or under, a young boy is more than likely to to be dreaming of scoring a goal in a Champions League Final, or playing in a World Cup final for England.  By the time he’s reached 15 or 16, he’ll be more likely to be thinking ahead to a flash car, or the big headphones, possibly even a trophy girlfriend, all funded by a weekly wage that it’ll take some of those who’ll be watching him in the future a year to earn.

But it’s at Section 4 (Proposed Solutions) that the Commission really comes a cropper. The first two bullet points at Section 4.1.1 “Guilding principles for the development of solutions” state:-

  • We must do nothing to impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League overseas.
  • Proposals must not damage (indeed they should support and build on) the English foootball pyramid and in particular the strengths of the Football League.

So why are the FA so unwilling to damage Premier League clubs’ European prospects?  One of the most frequent accusations levelled at the FA last weekend was that they are too close to the Premier League.  The above shows a distinct reluctance to kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg.  The FA has benefitted tremendously, of course, from two highly successful Champions League finals held at Wembley in recent years, neither of which would have been possible without the success of English teams in the competition, and will probably hope for further high-profile European games to be allocated to the national stadium in years to come.

The second point inherently contradicts the much-vaunted League 3 or “B” team proposals.  Regardless of any claims by the FA, League 3 will damage the pyramid.  Why should supporters in the Football League (Leagues 1 and 2  in particular) see the integrity of their competition damaged because, ultimately, the FA has no will to take on the “big beast” of the Premier League?  The Commission makes much of “B” teams in Europe, but in reality, the system only operates in Spain and Germany.  Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta makes an unexpected appearance as “Exhibit 24” in Section 4, which shows his “development pathway” and cites his 27 games (i.e. less than a season) with Osasuna B at age 17-18. In reality, B Team football had very little impact on a gifted player who was playing first team football at 18 and had moved abroad by the time he was 21.

The League 3 plan claims that “B teams would play in stadia, most likely a small stadium built expressly for the purpose or at a nearby lower league club’s stadium shared in return for investment in improved pitch and facilities”.

“Most likely a small stadium” – at this point you start to wonder what universe members of the Commission are inhabiting.  Where is the money coming from to build “a small stadium” and where are these “small stadium”(s) going to be built?  This country can’t even build enough homes for people to live in without building 15 – 20 new football grounds.

It is also suggested that whilst B Teams won’t play in the major domestic tournaments “it may make sense for them to play in an enlarged Johnstone’s Paint Trophy”.  Again, what sense, or indeed benefit will this bring to the pyramid?

However, in a generous moment, the Commission does go on to say “The eventual structure and distribution of B teams would clearly be a decision for the clubs in the Football League and the Conference”.  That is very, very, big of them.

The B team proposal of course leads us into the even muddier waters of what constitutes a “home grown” player.  It is now accepted that “home grown” doesn’t necessarily mean a player born in the country in which he plays.  You could be from France and if you’ve joined a Premier League club at 16 and progress through to Under 21 level, as far as UEFA are concerned you’re still home grown.  And the FA don’t deviate far, stating “At least 20 of the 25 players should qualify under the Home Grown player rules”.  And there’s an age restriction too, with the proposal stating that “19 of the B team squad of 25 should be players under the age of 21 … and only three on the match day team sheet of 18 players can be over 21”.

Finally, the other gem the commission has unearthed is the concept of a “Strategic Loan Partnership”.  This will enable Premier League clubs to develop an SLP with up to two clubs in “divisions below the Championship”.  Whilst the commission exalts the “significant benefits” this could deliver the receiving club, ultimately which Football League club are going to allow their selection policy to be dominated by the lending club? Because that is what this  particular proposal amounts to.

Back to when I was a slip of a girl.  Reserve football was the “Football Combination” for clubs in the South, and the Central League for those in the Midlands and North.  The teams participating in this competition were a mix of old pros unable to get in the first team, players returning from injury, and rising young talent.  In the ego-driven Premier League era, it’s very unlikely a disenchanted player would want to play in such fixtures.  Things may have been very different 30 years ago, but a return to the Combination/Central League genuinely sounds like the bridge between youth and senior football that players on the verge of the first team needs.

Let’s go back to the thoughts of Chairman Greg at the Supporters Summit.  He acknowledged opposition to some of his plans and challenged opponents to come up with alternatives.  The above is just an over-view of the Commission and some of the problems its possible implementation will create.  This article might be harking back thirty years in some of its solutions, there is no doubt that on the pitch, if not on it, the game was in a much healthier state thirty years ago. It’s also worth remembering that most of us can’t remember a time when the fate of the national team wasn’t a cause for breast-beating.

My own view is that football in this country requires root and branch reform, through government if necessary, with everything from salary caps, to transfer limits, ticket pricing, times of games and grassroots football being the subject of review.  Yet we’ve been here before.  The Football Taskforce of the late 1990s led by David Mellor made a number of recommendations, none of which were properly implemented. It’s now almost 20 years down the line, and nothing has really changed.

Let me leave you with a staggering statistic, courtesy of the Football Supporters Federation:-

The FA Council has 100+ members yet only one of those – the FSF’s Malcolm Clarke – sits as a fans’ representative (for the FSF and SD). The professional game could not function without paying supporters, yet we have less than 1% representation there. Bizarrely, the Oxbridge universities have twice as many representatives on the FA Council as fans. Other organisations that have the same quota of reps as fans include the Air Force, Army, and Navy.

Unfortunately as long as the enthusiastic amateurs of the FA Council with their snouts in the corporate troughs and their fistful of free FA Cup Final tickets continue to have more of a say in the professional game than supporters who freely give not only their time but their money to the national game, things are not likely to improve.

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