No to League Three!

Last year, the FA got a new Chairman in the shape of Greg Dyke, a former Director-General of the BBC. Dyke wasted no time in announcing that his aim as Chairman would be to improve the fortunes of the England team, with the aim of winning the 2022 World Cup.

Dyke described English football as “a tanker that needs turning”, and announced he was forming a commission consisting of Premier League and Football League Chairmen, members of the League Managers Association and the players union, the PFA, to look at ways of increasing the talent pool available to the England manager, and to investigate why the current talent pool is so low.

A few weeks ago, the commission announced its findings, and came up with some recommendations.

Greg Dyke has made no secret of the fact he believes that there are too many foreign players currently playing in English football. What’s more, he believes that the presence of foreign players is holding back the English ones, and as a result, hurting the national team. One of the commission’s recommendations is that the number of home-grown (players, not necessarily English/British, who spent three years at a club in England or Wales between the ages of 16-21) in each Premier League squad be raised from the current eight.

I couldn’t care less about the England team, but for what it’s worth, I think that having more foreign players in the Premier League helps the England team far more than it hurts it, because it means that the bar has been raised for an English player to make it.

However, the craziest idea was yet to come.

The big headline making announcement from the commission was to announce plans for Premier League teams to field reserve teams in the lower divisions of English football, in a similar way that teams in Spain, Germany and other European nations field B teams in their lower divisions.

The plan is to create ‘League Three’, which will become the 5th tier of English football, lying between League Two and the Football Conference.  League Three would initially consist of ten Premier League reserve teams, and ten teams from the Conference. The plan also allows for the possibility of creating a League Four at a future date. The ‘B’ teams would not play in the FA Cup and could not be promoted any higher than League One.

The idea behind this is that at the moment too many players in the 18-21 year age gap get stuck by not quite being ready to play first-team football for a Premier League side, but needing to play competitive football in order to develop, which is where the ‘B league’ comes in.

This is one of those ideas which seems bad when you first hear it, then gets worse the more you think about it.

First and foremost, there is no clear evidence that B teams have a positive effect on player development; mostly because the level they play at is of too low a standard to be beneficial. Many German clubs have fielded B teams (more specifically, under-23 teams) for no other reason than they had to in order to get a licence to play. From next season, that’s no longer the case, and many teams have announced they’ll be withdrawing their B teams, as they get little to no benefit from having them, with the parent clubs sending their better prospects on loan to other Bundesliga or Bundesliga 2 clubs to get experience.

Secondly, the commission seems to forget that what ‘works’ in one country, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in England. Yes, currently in Spain and Germany there are B teams in the lower leagues, but that doesn’t mean they were seamlessly inserted into their system. I read something recently about how B teams have destroyed the German lower leagues as competitions; as they have been reformed several times to accommodate these sides.

The lower leagues in England are completely different to those in other countries. They are vibrant, exciting, well-supported competitions in their own right, and should be respected as such. For example, League One, the third tier of English football, has a higher average attendance than the second tier of all European countries except Germany.

Putting what would be developmental teams in those leagues would have the effect of diminishing the competition as a whole. It’s also conceivable that there could be a ludicrous situation where the top ten places in League One are occupies by a ‘B’ team, meaning that the 11th and 12th placed teams in League One are the ones that get promoted.

Inserting teams into a so-called ‘League 3’ would also have the effect of undoing over a hundred years of tradition. English football operates on a pyramid structure, with a clear pathway between the very top, and the tiny amateur leagues towards the bottom.

Theoretically, a group of us on this site could get together, start up a team and make it to the Football League or even the Premier League one day. In reality, this is incredibly difficult, but it is possible (AFC Wimbledon and Aldershot Town are two examples of teams who came from nowhere to the Football League in recent times). 

Dropping B teams in completely undoes that system irrevocably, and makes it that much harder for teams to progress up and down the leagues, and gives them less incentive to do so. Accrington Stanley put it best:

I don’t think this works for the B teams either, as there is a world of difference in standard between Leagues One and Two and the Premier League. Once upon a time, teams would send some of their best prospects to get some experience in the lower leagues. You had David Beckham playing for Preston North End in the then-equivalent of League Two and Frank Lampard playing for Swansea in what’s now League One.

That doesn’t happen anymore. Premier League teams still send players on loan to Leagues One and Two, but it’s become very rare that a Premier League club would send a player out to League One or Two as the final step of their development to becoming a first-team player, as it’s no longer seen as a sufficient standard to get a player ready for the rigours of the Premier League.   

Now, I don’t think anyone would object if a Premier League ‘B’ team  were to start at the bottom of the pyramid and make their way up, but that’s not going to happen as the standard of competition is just too low for any player good enough to be on the books of a Premier League team to benefit from.

Setting aside any sort of doubts about the rights and wrongs of destroying the football pyramid, there’s also the question of where would these teams play?

None of the current Premier League u-21 sides have their own stadium to play in; they either use the stadium of a local lower league or, as in the case of most clubs, the stadium of a non-league team. Currently Liverpool and Manchester United use the stadiums of Rugby League sides. Most sides also play some games at their training ground or, if they have one, academy.

Now, those stadiums are perfectly fine for reserve level, non-league football or academy football, but they may not necessarily meet the regulations laid down by the Football League for what is an acceptable stadium.

For a team newly promoted to League Two, there’s a league requirement that their stadium must have a minimum capacity of 4,000, capable of expanding to 5,000, with at least 1,000 seats. After three years, that has to increase to at least 3,000 seats. Most non-league grounds just don’t fulfil that criterion, and it’s unlikely that too many Premier League clubs would be willing to pay out to redevelop another club’s stadium, especially, if crowds from other B teams from across Europe are anything to go, they’ll only be drawing a few hundred fans per game once the initial novelty has worn off.

That’s assuming that those lower or non-league teams are happy to groundshare. While the clubs currently hosting a Premier League team’s reserve side are prepared to do so for 7 or 8 games a season, would they still be happy to do so for a full league programme of at least 23 games? 

This idea is unlikely to go through as they would need a majority of Football League clubs to sign off on it, as well as the Premier League clubs, who, with a few exceptions, have stated they are against it, as are the Premier League as a whole, who are concerned it might dilute their brand.

What’s really worrying about this is the way the commission has come to this idea. One of the commission members, former England right-back Danny Mills, claimed that over 650 people were consulted when coming up with this report, but what’s telling is who wasn’t consulted.  

For a start, that includes the Football Conference, which, seeing as though their division will be getting ripped apart with ten of their teams being punted into ‘League Three’, are not being unreasonable when they say that they would have like to have been told about these plans before they were announced.

Also not consulted were the two biggest groups representing fans in England, the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct, which would suggest that once again, the FA are making decisions without considering the wishes of fans.

Greg Dyke’s willingness to do something to improve English football is admirable, but it does seem that he is convinced ideas are right and that rather than a proper debate on how to improve football in England, his commission is merely an exercise in how he can get his ideas implemented.

The real problem that faces English football is how to improve grass-roots football. Numbers playing the game are down, there is a shortage of referees and amateur leagues across the country are folding at an alarming rate, due to spiralling costs and dwindling numbers. There will be a report   addressing this problem later in the year, but I’m not holding my breath that this report will be any less of an exercise than this one was and lead to the improvements the game desperately needs.