The Football Association's report, issued on Thursday, claims to want to fix the problem of a lack of English players in the Premier League, and thus also give the national team a better chance at future World Cups. However, as per usual, the FA's proposals, analysis and reasoning provide a pretty comprehensive illustration of everything that is wrong with modern soccer.
It was set up, FA Chairman Greg Dyke says in the foreword, to reverse a trend which has seen the number of English players playing at the top level of the game fall by more than half over the last 20 years. It says this matters because this has a negative impact on the English national side, and that matters because the success of the English national side is in the interests of the whole game.
The solutions it proposes are to undermine the basic principle of the English national game and to make more clubs subservient to the interests of an elite group at the top. And it directly refuses to recognise the impact of the formation of the Premier League in creating the situation it now claims to want to solve.
In doing all this it has managed to create unprecedented anger among fans and alienate important sections of the game.
The proposal that has drawn most ire is the one to insert a league made up of B teams from elite clubs at level five of the current league pyramid system. These B teams, it is argued, would enable elite clubs to test their young players out in a properly competitive environment. But they would not be allowed to rise above League One, the current level three of the system.
The problem with this is that it destroys at a stroke the basic principle that has shaped the English game. And that is that any team can begin at the bottom and progress on playing merit up through the system. Much has happened to stretch that principle but it still holds true. The B league would put an end to all that.
It would cast the non-league game further adrift, which is why Alan Algar, sponsorship manager for the non-league Conference sponsors Skrill, called the plan “disgraceful”. The Conference itself was not, it points out, consulted – even though the proposals will have a huge effect on its members. In the Football League, the chairman of Peterborough United and the chief executive of Portsmouth were among the first to condemn the proposal, while the Football League itself issued a statement saying that the report “may not contain a solution that is acceptable at the current time”.
Strange, then, that Football League chairman Greg Clarke was on the Commission and is a signatory of the report. That’s football governance for you.
For the elite clubs to suggest creating a competitive division within the league system in which other clubs would be reduced to the role of practice fodder for their own youth teams is a perfect illustration of their arrogance. It is probably no surprise to hear that fans are passionately opposed to the idea. Fans support ‘their’ clubs, independent entities that compete as fairly as possible in the money-distorted modern game. That they identify firmly with those clubs is evidenced by the high numbers that flock to lower league games in England.
But one of the many problems with the FA Commission is that it didn’t ask the fans what they thought. It conducted over 650 interviews. But not one with a fan. Supporters Direct, the government-funded supporter governance body, issued a statement saying it twice submitted evidence to the Commission, but received no acknowledgement. It said: “We have never been asked to speak with the Commission about the content of our submission, yet some 300 ‘stakeholders’ of English football were ‘consulted’".
When the Commission was set up, there was a huge row because there were no current players and no black people on it. So the FA rushed out and got Danny Mills and Rio Ferdinand on board. But no fans. They don’t matter. So much for the customer culture.
Dyke typically brushed aside the objections of the fans who had not been consulted with the aggression some of us foolishly hoped he might use against the game’s vested interests. Asked about fans who objected, he responded: “I say to them, read the report, read the analysis. What are you going to do?” So after we’re ignored, we’re asked to keep an open mind and make some suggestions that will be ignored like they always have been.
The report acknowledges there might be opposition. In section 4.1.2 of the 84 page report it says: “Some people believe that English football should be preserved exactly as it has always been” and that – you might want to sit down for this bit – “there are even still those who believe the creation of the Premier League was damaging to English football”. Imagine!
Lest you be in any doubt about how backward opposing this latest set of proposals is, this section goes on to point out that: “The FA was slow to adopt and embrace international competition… and, of course, it refused to accept women’s football for 50 years!” So there you have it. Opposing these plans is a little bit like oppressing women (say the people who brought you the scandalous treatment of the Doncaster Belles).
There is more to the report than Plan B, although the furore over this threatens to overshadow everything. There’s also a plan to change the player loan system to make the smaller clubs do more of what the bigger clubs want them to do. And proposals to change limits on the numbers of foreign and home grown players allowed at each club.
When Greg Dyke introduced the report at FA headquarters on Thursday, he said: “Some would argue if your top league is largely foreign owned… why should they care about the England team.” As respected investigative football writer David Conn observed, “the Commission seems to have swerved Dyke’s question”. And he’s right.
What we have here is a frankly pathetic attempt to construct a national consensus around proposals that further entrench the interests of the few. When the Premier League was set up 22 years ago, we were told it was to help the England team. It didn’t. In 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan was bulldozed through in order, we were told, to help the England team. It was really about allowing the top clubs to expand their scouting operations and pick off talent from lower clubs at a cheaper price.
The latest report says that, amazingly, the measures taken so far haven’t helped the England team. And so it goes on.
In section 1.5.2 the report takes some time to explain more fully why the introduction of the Premier League in no way at all whatsoever thank you very much can be held responsible for any negative effects on domestic talent. It tells us how the Premier League is merely a massive commercial success that has brought lots of money into the game thanks to “some very clever marketing” – no false modesty here, folks. And this means the PL clubs can “target the best players in the world”.
But that’s got nothing to do with the reduction in opportunity for English players. As section 1.5.3 tells us, that’s really all down to pesky workers’ rights. In this case, the Bosman Ruling by those blighters in Europe that allowed players complete freedom of contract. As it points out in section 1.6, the prediction of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice in the Bosman case that migration of foreign players would not seriously harm the prospects of domestic players turned out to be “fundamentally wrong”.
Further evidence that, when seeking to address the criticism about lack of diversity on the Commission, the FA may have been wise to seek to recruit people that live on the same planet as the rest of us, comes when the report briefly addresses the issue of grass roots facilities. It bemoans the effect of local authority cuts on public playing fields and sporting facilities, while failing to ask whether a small proportion of the enormous income of the top clubs might be put to some use in addressing the shortfall. It does, however, suggest that new stadiums might be built to house the new B League games. Presumably with some public subsidy thrown in? It’s in the national interest, after all.
It’s hard to decide, when reading some of this stuff, whether the report’s authors are stupid, or they just think we are. It’s clear to most people that the fundamental problem with English football is the concentration of money and power in the hands of the few at the top. As Supporters Direct says: “Distribution of talent generally follows distribution of money.”
The report could have proposed reducing the gap in prize money between the divisions. That would make relegation less of a commercial blow, and reduce the incentive on clubs to gamble everything on getting to the top flight. It could have suggested reintroducing the system of sharing gate receipts between the two clubs playing a match. It could have suggested a more equitable distribution of TV money.
It does none of these things, all of which would discourage short termism, incentivise long-term, sustainable strategies, and reduce the risk of testing younger players in the heat of competition. It does none of those things because they do not suit the greedy, self-interested elite. The owners of the elite clubs are no more interested in boosting the prospects of the England national side than the fans of an increasing number of clubs are. Football is being run by the few, for the few. They are happy to use ‘the national good’ as a cover for promoting measures that serve their own good. And, in letting them do so under its umbrella, the Football Association undermines the very purpose of its existence.
• On 26 July, Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation are holding a Supporters Summit at Wembley Stadium. Plans to launch an alternative Manifesto for Football are being discussed.