FA chairman Greg Dyke poses with the executive's controversial report on the future of the England national team, which has angered Football League clubs. Photo: Getty Images
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Football League clubs are in open revolt against the B team plans of the executives who represent them

The continued endorsement of Premier League B teams being given access to Football League competitions has led to an open rebellion by teams and their owners against the executives who are supposed to represent their interests.

In the luxury resort of Vilamoura on Portugal’s Algarve, important discussions about the future of English football are taking place. It’s the Football League Owners and Executives Conference, the objective of which, according to a letter from Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey, is to “increase engagement with clubs”.

Harvey also includes in his letter the caveat that: “The emphasis will be on the future, not the past.” The observation that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it is brought immediately to mind.

One way in which Harvey no doubt helps the future can be focused on is by discussion of the proposal to allow B teams from the elite clubs of the Premier League to enter the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, the cup competition for lower league clubs. This proposal dangles unspecified “financial benefits” in front of lower league clubs to encourage then to accept something that has already been widely rejected in a different form – the parachuting of top club B teams into competition with traditional clubs.

The suggestion represents something of a rearguard action after the furore sparked by the FA Commission’s report on the future of the England team, which suggested that B teams from the top sides should be allowed to compete in the Football League. As the many thousands of fans who have opposed that plan pointed out, the idea undermines one of the basic principles of the English game: that a club's position is based on merit. The fans, of course, were not asked for their views – we’re just expected to pay to watch the games we don’t want to be staged. But it’s not just fans who are opposed to the plans.

The Football League clubs themselves are also in open rebellion, with Peterborough United’s Darren Macanthony, Portsmouth CEO Mark Caitlin and Bradford City’s Mark Lawn particularly vociferous in their opposition. All of which presents a problem for Football League chairman Greg Clarke, because while almost all the clubs he is supposed to represent oppose the B team plans, and while the Football League itself has said the original FA Commission proposals “may not contain a solution that is acceptable at the current time”, the embarrassing detail that remains is that Greg Clarke was one of the members of the Commission who signed off the proposal.

It’s not the first time Clarke has incurred the ire of the clubs he is supposed to represent. At last year’s meeting, he had to face down the prospect of a no-confidence vote from clubs angry at the way he had negotiated a solidarity payments package with the Premier League, about his failure to secure sponsorship for the League, and for putting himself in the frame for the job of FA Chairman – eventually given to Greg Dyke – without informing the League.

On that occasion, Ken Bates, then the chairman of Leeds United, moved a motion to dismiss any concerns and move on – with only a handful of clubs opposing. This year, it seems, former Leeds United executive Shaun Harvey will try to get Clarke out of trouble, repackaging the B team league proposal as a B team cup proposal. And showing, in the process, that despite the protestations of the football authorities that they are listening to the furious fan criticisms of the whole B team principle, they are in fact not listening at all.

The fact that they are not listening is no surprise. Harvey once set out his philosophy as ‘players play, managers manage, and supporters support”. With the conference in Vilamoura also due to discuss ownership structures, it’s also interesting to remember that Harvey has presided over three administrations, two at Bradford City and one at Leeds. He was at Leeds for years when the ultimate owners of the club were not publically known – which equips him well to be the chief executive of the organisation responsible for the Owners and Directors Test. Leeds fan Amitai Winehouse has written an interesting portrait of Harvey for the fanzine STAND, while Harvey’s approach to supporter criticism was examined in some depth by David Conn in the Guardian.

One of the major problems with the way English football is run is that those who take the key decisions are in those positions for a variety of reasons – none of which include being accountable to any constituency other than people like them. So they often define the interests of ‘their’ clubs as their own personal interests, and those interests often include seeing how far they can rise within the governance structure of a sport that likes to project a professional image, but which too often conducts itself in an amateur fashion, with a nod here, a wink there and a favour thrown in when it can make a difference.

That is not to say that there are no good people involved at this level, or that every idea those who run the game come up with is bad – although you do have to look a bit harder for the good ones. It’s the system itself that’s the problem, a system that promotes patronage and discourages the more open and collegiate processes that are increasingly expected.

If English football was serious about looking to the future, it would address this. 

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.