A Poor Plan B From The FA!

Dutch B game

By Ian Rands (A United View

At the end of last year I sat in a near empty stadium that was devoid of atmosphere and watched a football match. It was an odd experience, sat amongst a passive audience that barely showed any passion or interest for what happened on the pitch.

A home goal saw barely any fans rise out of their seats, never mind jump for joy. There was polite applause when goals were scored, as audible for the opposition as the home side. There were mumbles and groans when the referee made a poor decision, muttered under breath, barely audible and only noticeable by the merest movement of lips and the steam rising in the cold winter air.

No animation, no passion, no fanatical support for their club or team. It was an odd and disappointing experience. The fact that it was a match in the second tier in a major European football country made it even more depressing.

The match was in the Dutch 2nd Division (Eerstedivisie) between Jong Ajax (Ajax reserves or development squad as they are now described) and De Graafschap. It was played at the small stadium within Ajax’s impressive De Toekomst training complex. It was a tidy little set-up, with a single covered stand holding a majority of supporters, including a few fans of De Graafschap. Opposite was uncovered seating, with a small penned off section in the far corner holding about 10-15 away supporters. Behind one goal was netting, the opposite end housing a clubhouse with bar, changing facilities and offices, sandwiched between another pitch beyond it.

In and amongst the crowd I saw a few neutrals and supporters of other clubs. The young man sat along the row in the next taken seat, had a Sparta Rotterdam holdall on the empty seat alongside him.

With no other football in the surrounding area (or country) that night and admission prices of €10 (€5 for club members) and €1 for juniors, I expected both a bigger crowd and a more exciting experience.

Instead I got a crowd of 377 and what was at best a reserve match atmosphere for a match featuring a reserve team. The lack of passion and apparent support for the team from the Ajax supporters stunned me. Maybe it shouldn’t have.

The Jong Ajax team had no real identity. Yes they wore the famous red and white shirts. Yes they included players who had played first team football and a goalkeeper who had been capped by the national team. But there was nothing for the fans to get fired up about.

They were supporting a team with an ever-changing first eleven. A team that could make little further progress in the league, yet depending on team selection and mood could have an impact on those that were challenging for promotion or risking relegation, albeit relegation from the Eerste Divisie is as rare as sightings of Santa Claus.

Jong Ajax are a team in stasis, there to develop and rehabilitate more than compete. How does that fit in professional sport? 45 players have had playing time this season. That statistic says it all.

Poor attendances are just one – minor – counter-argument to the B team proposals and one referred to by Football League Chairman Giles Clarke in previous statements on the subject. This was a something evidenced both by my evening in Amsterdam and the bare statistics.

All three Dutch clubs average less than 1,000 when playing a majority of their home games. Only the games against each other, often played at the first team stadium, attract anything more. 6,500 at the Amsterdam Arena being far and away\ the highest. Albeit in a league where the average is just 3,105. The same is true in other countries. Barcelona B average crowds of just under 4,000, Real Madrid Castilla supporters take up less than 50% of their 6,500 capacity.

The other significant factor to be considered is the competitiveness of the teams. In a league of 20 teams PSV finished 10th, Twente 17th and Ajax 14th. Ajax concede on average two goals a game and their form has gone in fits and starts over the course of the season.

Over in Spain Barcelona B are 3rd out of 22 in the Segunda Division, but are unable to be promoted. Real Madrid Castilla sit 3rd from bottom at risk of relegation to the regionalised Segunda B (Spanish 3rd tier). Of the B teams at that level, there are few teams above halfway in their respective groups. One of the exceptions – Las Palmas B – are currently in the promotion play offs, but success will be pointless unless Las Palmas gain promotion to the Primera Liga – currently in the play-off slots.

In Germany, with the exception of Stuttgart in the 3 Liga, most other second teams play in the regionalised fourth tier Regionaliga, in some cases dominating. However the mandatory requirement for a B team is being relaxed by the Bundesliga, much to the relief of many clubs and for some it will be at a financial saving.

English football has a strength in depth that few countries, if any, can match. The ingrained spread and depth of professional and semi-professional football across the country means crowds, even in the lower divisions, exceed those of top flight leagues in other nations.

The pyramid structure means everyone can dream, although different objectives and divisional targets will exist, promotion and relegation are there to be fought for. Clubs are part of communities, often forming a major part in their town’s national identity as well as a focus point for the town and its people. This unique system is something that just doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Although financial problems are relatively common in the Football League, we don’t see the levels of insolvency and liquidations that other countries’ clubs suffer. In the Netherlands there was – and still is – a reserves league (the Beloften) where clubs competed, however last Summer Jong Ajax, Jong FC Twente and Jong PSV moved from the Beloften Eredivisie to the Eerste Divisie. The teams they replaced; VV Katwijk, SC Veendam and AGOVV Apeldoorn, either chose not to accept promotion or went into liquidation.

Yet financial vulnerability and a lack of willing investors means that there is a risk that this could happen over here. Especially if the Premier league threatens solidarity payments, as they did to force through the Elite Player Performance Plan proposals – the last great saviour of English football.

Remember the rumours of Rangers considering buying Bury as an avenue into English football? What is to stop Manchester United or City looking at the same club with similar intentions for a B team? The FA suggestion of 14 teams that would form Strategic Loan Partnerships with Premier League clubs has got a Greater Manchester based club written all over it. With a perceived critical mass of clubs in the area they would look extremely vulnerable and even if there wasn’t a name change, you can imagine the perceived kudos and investment would appeal to a board of investors struggling to keep a club afloat.

This would appeal to the big clubs who can impose playing style and culture on the feeder club aligned with that of the parent. Something that beefed up loan agreements for individual players cannot guarantee. The FA even suggest that identities of clubs could be tempered with. We are then left with puppet clubs with Premier League Gepettos.

Giles Clarke, chairman of the increasingly inert Football League, has previously stated that ‘we have to put parochial self-interest aside and do the right thing for English football and its fans, and forge a way ahead together.’ But since when has the Premier League done anything for the greater good? No really, when? On that basis, why should the Football League?

Much is made of the lack of young English players coming through to the top of club football and how close we are to a crisis point. The FA Commission report proposals are reportedly prepared with this in mind, yet it seems to ignore some of the factors previously listed and turns a blind eye to the potential consequences lower down the leagues.

The way English football is currently organised, the ease of transition between the youth set-up and the first team has been entirely eroded. With the Premier League abolishing reserve teams, the lauded Under-21 development leagues that replaced them are deemed not fit for purpose.

Michael Owen’s solution is this: beef up the loan system to get Premier League youngsters out to lower division clubs and to get Premier League B Teams playing competitive football. “Put them in the Conference, or League Two, then we’ll have players properly coming through, not disappearing.” But that is happening now and they still aren’t getting first team chances back at their parent clubs and are certainly not progressing in numbers to international level.

What would happen if you are Oxford United in League Two or Forest Green or Mansfield in the Conference, displaced to make room for the new B teams? What would happen to your club if it was relegated to make room for 10 or 20 incoming operations? What if you were relegated because Stoke City B decided to blood a few 17 year olds in their squad against your relegation rivals?

The enforced EPPP has only re-enforced the stockpiling of young talent by the biggest and richest clubs, despite the excellent development of international talent by clubs outside the Premier League. As Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parrish described it: “A brazen attempt by the Premier League’s wealthy elite to cherry pick the best youngsters from the Football League clubs.”

Creating Category levels of academy is not about player development or playing first team football at the highest level, it is certainly not about value for money. It is about creating a barrier to entry, for those clubs outside of the elite. Regardless of the initiative, investment and credibility previously demonstrated in player development, no cash and you are not in. B teams and a League 3 would create similar barriers.

If the likes of Chelsea and the rest didn’t hoover up endless youth talent (or what passes for it), these younger players could actually play for their local teams. The Premier League has created a system that doesn’t work and wishes to solve the problem by destroying its main competitors. Sadly the FA, the guardians of our game, have become complicit in this destruction.

Chelsea have had 29 players out on loan, while Manchester City have 8 and Spurs 11. Yet if the true motive is a successful England team, will B teams work? Only 9 of the 29 players Chelsea have loaned out are English and half of the City and Spurs players. Limitations on non-home-grown players are in the FA proposals, but home-grown doesn’t necessarily mean English

Arsene Wenger has moaned that there are “400 players in the professional top league clubs who have no real chance of ever playing for the first-team”, note he is interested in player development for the good of his club. Wenger also suggested that the introduction of feeder clubs should lead to the abolition of the current under-21 league. Yet my suggestion would be to make more of the Under 21 league.

Make it an attractive prospect for fans; play matches at sensible times in accessible venues. Not 1 o’clock on a Monday lunchtime at an out of town training ground, or a non-league ground in another town. Allow the fans in and encourage families to attend. Give the competition kudos and generate competition between clubs. Hell – sell the television rights if anyone is daft enough to buy them. Make it an Under-23 League, with a maximum number of over-aged players. Place it outside the pyramid structure. Premier League clubs can develop their players, wherever they are from, in a competitive structure against peers and senior professionals.

Just don’t destroy what is not broken, what is envied by others, for reasons best described as fallacies and which are driven by barely masked greed. Especially when the clear evidence elsewhere shows only limited success.

This piece was written by Ian Rands who blogs over at A United View, where he usually gives us great insight on everything related to Sheffield United. I would like to thank Ian. If you are on Twitter then you can follow Ian HERE.

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