Wednesday, 15 June 2016

B teams: The Death of lower league football?

Back in 2014 Greg Dyke - FA Chairman announced a revolutionary plan to restructure English league football as we know it today. His idea was to introduce B teams to the football league pyramid and add a third division to cater for these new teams in the future - seeing the football league system go from 92 teams to 100, across five divisions. Most rational thinking FA members and clubs responded to it extremely negatively, giving his idea the proverbial two fingers, and Dyke's vision was rightly quashed. However, it seems in recent weeks this idea of B teams playing on same platform as League 1 and 2 teams has resurfaced.
To most league fans with any sort of understanding of the historical standing of the league system they would identify giving B teams the opportunity to compete alongside league sides could completely damage the integrity of the footballing pyramid in the future. However, money talks, and the recent news that the Premier League have paid £1 million for so called B teams to participate in the English League Trophy from next season is disappointing.

Barnsley lift the English League Trophy
On the surface, this news could be celebrated, the system hasn't been compromised, it is merely giving youth players the opportunity to play in a competitive cup competition, with the chance of silverware and a final at Wembley to play for. However, if you venture past the facade, this has the potential to just be the beginning - a Trojan Horse - a way of infiltrating the Football League. A way of identifying how successful a new system with B teams could be. Personally, this just doesn't sit right with me.
Now, the first clear issue with B teams from the Premier League being incorporated into this tournament, the clue being in the name, is that it's the football league trophy, not some sort of poor excuse of a Premier League reserves cup. As a supporter of a football league club, I do understand that the ELT is by far a priority for football league managers, with low prize money, the inconvenience of extra fixtures and sometimes extra travel - it's relative meaninglessness reflected by low attendances and the fielding of weakened sides, with teams only really starting to give any attention to it with the coup of a Wembley final on the horizon. If anything the trivial nature of the ELT will only become even less desirable for league clubs, with the already wavering competitiveness of the competition becoming even less so. On top an already relatively congested fixture list will be lengthened by at least three games, with the cost of holding these games likely to outweigh the benefits to clubs with low budgets. It could be argued that costs will be covered by increased attendances it matches featuring these B teams, with the supposed glamour of playing Premier League names, but in all honesty if Manchester City B team turns up, you'd be very unlikely to be treated to the likes of Aguero and co. Football league fans dream of playing the likes of Premier League goliaths, not their youngsters - as promising as they may be.
Another objection of this plan, as insignificant as it may seem, is the unpredictability of the plans,and the possibility that they could escalate into Dyke's original five tier division system plan. If the proposed plan of five divisions and 100 clubs got the go ahead, although B teams could progress passed division 3, theoretically, this is fair, however, the idea alone challenges the integrity of the league system and without a shadow of a doubt a bottleneck of quality B team sides would occur. This would put the concept of promotion and relegation as we know it in jeopardy. Not only that, it would mean that league positions that could feasibly be filled by non-league teams with great potential on the cusp of the football league, will instead be taken by B teams with no history, no real opportunity for league progression, and is purely just another cog in the machine of the ever expanding corporate empire the Premier League is becoming.
As a football fan, I do understand that the idea of introducing B teams does have its merits as well. It would give upcoming talent a platform to develop their skills up against well drilled, disciplined professionals that are normally playing to a higher standard than that of U21 level players, with the possibility of unearthing the next English superstar.
Although it is clear that B teams can be successful - just look at Spain and Germany for proof of this, with the likes of Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta all thriving at FC Barcelona B, before becoming cult heroes for the senior squad. It is also clear that a strong youth set up translates well into future first team performance both domestically, in Europe and also on international stage. However, this alone doesn't mean that B teams are the answer.

Carles Puyol and Xavi playing for FC Barcelona B in 1998
In order to quell the dangers of the possible death of today's lower league football a restructuring at youth level is required, not at senior level as Greg Dyke very naively believes. In order to harvest talent and keep it in the England, a shake up of both the youth league system, but at the same time also the way loans from Premier League clubs work is necessary. For example, if the youth Premier League was given a face lift, with more consistency in fixtures and played at bigger venues, rather than unkempt training grounds, it would appeal to more players and fans alike, this in turn would give young players the opportunity to get a taste of the professional game. This alone could possibly encourage more young players to stay in England, rather than make a name for themselves elsewhere. Making a conscious effort to overthrow the loan system could also make an impact. Chelsea currently have 8 players under the age of 21 out on loan to teams outside of the UK, with many others recently being recalled from Dutch club Vitesse - an evident feeder club for Chelsea. Now, if the youth system in England was improved, these players (most without a senior Chelsea appearance), would without a doubt have the opportunity to play week in, week out. Instead, many of them are rotting away on loan and have very little chance of breaking into the Chelsea first team - if they were of the required calibre they'd be there already. Playing in England however, would mean they would understand the pace and style of play, be much more closely monitored, and potentially increase the likelihood of breaking into the senior setup.
So overall, B teams are not the answer, although they can be a great platform for new homegrown talent, in the long run they will do more harm than good. Instead investment is required in youth league development.
It needs to be remembered the Premier League isn't the be all and end all in English football.

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