Sunday, 11 May 2014

A cunning plan…

I have now heard about the proposals for League 3 and heard the reaction from the non-league world: outrage, annoyance, fear, disbelief, any number of negative sentiments. Hardly any in favour. 

People have questioned the logic, questioned the Commission membership, questioned the motives, questioned Greg Dyke’s credibility. I too believe the proposal to be misguided and wonder why it was put forward in what appears to be such a clumsy and provocative way. Deliberate surely?

There remains the strong underlying issue here of an FA, which has to run an England team but which doesn’t control the source of its players anymore: the Premier League. After all the Premier League were not even on the Commission and let’s face it, Premier League clubs, foreign-owned in many cases, don’t care if no English players play for them as long as they win things and make heaps of dosh! The biggest challenge Greg Dyke has is to wrest some control of English football back from the Premier League, a tough ask.

League 3 is supposed to be a solution to the challenge of producing more talented young English players for the national team. Even Greg Dyke himself admits it may not be the best solution but it’s the only one they seemed to all agree on and he invites us to propose a better solution or accept this one because something needs to be done. Well it has certainly got the debate stirred up.

League 3 is wrong firstly because it ignores the unique nature of non-league and lower league football in England, which cannot be compared easily with other countries’ structures. We have about 100 full-time professional clubs. Is there any other country in Europe, which can claim such a huge figure? The huge number of followers and supporters of non-league and lower league clubs is also exceptional. In France’s professional Division 2 for example, the bottom four clubs’ crowds average 2000, comparable with The Conference, our Division 5. Our pyramid structure is highly liberal: all clubs can legitimately aim to rise to the top. Nothing but merit restricts them.

Additionally League 3 adds an unfair element of imperfect competition: clubs will inevitably put together their (reserve) team not simply in order to win matches and the competition as a whole, but in order to ‘practise’, to improve players, their experience and ultimately their club’s first team. This will skew the results unfairly. The division will be compromised and the results almost irrelevant in sporting terms. This pollution of the pyramid is undesirable to say the least. The pyramid is not perfect (e.g. the absurd situation by which non-league clubs at AGMs get one vote in Step 1, 3 and 4 but virtually no votes in Step 2…) but it’s not bad the way it is, thank you very much.

More importantly it doesn’t seem to be the best solution to the problem. After all the FA Commission highlighted the problems: too few coaches in English football; too few good pitches; too little competitive football for 18-21 year olds because existing reserve leagues are not deemed competitive enough; surely they are not trying to tell us that the only answer they can find to all these questions is the League 3 idea. Surely they know we will realise they can’t be that stupid?

Let’s look at the questions and answers:

We need more coaches? Well create more courses and coaching/training facilities and make sure conditions and costs are such that more top football people are tempted to apply and qualify.

Too few good pitches? Well yes it was only going to be a matter of time till I got to that one. Then continue to promote 3G pitches throughout English football; not just in grass roots but in lower league stadia that will improve the standard and frequency of football being played. It’s one thing we can learn from our fellow Europeans: it works. In this respect the FA have started to shake up football’s reactionary governing bodies in England and perhaps League 3 is a cunning plan to harass and provoke these bodies into creating a stir, the volume of which might cause a rethink at Premier League level where change needs to happen and where The FA is weakest?

Too little competitive football for top reserve teams? Well set up a competitive reserves competition. Perhaps the obscenely wealthy Premier League clubs should put some of their millions up as prize money for a Premier B League, to give a proper incentive to win games? £5 million for the winning club should make it competitive.  Or improve the player loan system to encourage clubs to loan out players to lower league clubs but limit the numbers allowed to be loaned to each club. It’s hardly rocket science but would it not work?

And why not push for limits on players not qualified to play for England in the Premier League? This would be similar to what the French Rugby Federation have recently chosen to do in the Top 14 competition, comparable to England’s Premier League in football, in order to improve the poor results of the national team and combat the increasing numbers of foreign mercenaries being imported by rich clubs.

And why was there no consultation of non-league bodies? There are a few non-league bodies who are capable of demonstrating common sense, vision and leadership, e.g. the Ryman League, who should have been asked their opinion. However having listened to the Non-League Show there are clearly some who continue to live in cloud cuckoo land: issues like 3G show up the failings in bodies like The Conference. They do not, contrary to what is claimed, stand up for non-league football as a whole. They are not leaders they are followers contrary to what their spokesman claimed; they are more concerned to secure additional promotion places to League 2 (perhaps now League 3?), an issue of importance to maybe 25% of Conference clubs, rather than promote 3G pitches, which, as they themselves admit, would be welcomed by far more clubs, even in The Conference itself, let alone throughout the wider world of non-league, where so many people now support more 3G pitches. For Brian Lee to state that “the FA have lost the plot” is laughable. The Conference need to have a good look at their own plot first: voting rules, membership of their Board and governance, communications, representation of non-league as a whole, all have much room for improvement.

And why not encourage non-league clubs to form academies, as we have done and the NPL are doing as a League? This can only provide benefits in every sense. Instead there is still no real financial incentive for clubs to go down the complicated and costly set-up costs of academies because the rules are such that Premier League clubs can freely poach players and no financial compensation structure exists for smaller clubs.

So it just cannot be possible that this is the end result of The FA Commission’s deliberations. Greg Dyke is too canny for that to be the case. He and the FA have recently shown great courage and leadership in the 3G campaign, throwing open its competitions to 3G and pushing other bodies to embrace 3G. Their actions will encourage more clubs to install these pitches and they have virtually removed all remaining barriers to 3G in non-league. I can only assume therefore that this wacky League 3 proposal must be part of a very cunning plan…

Oliver Ash