The Premier League is damaging the England team at all levels. The FA should face Richard Scudamore and co head on.
England Under-21s, in defeat to Italy, limped out of the European Championships, at the foot of their group, a year to the day from the senior side’s bottom dwelling early exit from the World Cup in Brazil.
“The lads are gutted” sighed Harry Kane, one of the few U-21 players to get top-level game time this season, following on from Wayne Rooney who was, you guessed it, “gutted” to be sent home with his hairpiece between his legs from Belo Horizonte.
Critiques of England’s misfiring young-guns focused on the tactical naiveté of manager Gareth Southgate, considered the biggest boot-room brain of an institutionally inept FA, because, it seems, he reads books and can string a sentence together. After that, came the usual problem of “ball watching” and “lack of energy” from Southgate’s players, skills learnt in the daze of sporadic loans and on the sidelines of the various clubs where they warm the benches . Italy’s U21’s top-flight appearances dwarf their English counterparts this season.
Yet, as usual, the damaging link between the Premier League and the England side isn't touched upon by the media who know which side their bread is buttered on. A patently ridiculous situation which sees Premier League teams herd the best young English talent into factory farmed academies, denying clubs from the three divisions outside the top flight a nurturing role and then makes no provision to play them at the business end of their education. Greg Dyke’s England Commission report was, for all intents and purposes, a cry against the blocked player pathway caused by Premier League club’s ability to buy complete-and-in-their-prime players from the EU and beyond due to massive TV deal handouts.
The Premier League progression path is poor at U-21 level and worsens at every age level preceding.
Calls to increase Premier League funding of grassroots via a levy if necessary came quickly from Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Jesse Norman MP yet, without the FA facing Richard Scudamore and co head on, such a move may prove futile.
Dyke’s Commission’s prime recommendation should have been for Premier League teams to be forced to list for loan any player in the problem age range of 18-21 that has not played a stated number of first team matches or minutes for the parent club. A Christmas deadline for top level teams to field their young players for the minimum time would be fine with the bottom club in League 2 having first dibs, becoming the nearest thing English football will see to an NFL style draft.
More stringent approaches could see Premier League players in the age-range 18-21 ineligible for consideration for the England team, giving young lads, desperate to move to the richest clubs, food for thought, or, more radically, Premier League players prohibited from playing for England full stop. After all, there is little difference, beyond borders, in international sport between England Rugby Union players operating abroad for cash being shunned by the RFU and lavishly remunerated English players playing in a league with obvious adverse effects on the national side.
Of course, the Premier League simply sharing its talent (as well as its wealth) and giving healthy allowances for England team preparation and development has always been the most sensible option yet the one that is most resisted. Again it is difficult to know where the influence of Richard Scudamore, Bill Bush et al begins and ends on that level.
English football has to get over the contradictory approach of both herding and pampering its young charges, like Japanese Wagyu beef for the delectation of an elite as the rest of the sport is goes hungry. There is yet to be a convincing argument why unused top-level players can’t go out on loan unhindered to Football League clubs and if there is a shortfall in coaching quality in the lower divisions then that should be addressed in collaboration with the Football Association rather than the controlling Premier League.
Dan Ashworth, the FA’s Technical Director, with little other choice, insists that the Premier League enforced Elite Player Performance plan is working despite scant evidence. Then again he is the architect of “England D.N.A” a masterpiece of training nerd jargon that saw Roy Hodgson have to remind his side of “their responsibilities” after the bore-draw versus Ireland despite issuing his players with memory chip wristbands imbedded with the “in-possession philosophy” and information supposed to make the Three Lions roar.
England players, even at U-21, level rich beyond their wildest dreams, will say they love playing for the Three Lions but in the same way that the cast of Made in Chelsea enjoy going to St Barts after St Tropez, to take in enjoyable surroundings and the attention of cooing hangers-on rather than a burning desire to exert themselves.
Southgate’s Under 21s spent four days in Olomouc, Czech Republic in a trendy acclimatisation trip before the Euros but still put in a callow performance against an unfancied yet streetwise young Azzuri eleven. Meanwhile the England seniors train on an exact replica of the Wembley pitch at St George’s Park but wobble in testing tournament conditions
Without a top-level professional set-up (as in Germany) which constantly looks for a balance between league competitiveness, youth development including playing opportunities and National side success, this is to be expected.
Greg Dyke has got to play play hard-ball with the Premier League or step aside. Start tackling the obvious adverse affects in clear terms of the so called best league in the world which was created to benefit the national side or shut up.
He’ll have the backing of the supporters, most importantly, who will wake up from the collective amnesia of continual England failure and assert what we all feel deep down when blinking in front of pub TV screens, that the Three Lions are important to us and we can’t go on ignoring the painfully obvious.
Post contributed by football writer and STAND fanzine contributor Tom Reed @tomreedwriting