There is, it seems, an increasingly popular distaste for the Premier League and its band of expensively-assembled foreign mercenaries. It is, to my eyes, entirely misdirected. It’s not the Premier League's fault that the influx of money into the division has had the apparently corrupting effect it has. By far the more important failure is that of the bloated, out-dated and debt-ridden Football League.
I say this as someone who was a Cambridge United season ticket holder for several years. I’ve seen games in every tier of English football bar the biggest one. This weekend, as luck would have it, will see me visit Stamford Bridge’s away section to see my first Premier League match. I say this in order to give the following context: I am not some EPL fanboy blind to the lower leagues’ existence or their merits.
There is a common argument that says two things make English football unique: first, the popularity of the game; second, its scale and therefore its accessibility.
On top of the ninety-two professional outfits in the Premier and Football Leagues, there are now several professional clubs in the fifth tier of the league pyramid. All-in-all, England has more football clubs than any other country: around forty-thousand according to FIFA’s 2006 ‘Big Count’. The Championship is the fourth best attended league in the world, behind only the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga – and famously ahead of Serie A.
This popularity and scale, the argument goes, is irrefutable proof of both English football’s quality and its health. Actually, it is the exact opposite. We have the highest number of clubs in the world, but a staggeringly low number of qualified coaches. No world-class players or managers, but two or three clubs capable of winning the Champions League. The fact is, English football is diseased and has been for decades. The Premier League didn’t cause this. It has merely highlighted the fact further.
Its critics argue that the Premier League has long been in decline as a spectacle, that it will continue on its downward trajectory and that the quality of the national team will decline with it unless there is a revolution in youth coaching. A necessary step in solving all of these problems – arguably the most important one – is the extensive reformation of the English league system.
Unfortunately, blocking these reforms from happening are the scores of lower league clubs and their supporters who would suffer because of them. These clubs are vital components of the local community, they say, and their pain is passed on, intensified, to their loyal fans. Well, I say this: balls to the lot of them.
If English football really cares about emulating the achievement of 1966, then it should take all of the professional clubs in Leagues One, Two and below and dissolve them all immediately. Give all of their funding to Championship clubs. Next, transfer all of the youth players at these sides to their nearest Premier League academy for trials. Obviously there is a moral and legal issue involving the owners of these clubs and their compensation, but seeing as the majority of these clubs are practically insolvent as it is, the owners would be wise to simply sell the land that the clubs occupied and pursue other business ventures.
Next, enter all willing reserve sides into a division below the Championship, and allow promotion and relegation between the two as of the next full season. Clubs cannot be relegated from this new division, but may leave voluntarily if no benefit is being gained from a footballing or financial perspective.
This is a rough plan, which I (clearly) have not spent much time on. However, the benefits to my eyes are numerous: most importantly, youngsters will not have to go to financially-stricken shitholes in order to earn their stripes. Away from austerity, short-termism and odious lower-league footballing theory, English youngsters might finally get the game-time and patience necessary to develop their games in the manner desired by the national team’s supporters. The fact is that these foreign mercenaries so vilified by anti-EPLers only dominate the top echelons because English footballers are miles behind in terms of ability. Where do the majority learn to play? At clubs existing on a day-to-day basis, where resources are thin and coaching ability is a distant second to relying on motivation and commitment - "passion", if you read The Sun.
With a bit of luck and a full tonne of Utopian thinking, the resources possessed by English football’s behemoths would allow them to cap ticket prices for reserve and youth-team matches. Fans who still gain more pleasure from watching “a game of football with a cup of hot bovril in the traditional English way” as well as seeing home-grown contemporaries rise through the ranks can continue to do so at these games.
Unfortunately, the top flight of English football is and will always be ruled by the team with the biggest budget. This is now an entrenched trait, and no amount of tinkering and reform will change it. However, an alternative is available. The fact that the standard of the alternative is basically obscene is overlooked by people ready to criticise an easy target. The Premier League is not without its faults, but make no mistake: it is the greatest thing to happen to English football ever – hands down. It has given us the financial platform with which to implement structural change, and now we must. It would benefit everyone.