The Football League: A Hindrance At Best

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.


  1. Interesting post. Not something I'd necessarily agree with but there's some very valid points in there.

    I'll park quite a few issues about the Football League's usefulness to one side to focus on the national team, although there may be a point that we have too many professional sides. I wouldn't say we should do away with them altogether though.

    The description you have isn't too far away from the German pyramid model, and although I'm not totally up on their league structure, I think there's a fair bit of discussion about whether it works or not. One area Germany (and France) work well is having their youth development schools under the control of the national federation.

    Here, youth development is under the control of the individual clubs. You regularly see the running club versus country battle, where Wenger, Ferguson and others are reluctant to release players. The standard of coaching also varies across the clubs, and because the players get less time together, especially at the Under 21 levels and younger.

    Again, France and Germany don't have this problem. If the power is removed from the clubs in this regard, it would be better for the national team - that way they benefit from coaching in both the national way (and get to know team mates) and the club coaching.

    You're dead right to pick up on the lack of qualified coaches. However, I'd say that's not so much a Football League problem as an intrinsically English problem deep routed in the pysche of the game here, from grassroots to top flight. More needs to be done to get coaches qualifications. Scrapping entire systems doesn't necessarily do this. If every club was given incentives for training and employing more qualified coaches, you'd see an improvement throughout the league.

    Many lower league clubs have very high quality facilities for youngsters and play a large part in developing them, before bigger clubs come in and lift them further (theoretically). For example, Southampton developed Bale and Walcott, Maidstone for Chris Smalling, Luton looked after Jack Wilshire in his early years, and so on. These players get a good education if the club is set up well. Southampton, Crewe and Exeter are just three excellent examples of this.

    Football League clubs also play a key part in the development of players through the loan system. Many of England's stars have, at one point or another, gone out on loan in the football league and developed through playing regularly (Beckham, for example, spent time on loan at Preston).

    Football League club also pick up and rebuild many youngsters discarded too early, before sending them back up the leagues - Bobby Zamora is a prime example of this. There's no way he'd be anywhere near the England team if it wasn't for his time at Brighton.

    There's also an excellent argument for allowing talented youngsters to develop in the Football League through the smaller clubs before taking them to bigger teams.

    For example, Tom Taiwo was taken from Leeds to Chelsea and John Bostock from Palace to Spurs. Both were promising youngsters left to rot in the reserves. Taiwo is now doing very well at Carlisle, while Bostock... well, is rattling around on whoever Harry can send him out to.

    Jonjo Shelvey is a more recent example. He rejected Chelsea for another season spent developing as a regular starter for Charlton before moving to Liverpool. Game time at Anfield was limited, so he's out on loan again. In all these games, there's a strong argument for letting the smaller clubs develop them - although maybe partnership options aren't a bad idea.

    I don't disagree with the idea that the Premier League was a great creation, funnily enough. But the greed and self-interest of a lot of clubs is what's really hurting youth development for the national team. There's a lot of valid criticisms here but, in my opinion, aimed at the wrong place. The Football League is not the problem.


  2. Axing the Football League won't make these teams cease to exist, it will only limit the number of players who are making sufficient earnings to be considered "professional".

    The problem stems from British cultural ideas about what consititutes "good football" - my Italian friend recently conceded that the Premier League was "the most exciting". I was shocked - he's very proud of Serie A - until he qualified it with "more red cards & bad tackles, & nobody can defend so there are more goals".

    He's spot on. A Blackpool team that relied on all-out attack and Charlie Adam nearly stayed up despite being absolutely atrocious at the back. My mate Dave (everyone has at least one) is making a killing at the bookies every week by putting £1 on "No clean sheets" for like 5 games. It comes through practically every week. Man City are smashing everything in their path... on the domestic front. In Europe they got 1 point from 6 against the 5th-placed Serie A team.

    Yes, coaches are often unqualified in England's lower tiers, but even the likes of Roberto Mancini or Alex Ferguson are being troubled on the European circuit. SAF has never been the most tactically variable, perhaps, but Mancini has 3 Scudetti and more. Then again, their squads have FIFA-based commitments to containing English players, and the non-English squad members are taught not to play a more patient game on a weekly basis. No "boring" Serie A tactics, no Tiki-Taka; more A-ttack-a-ttack.

    It's better than the quality of football in my native Scotland, granted, but it's still pretty much Hoof-Ball MkII.