I read France Football quite regularly and, like any formerly nerdy child, the best part are the facts and figures at the back. When you drop through Ligue 2 to the National, and further to the CFA divisions, we begin to see the appearance of ‘B’ teams. They’ve always been there. Lille B sit second only to Chambly, while Nancy, Lorient and Montpellier’s B teams are top of their respective CFA2 divisions.
France, like Holland, like Spain, has historically had these divisions, and the rules by which these teams operate are set in stone. The eyes of England’s fat cats have been trained on this concept and see it as a template by which they could live. The perceived benefit of allowing their ‘B’ teams to join the football pyramid in England has been an idea that’s been floating around for a while, but has hoven into sharp focus this week.
Now, I support a team that have spent a lot of time in the lower leagues, and the prospect of seeing Huddersfield Town trot out against Chelsea B in a league game isn’t something that particularly appeals to me even if, as mooted, it would start only with 10 teams – how long then before (for example) Southampton, or Newcastle Utd, decide that they too could benefit from a B team mixing with the likes of Accrington Stanley and Rochdale? Not long.
There’s something to be said for the idea of a big club having a place to send their youngsters to develop, admittedly, but that place already exists in the shape of every other team in the country. There’s nothing to stop, hypothetically, Manchester City striking up an accord with (again, for example) Oldham Athletic, and sending two or three players to the Latics each season. It isn’t a million miles away from what happens now and will give those players a few valuable lessons.
Firstly, they’ll get some competitive football – Oldham play 46 games a season. Secondly, they’d get an experience of a different manager, a different set-up and different players – all positive things in their development. Thirdly, and to their advantage, they can be loaned to higher leagues than the third tier. Fourthly, being able to feature in the cut and thrust of cup action is an important thing to learn; being able to perform when the moment really matters is something that can’t be taught so much as learned through experience.
The system works. Even in the Championship, fans salivate at the mouth of some of the loanees from England’s Champions League teams. Nick Powell has thrilled the ‘other’ Latics this season. James Wilson incites misty-eyed desire from clubs planning for their next campaign.
If a striker, for example, needs development in his strength and aerial ability, it might behove him to work under a manager like Aidy Boothroyd, whose football is generally direct. He could do that in the current system. Playing for a designated B team might well mean his weaknesses are ignored in favour of maximising his strengths; why would they play a game to the detriment of one of their players?
Personally, the idea of B teams seems counter-intuitive for Premier League teams, limiting the range of teams to which their young players are likely to be sent rather than allowing relative freedom such as they have now.
Even just looking back over the last few seasons, Huddersfield have benefited from Arsenal’s Benik Afobe (later with Reading) and Manchester United’s Danny Drinkwater (later at Leicester) – all players who have served a little time with the Terriers, then been loaned to a club at a higher level as their careers progressed. It seems unlikely, perhaps, that either of those will ever reach the heady heights to which they aspire, but that isn’t the fault of the Football League, rather a symptom of expecting more than they able to produce. Very few youth prospects make it to the very top level – it’s the nature of the beast.
It seems to me that the system isn’t broken. Swindon have seen the benefit of borrowing a number of Tottenham players this season, and I don’t see any reason such an arrangement couldn’t be made ‘formal’. Would not Spurs fans then become a little attached to this club to whom they were entrusting some of their youth development. Would, equally, it not perhaps boost the Robins’ gates a little if, every game, there was an incentive for some Lilywhite supporters to tag along.
It wouldn’t harm the image of Swindon to have two or three Spurs’ loanees in the team, and there’s plenty enough Football League clubs to take a couple or three youngsters without ruining their squads – indeed, taking it down to include the Conference, which the proposal seems likely to do, means there’s 1344 opportunities for game time every week.
Keep the status quo, then? Well, not quite. Allow teams to form links with one another. We know how many players ‘fall through the cracks’ after they’re released by Premier League clubs who no longer think they can make it. Some go on to prosper. Surely, allowing them a wider footballing education can only be a positive thing?
Perhaps a loan age cap would be of benefit. If a club could only have one loanee over the age of 25 in a matchday squad then they would have to investigate some of the younger options in order to fill their eleven. It would work both ways – something to help with development on the way up and, if there’s a way down, then some familiarity with surroundings.
I can imagine there being outcry, should a team line up with four or five Premier League loanees, that it wouldn’t allow products of teams’ own youth systems into the line-up. Well, there’s six or seven berths still there. How many teams are fielding six or seven youth products every week? Let’s, for arguments’ sake, look at Derby’s team against Brighton from the first leg of the playoff.
One Derby youth product (Jeff Hendrick), two Premier League loanees (Andre Wisdom, George Thorne), two more Premier League youth system cast-offs (Jamie Ward – Aston Villa, Chris Martin – Norwich C) and then a collection of odds and sods from Scotland (Craig Forsyth, Craig Bryson, Jonny Russell), and from outside England’s top tier (Lee Grant – Watford, Andy Keogh – Ipswich, Jake Buxton – Mansfield). Admittedly, they introduced Rams’ youth product Will Hughes later on, but it doesn’t seem that the loan players are cramping any particular trend to do that.
Its safe to assume that Andre Wisdom would gain more from playing in that playoff game than in a number of meaningless games that Liverpool B would be involved in as they performed well in League Three, but weren’t eligible for promotion. So he might never be England standard, but plenty of those who are have enjoyed loan spells in the Football League. David Beckham famously spent time with Preston; Frank Lampard, equally, had a stint with Swansea as a lower league club.
League Three is a stupid idea for many reasons, but the fact that it would actively demolish a system that could be so much more fruitful with only a little guidance is the most idiotic.