The media debate about the introduction of B leagues for developing young footballers in England has been overwhelmingly against the idea. ANTON RIPPON can see why
It’s all done and dusted now. The players are back home – or more likely on their summer holidays – and that moment when Luis “Gnasher” Suarez took advantage of defending that would have embarrassed the Horse and Trumpet reserves, to score what turned out to be the winner against England in São Paulo, is starting to hurt less.
Of course, at the time it was such a deflating moment for us England fans. Yet for me it still didn’t come even close to the kick-in-the-guts moment in May when Bobby Zamora’s late strike against my club, Derby County, saw 10-man QPR pull off the biggest play-off snatch-and-grab since the Rams beat West Brom in 2007.
Because when it comes to the crunch, football fans the world over will choose success for their club over victory for their country. Given the choice between England winning the World Cup and your team becoming Premier League champions, I don’t think there would even be a debate. In fact, some fans would take their club winning a throw-in today over their country lifting a trophy tomorrow.
So, given the overriding importance of club football, the cunning plan by FA chairman Greg Dyke to solve England’s woes is deeply flawed, and it has been interesting to see how the media reacted to it.
Most agree that Dyke’s idea of so-called “B teams” of Premier League clubs playing against lower league outfits would be unfair on the small clubs who would be expected to compete against businesses with hugely superior budgets.
As Martin Samuel said in the Mail: “For the bottom line is that Manchester United B do not really exist. Not as a real club with a board and an independent revenue stream, and sponsors and advertisers, supporters and a gate and salaries that conform to the limitations of League Two.”
Eurosport’s Pitchside blog thought that the plan would “destroy the Football League”, commenting that Dyke’s “cut-throat gesture at the World Cup draw wasn’t a dismissal of England’s chances in Brazil, but a glimpse into the future of the Football League.
“A pyramid steeped in tradition and history is barely two seasons away from being carved open and left to fulfill the needs of the Premier League elite. The new League Three will cause untold disruption as top-flight clubs treat it as an experimental playground for trialling youngsters, with their topsy-turvy results having a direct impact on who gets promoted and relegated.”
Indeed, genuine club competition is the priority of fans at every level. It is the life-blood of the game everywhere. And would it actually help to bring through young England-qualified players by pitting them every week against teams from the lower leagues?
Stan Collymore isn’t my favourite writer, but he played the game, and I agree when he said in the Mirror that “when you set out in life and try to build a career, you need role models alongside you … you want to be playing with men of a variety of skills and experience – it is the only way you really progress”.
I would add only that you also need to be playing against top performers. One Monday evening in April 1957 I raced home from school, scoffed my tea in record time, and dashed down to the Baseball Ground to see Derby County Reserves take on Manchester United Reserves.
The rearranged game presented United with an opportunity to try out stars that were recovering from injury. The Rams second-teamers found themselves playing against Tommy Taylor, the England centre-forward, and Dennis Viollet, still to win his first full cap but well on the way to it.
Pre-Munich, Manchester United were on the brink of another First Division title. The Rams were about to win the Third Division North. So the gulf between the clubs was extreme. Not surprisingly, United won 5-2 – but Derby’s young hopefuls enjoyed the chance to compete against top stars.
It was a fairly regular occurrence to see household names in reserve teams, either because they were recovering from injury or were returning to form. The following season, Rams reserve left-back Gordon Guthrie – who later served a dozen managers as first-team trainer at the Baseball Ground – found himself at Bloomfield Road, marking no less than Stanley Matthews in a Central League match.
The Daily Mail carried a series of photographs – frame by frame – of the Wizard of the Dribble taking the ball around Gordon, who was still a part-time footballer, training two evenings a week while he continued his trade at the town’s railway works. To be fair, I’m not sure that he learned anything that afternoon, but he still talks about it.
Sports journalists of a certain vintage will all have their own memories of star players turning out in reserve-team matches in the days when reporters were allowed to ride on team buses.
I doubt that we will ever return to seeing sportswriters welcome to travel with the players – even if they do promise to sit up front with the driver and not report on the card school – but today’s developing players would certainly benefit more from playing in and against genuine reserve teams full of experience than they would from mixing it in the lower tiers of English football. Then maybe we will have fewer deflating moments for the national team, and club football can carry on as it is, and as we want it.
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