Since the establishment of the Premier League, the declining number of English players playing top flight football has been the subject of great debate. It is widely recognised that it is difficult for talented young English footballers to break into the Premier League, and that it is difficult for the national team to excel when it is selecting from a relatively small group of elite players. The FA Commission assigned with the task of identifying the causes of this problem and its potential solutions released its findings earlier this month. The report does an excellent job of illustrating an important barrier to player progression: a lack of competitive football between the ages of 18 and 21. By doing so it has re-framed the debate about player development. This is a meaningful achievement.
The debate about the failure to produce elite English players has previously been between advocates of meritocracy (who reason that fewer English players play in the Premier League than Spanish players play in La Liga because English players are less good than Spanish players, and therefore think the answer is found at grassroots and academy level) and advocates of protectionism (there are fewer English players because they are afforded fewer opportunities than their Spanish counterparts at home, and because Spaniards are too readily afforded English opportunities, and therefore think the answer is found in home-grown quotas and import restrictions). The Commission recognised the chronic under-investment in grassroots and academy football – which will be the subject of its second report later in the year – and it advocated a reduction in the number of non-home grown players allowed in Premier League and Championship squads [see note].
The most important insight of the Commission was to demonstrate that this debate ignores a part of the English football structure that is inhibiting player development: the transition of those 18 year olds that the existing system does endow with high levels of technical ability into the ranks of the elite. The failure to develop players ready to take their place amongst the elite is not restricted to the chronic under-investment in grassroots and academies; it is compounded by the failure of clubs to bridge the gap between their academies and their first teams.
The established position of the meritocracy must be modified: improving grassroots and academy football is insufficient. The Premier League is the pinnacle, not a proving ground. Ability must be paired with experience of competitive football before managers are ready to thrust a player into the unforgiving environment of the Premier League. There is a widespread reluctance to expose untested young players, however good they might be, to the ferociously competitive environment of professional football in which a single mistake can cost a manager his job and cost a club millions of pounds.
A mechanism is required that allows clubs to introduce their players to competitive football without forcing them into Premier League action prematurely. In Spain and Germany, these players would spend time playing in lower professional leagues for their club’s B-team, a structure that the Commission would like to see replicated in England. Probably recognising the improbability of such a major structural upheaval, the Commission also offered a less radical but still controversial alternative of strategic loan partnerships that would allow Premier League clubs greater control over their players sent out on loan than is allowed under the current system.
The implausibility of the solutions proposed and the Commission’s inability to enforce them has been the focus of the debate since the report was released. Despite being an FA initiative and headed by its Chairman, the Commission is powerless without the support of the Premier League and the Football League, who have met the recommendations with hostility.
The focus on these limitations, which have caused many to call the Commission’s purpose into question, has disguised its most important contribution. The Commission has identified an important weakness in the structure of English football, and it has fired the first shot in what is likely to become a prolonged fire fight. The future structure of player development was not included within its pages, but this report has ensured that those who will ultimately be responsible for reforming English football will be reforming the right component: the gap between the academy and the Premier League.
The home grown player proposal is supposed to confer “an obligation” to develop English players on to the clubs, but it is important to note that the Commission did not conclude that an increase in the number of English players playing in the Premier League would in isolation improve the quality of English players. This would have devalued the report, because artificially inflating the number of home grown players playing in the Premier League would serve only to increase the number of mediocre Englishmen playing in an inferior league. (Fortunately this eventually remains remote due to the ability of the Premier League to promote and protect its multi-billion pound product.) The number of English players playing in the Premier League is an important barometer of the health of English football precisely because it is a competitive environment in which the elite advance. There were many more English players playing in a weaker Premier League in 1994, prior to the influx of foreign players, and in that year England failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Oscar is an elite sport watcher and full-time pundit with an above-average ability to be more competitive than able. His first sporting hero was Murray Walker and his most recent is Aaron Ramsey. Tweet him @OscarHowie