Owen's point is a simple one. The way English football is currently organised, the ease of transition between the youth set-up and the first team has been entirely eroded. A terrible Bermuda Triangle has opened up, into which whole generations of talent disappear.
With the Premier League now operating Under-21s instead of reserve teams, with every first team game requiring seven substitutes, young players, extremely well coached in the academies, find themselves without opportunity to harden their skills against and with older professionals.
“When I came through, I played in the reserves with the likes of Jan Molby, seasoned international players. You learn so much playing alongside them,” Owen told me earlier this week. “Now you don’t get that. I’m not one for foreign players stunting development. Not having that at all. What affects our national team is not having any form of stepping stone into the first team. Academies are great, but then what? It’s the system that’s letting us down.”
Owen’s solution is this: beef up the loan system to get Premier League youngsters out to lower division clubs, give them a dose of the real world beyond the cossetted cloisters of academies. It did no harm to Tom Cleverley, Jack Wilshere, Danny Rose and Andros Townsend. His other solution is to get Premier League B Teams playing competitive football.
“Put them in the Conference, or League Two,” he says. “Then we’ll have players properly coming through, not disappearing.”
It is a nice theory. It works in Spain after all. There – with caveats which preclude promotion beyond a certain level – B teams play in the lower leagues, where young players get their shins kicked and their attitudes hardened. And Spain aren’t bad at developing the next generation.
There is just one problem: it could and should never happen here. Sure, it might suit the Premier League clubs. Yes, it might help England. But consider for a moment what would happen if you are Oxford United in League Two or Forest Green or Mansfield in the Conference. What would happen to your club if it was relegated to make room for 20 incoming operations?
And even if it didn’t, what would it be like playing many of your games against ghost opposition, filled with players who would rather not be there. Does that make for proper competition?
English football’s great remaining strength is its depth. In Oxford, Mansfield and Forest Green, glory is not a concept which much occupies the imagination. There football provides a different source of interest than in the elevated star factories of the Premier League.
There it is a game rooted in community, where the connection between those in the stands, and those on the pitch and in the boardroom is completely different from the rarefied atmosphere of the big boys. The imposition of a bunch of B teams at their level would inevitably see that element of the game diluted, if not threatened with extinction.
Hilariously, I heard these thoughts articulated brilliantly on the radio the other day by the most unlikely champion of community football. Pete Winkelman, the chairman of MK Dons and the man who effectively stole someone else’s club when he facilitated the move of Wimbledon from the London Borough of Merton, was talking about the devastation that would be wrought on the local game by the arrival of B teams in the league.
To be fair he was not without self-knowledge. He had, he said, learned the hard way quite how much a club is rooted in its community when he forcibly extracted Wimbledon from its home. He learned enough, certainly, to appreciate that sort of local connection should never again be compromised. And B teams would unquestionably do that, altering the very fabric and purpose of the lower leagues.
Just because a man like Winkleman espouses such a notion does not mean that the need to protect the integrity of the lower leagues is wrong. Sure, it is a romantic idea. Community connection does not make much money. Nor does it win World Cups. But it just happens to be one of football’s most significant – if dwindling – assets. Undermining more than 150 years of heritage simply to make life easier for the top clubs seems nothing more than an act of larceny.
Yet, there seems to be a growing momentum behind the idea. So much so, I wouldn't be surprised to see some sort of B team system (even if it is simply an informal matter case of Southampton using Oxford as a feeder club, Mansfield being taken over by Villa and Forest Green by Cardiff) within five years. Why? Because the thing that talks loudest in English football is not tradition, community or social value. It is money.
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