Club-v-country battle begins with Under 19s ahead of youngster’s Euro Championships

July 5, 2010

A lot can happen in a week or so. Just 8 days ago, England were still in South Africa, very much a part of the World Cup. Fans of the Three Lions were swallowing up every spoonful of Sky’s Premier League propaganda; the country dazzled by a blind belief that 2010 really could be the new ’66. The “greatest league in the World” had contributed to creating “world-class” players for manager Fabio Capello, players the Italian would mould into a team to challenge the world’s elite. Yes, football really could be “coming home”.

Four German goals later and the haze that the Premier League has caused on the English public appears to be lifting. The stranglehold that the Premier League have over the rest of the game in England is finally being both recognised and criticised, and at long last, people are beginning to realise that Sky’s league is killing the national game.

Fans are crying out for fundamental changes in the game, and most of these changes are designed to put the national side first. From limiting the number of foreign players, forcing teams to field a certain number of players under the age of 21, or the ridiculous notion of the State pump funds into the game (this is the same game that already receives over a billion pounds in television revenue, the same game that can afford to pay wages of £160,000 a week to a plainly average Chelsea captain) fans are certain of one thing: they want to see the FA take control of the game back.

If you’ve followed my blog from the start, you’ll be well aware by now that there are elements of the Premier League I can’t stand. The ‘business first’ attitude sickens me, as does the fact the ticket prices are vastly out of reach of the working man. I hate the attitude that many Premier League footballers have, and just how far away from the rest of society they have become. I hate the fact that clubs would rather finish in mid-table than win the FA Cup (OK, an exaggeration, fourth isn’t strictly mid-table but you win exactly the same for finishing there as you do for finishing 17th, so my point still stands. So much for the “first is first, second is nothing” mentality, eh? Let’s see your fourth-place medals, lads.)

I also really dislike the clubs coming out on top in the club-v-country battle, something which is a potentially huge pitfall of the game. What has long-been accepted is Premier League clubs expect national associations to bend to their will. From criticising federations for playing a friendly, to suing them for players picking up injuries whilst undertaking the privilege of playing for their country, the self-interest seeps out of every pore. Clubs force players to pull out of squads with an ‘injury’, only for it to miraculously heal in time for the next Premier League game. Managers even complain about having to release players for competitive qualifiers, something that is clearly entirely detrimental to the national sides.

And whilst this leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I can at least see the manager’s point of view. Yes, it is pure self-interest, but in the current days when almost entire squads are international players, all it takes is a couple of injuries and your season could be over. What I cannot see however, is how that same argument can be used by clubs who are refusing to release players ahead of the Under 19s European Championships, which begins in France next week.

This is an invaluable opportunity for young players to experience the unique atmosphere of tournament football. We’ve all seen the potential pitfalls this brings, be it England’s apparent problems this time around, to the inevitable implosion of the Dutch squad at every major competition since the dawn of time. Squads being together away from their families is hard on the players, yet the more they are exposed to it, the easier it becomes. This offers the players a chance to prepare for that experience, whilst the tournament isn’t paramount of importance, and mostly away from the prying eyes of the media. In essence, this is a dress rehearsal for what is to come.

Not only that, but England’s future generation of players will gain vital experience that only playing competitive football can bring them. This is a tournament of some pedigree, and many of the players on display will go on to become full internationals. Indeed, there are great hopes over players such as Aston Villa’s Nathan Delfouneso, Blackburn’s Phil Jones, and Danny Rose of Tottenham, the winger who burst into prominence by scoring a screamer against Arsenal last season.

In a time when there appears to be a dearth of youthful talent, it is essential that the promising youngsters who are available are nurtured and allowed to flourish. That will not happen by playing for youth sides, or even reserve teams, as much of this squad would find themselves doing. It can only happen by playing genuinely competitively football. Without these players, England’s squad will be dramatically weakened. Indeed, some may question the value in even participating in the tournament without a full-strength side. But there is a more important question here than just the immediate issue of these championships.

If the FA cannot even win the battle with the Premier League over youth team players, what chance do they have of winning the battle for the top players? Are they really so impotent that they cannot even ensure the clubs release a bunch of teenagers for international duty? What power do they have to do what the fans have clearly indicated, and that’s pull the power back from the big clubs?

For anybody who felt the desperate disappointment of last Sunday, and never again wants to experience the embarrassment the Germans caused England’s top players, it is an argument to follow very closely indeed. “Club England”, it’s over to you.

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