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.
February 15, 2010
So the issue of the final Champions League spot has once again raised it’s head today. The Premier League are said to be considering the option of introducing a play-off to decide who gets the fourth slot, and with it, the millions of pounds that qualification provides. And it would seem from early reports that it has the backing of 16 clubs. I’ll bet it has!
Surprise, surprise, the four who are against the proposal are the so-called ‘big 4’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Now, I’m no supporter of these clubs, and have been crying out for a change in the status quo, so I’m quite vociferously behind any side who can break this stranglehold. However, despite my original excitement at the prospect, I’m not convinced I’m behind the idea.
Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but this feels very much like a money-making scheme, and I’m sure Sky will have pound-signs in their eyes at the prospect. Whilst the idea provides additional excitement, and stops games from being a non-entity in the middle of the table, I’m not convinced it’s for the good of the game.
A friend of mine has already suggested that this is a slippery slope, and to a degree I agree with him. After all, if this is a success what comes next? A relegation play-off? Maybe a Super League-esque Grand Final to decide who wins the Championship?
And what about in international years? This means that at the end of the season, the players from 4 clubs have further risks of getting injured, which ultimately does not benefit the national game. Imagine in a World Cup year, just a few weeks before the tournament begins, Steven Gerrard breaks his leg? Or Wayne Rooney? Particularly as the Play-Off involves 4 sides, there will be at least three more matches (going by the basis of a two-legged semi final, with home and away fixtures and a one-off final match at Wembley) that’s a lot of risk to take with players.
However, I have a proposal which both shakes up the Premier League and is only one extra match. Now I’ve long supported the idea of the FA Cup winners getting the final spot, which will completely revolutionise the competition. Indeed, this idea has the backing of many, including Platini and former England striker Gary Lineker. However, I’d suggest the Premier League are less than keen.
Despite that, a play-off between the Cup winners and the fourth-placed team would be my proposal. I’d like to see this as a one-off match, played at Wembley or Old Trafford, and thus reducing the risk of injury to players. This way, it would ensure that sides field a full-strength 11 and breathe a new lease of life into the FA Cup. And at the same time, would provide an opportunity to shake up the status quo.
Who knows, it may even provide some of the smaller clubs with a European adventure, and gradually erode the stranglehold the ‘Sky Four’ have on the English game.
As always, I’d appreciate your feedback.
November 2, 2009
Ah, the romance of the Cup. Now the Shrewsbury match is out the way, our attentions turn to Bradford City on Friday night, and our dreams to a Wembley appearance in May. The FA Cup is a competition revered throughout the world, a competition synonymous with upsets and excitement. Or so it used to be.
Of course, at the lower end of the football spectrum it still is. This weekend is one of the big dates in the calendar for many non-league sides and their managers, who get to pit-their-wits against league opposition in the First Round proper. However, in the Premier League, most clubs would swap an FA Cup win for fourth in the league. For me, this is one of the great tragedies of the English game.
Most kids of my generation had the dream of playing at Wembley, and walking up those steps to lift the Cup for your team. Oh the joy. However, those dreams now would be shattered by some sweaty businessman in a suit.
Now I understand why a side would want to finish fourth, and that the Champions League would mean so much to players and supporters alike. However, as a player, when your career finishes, can you show your fourth place finish off to your kids? Do you get a medal for finishing fourth? Of course not.
And then there’s the supporters. We have already seen the League Cup become an insignificance in the eyes of players, managers and supporters, with thousands of empty seats at grounds all over England, and star players being left at home in the warm. Arsene Wenger fields a completely different team for the competition, proof that the cup is of no importance to him. And it is this ‘field the reserves’ attitude that makes supporters stay at home.
But where did cup competitions go so wrong in England? Well, for me it started when the third-placed team qualified for the Champions League, and also when Manchester United refused to enter the FA Cup in 2000. At least when the team who finished second qualified for the Champions League, they were fighting for the title so the European spot was a reasonable commiseration prize. Now, we have clubs who DELIBERATELY set out to come third and fourth! I wonder how many fans of Tottenham for example, would give up a fourth place finish for the FA Cup this year? Not too many I’d imagine, and I’d be certain none would for the League Cup.
So how do we bring back the magic of the cup, I hear you ask? For me, the answer is simple. Stop rewarding a club for coming fourth. Instead, ask for permission from UEFA to insert the Cup Winners into the Champions League. Instantly, we have a competition the whole country want to win again, full of drama, upsets and excitement. And most importantly, played in front of packed stadiums.
And the team who comes fourth get what they deserve. Nothing.