By Tony Attwood
What matters to you? A strong, exciting Premier League in which Arsenal play, or a strong England team that challenges for the World Cup?
I’ve always been in the former camp, and let the FA that runs the England team just get on with their pathetically muddled way, mostly commenting only when the FA and England interfere with the Premier League.
But now that interference is about to get a lot worse. So much worse that the Premier League could be severely hampered.
OK, that might seem quite a claim – after all the Premier League is strong and vibrant. Best league in the world, and all that.
But consider this.
Do you remember the Italian League? There was a time when lots of us with no connection with Italy, watched it. The passion, the glamour, the excitement. It had its own TV shows in the UK and Ireland, and was regularly mentioned on the sports pages of the English national press.
Now, although I used to watch Italian football, as I contemplated this article I must admit I had to go and look at the league table to see what’s what. No one talks much about Italian football any more.
So why has Italian football declined – and what does its decline tell us about the future of the Premier League?
Actually the answers to that question are dead simple. Italy should be there as a huge warning to everyone involved in the Premier League and the FA. A warning that says,
a) just because you are big today, doesn’t mean you are going to be big tomorrow.
b) you tinker with what made the league big at your peril
I’ve got into this article because everyone and his dog in the upper echelons of football in England, aided and abetted by the usual array of media suspects down the pub, are calling for change because “without change England won’t win the World Cup.” (Not an exact quote, but that’s pretty much what people are saying).
And to understand why that is so very wrong, we have to start with Italy.
It Italy these days Juventus wins the league (usually by between 10 and 20 points) and then does very badly in Europe – as opposed to in the old days when Inter won the league and did well in Europe – while facing vibrant competition from AC Milan, Roma and of course Juventus.
So what went wrong – and why is it a warning to the Premier League?
The fact is that Italy stopped being the place that brilliant young players from across the world wanted to go. Instead the process works the other way, so the Italian league has more Italians in.
And this is what the FA and its buddies want – more and more English players in the Premier League – no matter whether they are good enough to force out the sort of top talent that we are attracting at the moment.
Of course the reason for this change is different in each country – in Italy corruption of referees killed the golden goose, and whether that will happen in the Premier League is still to be seen. But now there is pressure from the FA, ex-England managers and the media (that ceaselessly supports international football and sees it as a “good thing”) for the Premier League to be artificially manipulated so that instead of being the league that attracts top talent it is a league that is fixed with quotas.
Indeed it is hard to remember just how great Italian League football was at one time. But just consider the names: Zidane Roberto Baggio, Gullit, Maldini, Maradona, Totti, George Weah, Didier Deschamps, Bierhoff, Ronaldo… they were all there.
Now the Premier League has not made the mistakes that the Italian League made – most particularly by letting the grounds decay. Led by Arsenal, there is a drive to rebuild and renew the old grounds, so such a degree that eventually Old Trafford will be left as the old converted dinosaur. Man City and WHU have got grounds paid for by the state (naughty, but a benefit to the clubs) Tottenham and Liverpool are in the process of renewal, Chelsea desperately want to move but can’t find a place, Southampton have a newish smaller arena, and Everton are hopeful. All so different from Italy where the old grounds were left to decay until it was all too late.
Of course the death knell was Calciopoli – match fixing Italian style. That threat hangs over the Premier League too, and will do until such time as PGMO is overthrown and a new organisation dedicated to openness comes in.
But the other key factor in Italy was the exodus of players – as shown by the list above and it is possible that it will happen in England because of the constant attempt by the FA and its supporters in the media to bring in more and more artificial quotas.
The problem is that quota-lovers are rather like junkies. Quotas look like they might work for a moment, because nobody ever does any proper analysis of the situation (unless reprinting the now five year old Untold review which predicted the rise of Spain as an international power and explained how the tiny Netherlands could produce so many top players). It’s like taking a narcotic – it can make you feel good for a while, but then you just need to take more and more.
So we have had the home grown rule. Now this is not always as easy to understand as it might be. For example, go to the Premier League’s official site and have a look at the page titled “Home Grown Player Rule” and you’ll see what I mean.
But in essence the current rule says Premier League clubs can have a squad of 25 Senior Players of whom eight must, irrespective of nationality or age, have been registered with a club affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).
Now that is fairly artificial – but the league is getting away with that because it turns out it is not that onerous a deal – especially since under 21s are not counted.
But now the talk is of extending this – and the risk is a loss of star players to other leagues – exactly as happened in Italy. And if that decline happens just as the new stadia are being built, some clubs are going to fail, and then we really are looking at Italy mark II.
So that’s two threats:
1. If the PGMO fiasco is not sorted out it could destroy the credibility of the League
2. If ever more quotas are introduced that could start an exodus of players to another league. (And remember, 20 years ago the English leagues were just a back water – the real action took place elsewhere. Change can happen fairly quickly – as Italy’s decline shows).
And other leagues are challenging all the time. Spain has tried to up its prestige with all the talk of Barcelona and Real Mad, but has suddenly fallen on its face with the Barcelona child exploitation scandal and its ban from transfers, the collapse of the wholly artificial tax system that meant foreign footballers didn’t get to pay much tax, associated on going tax scandals that endlessly swirl around the two big clubs, the allegations of match fixing that have just begun to be taken seriously, and the on-going investigation into the club’s affairs over illegal state aid.
So leagues come and leagues fall. None is impervious to change.
And in the midst of this we have the nonsense of five former England managers warning that England’s chances of winning the World Cup are dependent on Greg Dyke’s proposed new reforms. Reforms from the FA – an organisation so inept that it actually lost its funding from Sport England because it couldn’t sort itself out (or spent it on servicing its debt rather than building pitches for children – no one is telling).
An FA that was caught out breaking the notoriously lax rules about receiving gifts from Fifa!
But Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Sven‑Goran Eriksson, Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren are here advocating the notion that the minimum number of home-grown players in a club’s first-team squad should increase from eight to 12 phased one a year over four seasons starting 2016-17.
And the definition of a home-grown player is to change so that they must have been registered for three years before the age of 18, not 21. This would cut out players coming in from abroad unless they are brought into England at 15, which of course can be done from the EU. If clubs do that it could be much more harmful for the young players who change countries in that way, but who then don’t make the top grade.
Dyke also suggested that at least two players must be “club-trained” for three years from the age of 15. Oh yes and work permit rules for players, which have been under the control of the FA for years, will be changed.
But hey, this is ENGLAND we are talking about. Caring for youngsters and their well-being? Following the news and the endless scandals ‘m not sure we are very good at that.
And this is the FA we are talking about – an organisation that has spent all its money on Wembley, and is struggling to finance the debt that has created. A body that cannot recognise that it is its inability to train coaches that is at the heart of the matter. A body that cannot set up the desperately needed modern all-weather pitches for children to play on.
In a country where one of the biggest threats to young people playing football comes from the abuse hurled at referees and young players by parents standing on the touch line.
With the media behind them, and the constant ignoring of the history of the FA, these changes could be pushed through. And the result could be appalling.
This is a good time to be frightened, and to start trying to get the message out. The FA is not a solution, it is one almighty big problem.
Anniversary of the day:
2 April 1915: Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-0 in the greatest match fixing controversy in English football thus far. Both clubs were found guilty but with the connivance of the League and FA neither received any punishment – which had a major impact on the first post-war season