The League 3 debate is perhaps the most one-sided in the history of English football. Almost everyone is against its creation – it seems that only the sport’s financial elite and the bean-counters in the Premier League’s headquarters are in favour. As soon as the idea was revealed, fans up and down the country set aside tribal differences and united against a measure which would, apparently, see the integrity of their sporting institutions irreversibly damaged.
Personally, I do not see anything wrong with it. It comes down to what it is people want from their football. If they just want a local outfit to support and identify as their own and value that tribal autonomy over the quality of the football they watch, then the current status quo suits them down to the ground. It does not need any alteration and League 3 represents uninvited interference from a governing body that should be as laissez-faire as possible.
If they genuinely care about the game, however, and want well-run, financially sustainable clubs that prioritise teaching local kids how to play the game and eventually giving them a route into professional football, then something has to change. The current structure does not benefit anyone. Players, managers, coaches, fans – we all get a raw deal.
On top of the ninety-two professional sides in the Premier and Football Leagues, there are now many professional clubs in the fifth tier of the league pyramid. All-in-all, England has more football clubs than any other country: around forty-thousand according to FIFA’s 2006 ‘Big Count’. The Championship is the fourth best attended league in the world, behind only the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga – famously ahead of Italy’s Serie A.
This popularity and scale, the argument goes, is irrefutable proof of both English football’s quality and its health. Actually, a little digging reveals it to be the exact opposite: we have the highest number of clubs in the world and the highest ticket prices but a staggeringly low number of qualified coaches. According to a 2010 article in the Guardian, “Uefa data shows that there are only 2,769 English coaches holding Uefa’s B, A and Pro badges, its top qualifications. Spain has produced 23,995, Italy 29,420, Germany 34,970 and France 17,588.”
The causal relationship between there being almost no quality coaching at grass roots level and there being no world-class players or managers at senior level could hardly be more obvious. Despite this drawback, foreign investment falsely gives the impression that English football is in rude health: its big clubs pay the biggest wages, the Premier League is continually ranked as the most-watched division on the planet and every year two or three of its clubs are capable of winning the Champions League.
Everyone agrees that English youth coaching requires a revolution. That debate is long since over. The only question that remains is how it should happen. One common-sense solution is to reduce greatly the cost of coaching badges so that anyone can try to become one – to become a UEFA licensed coach in the UK costs several times what it does in Spain, Germany, France or Italy – but with the government cutting investment in sport and keen to let clubs act as autonomous bodies and set their own prices, the onus falls squarely on the clubs, whose continual financial struggles supposedly dictate that costs must be high.
Indeed, the most important problem facing English football is that almost every club outside of the Premier League, from those in the Championship to those in the Sunday leagues, lives a hand to mouth existence. Their priority is not helping enthusiastic locals to become qualified coaches, nor to teach the kids how to play in the same way that Spanish, Dutch and German coaches do. They just want to win their match every weekend. When continued failure to do so would put players and managers out of jobs and clubs out of business altogether, that is understandable.
So if the government will not intervene and Football League clubs cannot afford to provide a high quality education, it is squarely down to the Premier League elite to carry the load and teach the nation’s youngsters how to play. This is what they do now, but when these players get to 18, 19 or 20, they need game-time. Not just any game-time, but the experience of playing in complex tactical systems, with various responsibilities and against opponents doing exactly the same thing. Again, the clubs in the Football League cannot provide that.
Due to high turnover of players, a very crowded fixture list and the fact that most English veterans know only how to kick and rush, they learn to play in relatively simple, outdated systems and most matches become miserable slugfests where the team with the best stamina, bravery and set-piece organisation wins. It is the equivalent of sending a MIT Engineering graduate to stack shelves in a supermarket. Sure, he or she will learn a work ethic but are they really using or developing the skills they spent years acquiring? Of course not. It is a total waste of time.
I am pro-League 3 because, above all, I want every young footballer in the United Kingdom to have the same excellent chance of fulfilling their potential. They do not have that opportunity at the moment. The Football League system is bloated, inefficient and, sadly but most importantly, financially destitute. If we as fans want to help future generations – our own children – reach the top of the game, then we have to put their needs first and those of historically relevant but currently hopeless clubs second.