The concept of ‘B’ teams, despite not being so far implemented in this country, has often been touted in some areas of English football as a future means of innovation that would see the England team catch up to their dominating European neighbours. With the EFL Trophy’s new re-brand and proposal to include a variant of ‘B’ teams, steps are arguably being made toward their full inclusion in lower league football.
So another international tournament comes to pass, and as we enter the earlier stages of p
reseason, most notorious for the media’s barrage of transfer rumour after transfer rumour, another embarrassing England exit becomes consigned to an increasingly large scrapbook of previous failures. This story however, while disheartening, is anything but unfamiliar: a dominating qualifying campaign, giant toppling performances in friendlies, players in fantastic form off the back of strong seasons with their respective clubs, all come to culminate in what is best described as ‘disappointing’ finals. It is hardly the first time that expectation is so thoroughly unmet, and it most certainly will not be the last time. Yet despite this a certain expectation remains attached to the England national side – England “can do so much better”, England “should do so much better”. Naturally this discourse of “shoulds” and “coulds” are what so strongly fuel the almost permanent inquest of why England do not perform when it comes to international tournaments, they are what have most likely caused many a sleepless night in the households’ of FA executives.
The question of why is however, quite fluid and changeable. Various people come to align themselves with a great variety of views and causes of the problem: the lack of a winter break, mental fragility, poor management, the disregard of ball retention and intelligent play in grassroots coaching – the picture is multifaceted. However, one supposed failing in England that has become a real focal point of the question is in the lack of proper progression for younger players from academies. This point is largely raised more at the elites of the Premier League rather than the “lesser” clubs of the Football League, but all are seen as collectively involved with the question. But, as previously said, the question of why is changeable and is in this very moment in the process of potentially changing. Plans are afoot to tackle the issue of youth progression in English football, plans that begin with Category One U21 academy sides joining the newly branded EFL Trophy, previously the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, alongside League One and Two clubs, and perhaps ultimately end with ‘B’ teams becoming permanent fixtures in the lower leagues just as they are in other European leagues. The basis of the plans are largely known, and not entirely alien; the idea is that sixteen Category One U21 teams will enter the tournament for the 2016/17 season and play alongside senior sides, this will begin with a group stage composed on a regional basis, and eventually finish with knockout fixtures. Supposedly, having these academy sides playing alongside senior teams will allow greater playing time for the prospects of the top academies of the country against better opposition, which will in turn lead to greater opportunity and chances in their respective first teams. While the idea is perhaps admirable, and optimistic, the logic is questionable and very much being actively questioned.
— Against League 3 (@AgainstLeague3) July 6, 2016
While the re-branded EFL Trophy is certainly the most concrete of plans of this type, it is not the first attempt of a change of this nature in English football. The largely controversial ‘League 3’ idea, an idea still in discussion which is aimed at introducing a fourth division in the Football League and allowing ‘B’ teams access to it, in 2014 this idea faced widespread opposition amongst fans of Football League clubs. The hostility was understandable and well articulated – many supporters felt as though their clubs, their leagues, the sport as it exists in their eyes and as it has existed for decades was being twisted and distorted to provide a kind of valet service for the constantly encroaching Premier League. In the minds of many, it was bad enough that they regularly had and continue to have their best prospects poached and swiped from beneath their feet, bad enough that clubs went into administration and liquidation while the top league bathed in riches, and still the encroachment is pushed further and further. Rather than the Football League existing in tandem with the Premier League, a suggestion is made that the Football League is increasingly abused and played with for the whims of footballing elites – it has become a toy to test with, a toy that revolves around the Premier League. Despite this rather central point of opposition, the potential damage inflicted on the Football League is not the only antagonism towards the idea.
An additional difficulty is how committed the clubs of the U21 sides would actually be to the idea, as a number have already declined invitations before the proposals have really lifted from the ground. Many clubs that the competition would be most emphatically focused on, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City are all supposedly expected to decline, although Everton, West Brom, Swansea, Middlesbrough and Stoke City have already reportedly accepted invitations. The proposed change to the Football League Trophy does little to avert numerous fears, but rather reinforces a view that English football, perhaps like the country that it resides in, is set upon an increasingly divided foundation.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) July 8, 2016
The notion of ‘B’ teams however, will remain a pertinent issue so long as the current trends of international tournaments continue. Often those in charge of the English game look across the channel and see them frequently: both finalists of Sunday night have ‘B’ teams implemented in their league structure, as do Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Within each country, the setup is of course slightly different, but the intention and idea is the same. England are by no means alone though, the debate of allowing ‘B’ teams to play in lower leagues is also in flow in Italy. As for the EFL Trophy, a strong pro-argument for it is not only that it is beneficial for bigger clubs and the national side, it is that clubs would see extra-cash injected into lower league football as an incentive and to soften opposition. It might be noted that even the smallest increase of income might prevent clubs from disappearing entirely, although with talk of boycotts among many supporters, any increase may appear negligible.
Whether the newly proposed plans for the EFL Trophy are a positive or negative for football in this country are of course a matter of opinion, opinions that may often depend on the club that you support, however it cannot be denied that the proposals are controversial and have struck up quite the debate on the need for ‘B’ teams. Lower League clubs are unsympathetic, some of the top clubs are not particularly keen, but it is clear that the FA are at least attempting to take certain progressive steps as disagreeable though they might be.