Why England Needs a Semi-Developmental League
Whilst the name isn’t too appealing, the concept of a semi-developmental league is actually a very interesting one. For years in England, we’ve argued about how English youth players get overlooked by foreign players. These days, we may even consider that they get overlooked completely - some team sheets in the Premier League struggle to name even one in the starting eleven. The problem starts that they are not given enough game time and don’t get the chance to play on a regular basis.
It’s a vicious cycle really. Let’s say Tom, Dick and Harry are all fabulous players at their local youth team. Mr Scout from Conglomerate Corporation F.C. likes the look of them and signs them all. Over the course of a few years, the club decides that they are not actually good enough, all three of which end of up leaving with relatively few minutes on the clock. Maybe the last ten minutes of a cup match, which the team were already 3-0 up. They end up signing up a relatively low league side; before never being heard of by mainstream media again.
A pity all round, that the player never got a chance and also a shame that England’s lower leagues just simply don’t get the attention they deserve. League 1 occasionally gets on TV when the international break is on, but forget about anything else in the regular season.
Herewith the solution. A semi-developmental league would allow a platform for these players to continuously play and get real game time. Imagine the top ten Premier League’s youth systems taking on the hardened workmen of the semi-professional game. The riches are bountiful for sides.
The proposal from the author is to wedge another division between League 2 and the National League. The league would be made up of ten real sides from the national side and another ten developmental teams from Premier League teams. This won’t be optional. If they want to be recognised as the best teams in the best league, they need to bare the weight of that honour and give something back to the national team.
A standard fixture list would look like:
Tranmere Rovers vs. Chelsea U23 (Late K/O, live on Sky Sports Football 81)
Arsenal U23 vs. Manchester United U23
Woking vs. Braintree Town
A mixed bag of abilities and teams across the country. The developmental teams would be void of any relegation and promotion stipulations. Their existence in the league would solely rely on the performance of the premier league club; in theory, the premier league representatives could be radically different every season.
The others would, however, be playing for promotion and relegation spaces, the top two go up to League 2 and the bottom two will be relegated to the conference. Although medals, trophies and accolades would be kept by the teams and players. I.e. Nothing will stop Burnley U23 from calling themselves League 3 champions.
Experience for the youngsters
The young-uns, the young ones, the youth of today. Often overlooked by the might of appealing international talent. Instead of rearing your own, just buying others. Everyone does it, but eventually, we’re going to have start thinking of our own. The national side hasn’t produced a trophy at senior level for an eternity.
The U17 did, however, win the World Cup at their level in South Korea last year. Yet many of that side have seen precious little time since. Almost all belonging to Premier League sides, it’s been near-on impossible for them to break into the at club level.
Premier League 2 might offer them some time, but just doesn’t cut the mustard when you consider how lacklustre and its low visibility within the English game. It’s also fair comment that teams set incredibly low targets for this league; with some even failing to field a team in the competition.
Working within this system young players would get the opportunity to play against hardened players of the football league, a real experience of first-team football - importantly against a real first team; not just another set of academy upstarts.
Any negatives? For sure. It’s not perfect, some youth players may become blasé about the whole situation and find it hard to compete in a competition from which they cannot be promoted or relegated. However, this will just take time to implement. When the method is engrained in the system, it’ll be second nature.
Exposure for the lower leagues
So what does the 35+ part-time welder/bench striker get out all this? Well, actually quite a lot. First of all is exposure. Lower league football isn’t televised nearly as much as in other countries. Instead, we tend to focus on our top flight. Whilst the mainstream TV stations might not flock to televise Morecambe vs. Manchester City U23, Manchester City TV certainly will. Morecambe will be relevant to all city fans, and should the Etihad be sold out one week or there’s a gruelling away day - the odd city fan might pop down to the Globe Arena because it’s not too far and it looked okay when they watched the game against the youth side. It’s about providing that opportunity to expose the lower leagues to the rest of football; which will allow it to grow.
In addition, the likes of Aldershot Town and the ilk of the league will be playing week in and week out with the ‘stars’ of tomorrow and help transform the future of English football by simply doing their current job. That grandeur alone is a good incentive for the league and its participants.
Tried and tested methods
Here in Japan, we see a similar model with three youth teams playing in J3. Gamba Osaka, Cerezo Osaka and FC Tokyo all prepare a U23 side for the competition. This allows them to foster their youth. Gamba is one of Japan’s most successful sides, whether as Cerezo is now looking like one of the best sides in the country - winning two trophies last year.
Closer to home, in Spain they have a similar method too. In fact, no reserve leagues exist. Reserve teams can play openly in the standard leagues, ah - with the one rule, that they must be at least one division below their ‘parent team’. Thusly meaning that no reserve (or B team as they are called there) can play in La Liga. This method affords the cream of Spain’s youth setups real competition with real prizes. The only caveat being that they cannot exceed or match the division of the first team. Although should they mathematically get to same echelons, one would argue that those players should graduate to the first team.
Whilst Japan’s national team doesn't make so much of a splash in the World Cup, they certainly perform better in continental competitions than England. Whether as Spain, within Europe as well certainly have had better fortunes in the last ten years and probably have a better game plan going forward. They only won two European championships and a World Cup after all.
It’s clear that England needs a similar system which allows our players to develop and grow with real competition. Fostering our emerging talent whilst also illumination our incredible lower tiers will put us back on the map for England’s national team - not just our league which doesn't curate or help the three lions.