Football: English progress hits the old buffers: The case for a smaller Premier League is unarguable but still remains unanswered. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS probably unfair, but the best jibes usually are. Told by the Football Association that they were dragging their feet over reducing the size of the Premiership, the clubs said that was a bit rich, coming from a bunch of dithering old dodderers who were moving to replace Graham Taylor with all the speed of Tony Adams on ice.

Touche. In truth there is fault on both sides, with the brazen self-interest of the chairmen more damaging, and therefore more culpable, than the procrastination of the dinosaurs of Lancaster Gate.

The case for a smaller Premier League is unarguable. Fewer matches and more time on the training ground is an obvious requirement if playing standards are to improve. Managers and coaches from Manchester's champions to the Cobblers of Northampton are unanimous on that point. Only the money-men disagree. When a proposal to trim the Premiership from 22 to 18 clubs, in line with the rest of Europe, was put to the chairmen last week, there were just two votes in favour - from Manchester United's Martin Edwards and David Dein, of Arsenal.

The rest did some perfunctory mental arithmetic and put dosh before development. Never mind the quality, feel the wad.

Their most persuasive apologist is Liverpool's Peter Robinson, who wants fewer cup ties rather than league games, and argues that better coaching, not fewer matches, is the real key to progress.

He was unashamed about his club's reasons for opposing an 18- team Premiership. 'Purely financial,' he said. 'In our case, it would mean losing something like 17 per cent of our revenue, and rather than reduce the number of league matches, we'd prefer to look at changes in other areas.'

Liverpool are by no means alone among leading clubs in contending that they are burdened by too many cup games. Robinson said: 'There certainly shouldn't be any two-leg Coca-Cola Cup ties, and we believe the Coca-Cola should be optional for the teams who qualify for Europe, because they are the ones who get all the fixture congestion.

'Another option worth considering is having the bigger clubs come in later in the FA Cup - in the fourth round instead of the third. We'd much rather look at things like that rather than lose our bread and butter, which is how we regard league matches.'

The Premiership is committed to reducing its membership from 22 to 20 teams the season after next, and the vast majority are willing to go no further.

Robinson said: 'When we go down to 20 clubs, our players won't be playing many more games than the top Europeans. And anyway, just reducing the number of matches we play, in isolation, isn't going to bring about the desired improvement in our football. To improve our skills, which is what we're all talking about, we need to do rather more than play fewer games.

'When players get into their twenties, I don't think extra work will improve their technique that much. What we need is better coaching at a younger level.'

The FA was unimpressed. Fine words masking the same old selfishness. When were the leading clubs going to accept their responsibility, and actually do something for the advancement of the game?

The outraged snort from the back probably came from Robert Chase, the avuncular chairman of that most progressive of clubs, Norwich City.

Glasshouses and stones had sprung to mind. When were the FA going to get those ample backsides in gear and give the game the lift it needed by appointing a new England manager?

Chase had noted the clamour in favour of Terry Venables, whose many advocates include Alex Ferguson, George Graham, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle and Bryan Robson. The FA was wary of the man widely regarded as the best coach of his generation because his transfer dealings were under investigation. Fair enough, said no-nonsense of Norwich, so why not expedite the official inquiry, and either consider or disqualify the best candidate for the job?

Logical, but much too easy for the blazered buffers whose indecision is legendary. They had commissioned a sub-committee to draw up a shortlist, and the sub-committee's 'special adviser', Jimmy Armfield, would be taking the advice of a 'think tank'. The think tank will report back to the sub- committee, which will make a recommendation to the international committee for ratification by the full council.

The Germans were going to be the role model, we were told. Presumably they meant the German civil service.

Within the game, there is a growing suspicion that the bumbling bureaucracy is a ruse to hive off responsibility. Armfield, ostensibly the FA's head-hunter, said after his first meeting with the sub-committee this week that it had not gone particularly well. He was hopeful, no more, that the other four members would take note of his recommendations.

One of them - he would not be named - was none too sure. The sub-committee was no more than a public relations exercise, for the benefit of the media, he said. The job was in the gift of the FA chairman, Sir Bert Millichip, and would go to his nominee - regardless of what anyone else might say.

Armfield is known to favour Keegan or Venables, in that order, and two of the other committee men have spoken up on Venables' behalf. Millichip, however, is said to be championing the cause of Ray Wilkins, and if Bert fancies Butch, then Butch it will be.

A top-heavy Premiership and the England manager chosen by a 78- year-old provincial solicitor. A brave new era? Don't make me laugh.