Listen carefully and it is possible to hear football’s tectonic plates shifting. The word is that Greg Dyke’s much-derided Football Association Commission will report in early April, assuming Mars is in alignment with Venus and the appropriate forms have been completed in triplicate.
Radical thought and decisive action would be out of character for an organisation so risk-averse that they employ unfeasibly expensive management consultants to ask perfectly obvious questions about the future of English football.
But if Dyke’s initiative is to prove relevant, reaching the following conclusions would help to avoid the traditional critical mauling.
Scrap the Under-21 League
This will dent the Premier League’s corporate ego, because the Under-21 competition forms part of their £340 million Elite Player Performance Plan, but the problems of transition, facing players aged between 18 and 21, are becoming critical.
Clubs, managers and coaches are in open revolt, arguing that so-called development football lacks the intensity and authenticity of the real thing. Some want to re-establish a Reserve League, in which young players are schooled by senior pros. Others want to make more profound changes.
Show them the money
One committee member has brutal clarity on the central issue: “The way to get things done in the Football League is through money. The Premier League have the money to get what they want.” The bigger picture involves sustainable short-term sacrifice for a longer-term goal.
Despite its lofty pretensions, EPPP is based on greed: the biggest clubs accumulate the best young players for the lowest possible price. This must be revised for other changes to be sanctioned.
An increase in compensation fees, to £40,000 for each year a boy has been nurtured at another club’s academy between the ages of nine and 16, would do the trick.
Feeder clubs: the payback
Brace yourself. The clamour for feeder clubs in the lower divisions is growing to the point of irresistibility. The weakness of the Football League’s leadership will result in one of the most fundamental cultural shifts in the game since the abolition of the maximum wage.
The system already operates implicitly: Swindon Town’s links with Tottenham are increasingly indivisible. Progressive League One clubs, like Brentford and MK Dons, are highly regarded by the likes of Liverpool and Everton for the quality of coaching and intensive feedback that their loanees receive.
Outlaw loans in Premier League
The current system emphasises the inherent inequalities of the Premier League. The case of Ryan Bertrand, farmed out to Aston Villa by Chelsea, underlines the trend for secondary clubs, whose ambitions begin and end with the avoidance of relegation, to be regarded as finishing schools or shop windows for the elite.
Tactical loans are in vogue, encouraged by agreements, tacit or contractual, that a loanee will not play against his parent club. It is uncompetitive, essentially unfair.
Romelu Lukaku, for instance, will have maximum opportunity to damage Chelsea’s rivals before the end of the season without discomfiting John Terry & Co.
Reinvent youth football as a summer game
Mid-winter football on primeval parkland swamps encourages disillusion, even on the rare occasions local councils deem their pitches fit for play. With the grassroots game trapped in a cycle of decline, a radical approach is essential.
The FA should reschedule the youth football season between April and October. This will enable young players to develop technically on better surfaces, and provide a better environment for measured coaching. The accent would be on education and enjoyment, not endurance.
Insist on young players signing a social contract
Model professionals like Frank Lampard share the consensual view that emerging players are over-indulged, and under-appreciative of the opportunities presented to them. Old-school traditions, such as boot cleaning and dressing-room domesticity, represent a rite of passage which breeds respect.
There is a broader context to the need for self-discipline, however. All players offered a scholarship at 16 should be contractually committed to working, for at least one day a week, in a club-run community scheme. Exposure to social and economic reality will help to redress the sense of entitlement which defines the modern prospect.
Pressurise the politicians to tighten work permits
Quotas to stem the flow of mediocre foreign imports would be ideal but remain impractical. The FA must continue to seek to operate proactively with the Home Office to revise current legislation dealing with players from outside the European Union.
Admitting players from the top 30 ranked nations, rather than the top 70, would tighten the process, as would an edict that they should have featured in 90 per cent of full international squads over a minimum two seasons prior to an application. Permits should be granted for two years instead of three.
And finally... restructure the Football Association
This is where the fun would really start. The FA cannot campaign for far-reaching change without fundamentally changing themselves.
All senior employees, from Alex Horne, the ludicrously overpaid general secretary, downwards should be obliged to re-apply for their jobs as part of a transparent restructuring process.
The regional associations and the FA Council should be given no option but to end decades of resistance and prevarication. They must be streamlined as a matter of urgency.
Handing over disciplinary cases to an independent body would also enable the FA to be a more effectively focused organisation.