By Chris Dunlavy
WALES star Steve Morison has leapt to the defence of the England C team – and warned the FA it would be a mistake to axe Non-League’s “gateway” to the big time.
Since 2003, 212 England C players have graduated to the Football League or Premier League, including the likes of George Boyd, Lee Tomlin and Craig Mackail-Smith.
But with FA chairman Greg Dyke seeking to raise £3m for the construction of 3G pitches, Paul Fairclough’s team – understood to operate on an annual budget of £275,000 – has been marked for closure.
Morison, 31, scored three goals in eight appearances for the C’s whilst at Stevenage before moving to Millwall and Norwich, where he played in the Premier League and notched 20 caps for Wales.
And the former Boro striker believes fewer players will follow suit if the Non-League Lions are disbanded.
“It would be a real shame,” said Morison, now at Leeds. “It’s been the gateway for so many of us, not just to play in the Football League but in the Premier League and internationally as well.
“I’ve played for Wales, George Boyd and Craig Mackail-Smith played for Scotland. Michael Kightly was in the top-flight with Burnley last year.
“Would we be there without England C? That’s impossible to say but it certainly didn’t hurt. It gave a showcase to the better players in Non-League and opened the eyes of people who hadn’t seen you before.
“It basically gives scouts and managers a catch-all solution. If you go and watch an England C game, you’re seeing the best players in Non-League all on one pitch.
“More importantly, they’re playing against very good opposition, often the U21 sides of big football nations. If they can cope with that, anyone watching knows they will cope with the Football League.
“Yes, those scouts could still go and watch a load of individual Non-League games but, realistically, will they have time to do that? And will that tell them as much about a player? I don’t think so.”
The cuts are being led by new FA chief operating officer Nick Humby, who has been tasked with finding £30m to improve coaching and facilities at grass-roots level.
He has apparently questioned the necessity of sending the C’s on expensive friendly trips to the likes of Jordan and the Caribbean, and argued that their success does little to benefit the full national side. Morison, though, says he is wrong on both counts.
“I understand they have to save money somewhere,” he says. “But the home games are played at local grounds.
“And yeah, we had a couple of fun tours, where we went to Barbados and Grenada, but it was a lot more than just playing football.
“We did school visits, coaching and community work. We touched areas that maybe the full England team doesn’t find time for in its busy schedule.
“It would be a shame to see it go because lots of players at that level have got ability. Just look at Jamie Vardy and Charlie Austin, who came from Non-League and were named in the latest England squad.
“They got noticed but there are many more who just need a platform. That’s what England C does.
“We’ll see what happens but to me it seems very short-sighted. If England C was to go, I bet they’d end up bringing it back down the line when they realised the supply lines had dried up.”
FORMER England C star Craig Mackail-Smith says the Non-League national side is about far more than jet-setting jollies.
The 31-year-old scored four times in seven games for the C’s during his Dagenham & Redbridge days and has since netted over 100 Football League goals for Peterborough and Brighton.
And whilst those exploits won seven full caps for Scotland, Mackail-Smith says pulling on an England shirt remains one of his proudest moments.
“When you’re playing in Non-League football, it’s a great honour to get that call up,” said the former Arlesey man, now on the hunt for a club after being released by Brighton.
“You really do feel as if you’re playing for England and being part of that set-up, the way they look after you, the treatment and coaching you get – it’s a very special feeling.
“People might say ‘It’s only England C’ but it’s a fantastic achievement to be part of a national team, at any level. At the time, it was one of the best moments of my life.
“I’ve been very fortunate to go onto a good career and play for Scotland but even if it had all ended at that point, I’d have been incredibly proud. It would be a real shame to deny others that feeling.”