I’VE ALWAYS been extremely proud of English football’s pyramid system which means that there is a chain from the Barclays Premier League right down to the Ryman League and all the other feeder divisions in the system. There is very little like it elsewhere in the world.
However, it does concern me that while Non-League clubs are battling for points every Saturday afternoon a large number of young players in the full-time game are nowhere near kicking a ball in serious competition.
Only a small, and ever decreasing, number are making their way on to a weekend’s first-team teamsheet.
Some are going out on loan. Chelsea’s Nathan Chalobah and Josh McEachran were re-united in the midfield of England’s Under-21s in Israel recently for maybe the first time since they lined up against Kingstonian in a pre-season friendly in August.
In the interim Josh had been lent to Middlesbrough and Nat to Watford where his considerable contribution helped the Hornets to the Wembley play-off final For many of the rest of that squad the season was based around the Under-21 Premier League, developmental football where the results do not matter too much and the supporters are usually family friends of the players. Some of the games are staged on training grounds in midweek with lunchtime kick-offs.
It is a far cry from the demand for instant performance in front of packed Premier League crowds.
In the current football climate we should look at Spain. The reserve teams of Real Madrid and Barcelona finished eighth and ninth in their Segunda Division last season, the equivalent of our Championship.
Alvaro Morata, who won the Golden Boot in helping Spain to retain the Under-21 crown in Israel, split his season between the first team and the reserves and never played any lower than second tier football.
So, Chelsea B and other top reserve sides in the Championship? There is an argument for it in helping the English youngsters into a standard of football where their performances are accountable. But what would happen if the reserves drew the first team in a domestic cup?
In the Dutch system of a few years ago it happened. Ajax were knocked out of the Dutch Cup by their own reserves, who fielded a side which included, if my memory serves me right, the twins Frank and Ronald de Boer.
Their rise to eventual stardom must have been helped by that success in a real competition. However, if revolutionising the Football League is too much for the traditionalists or simply too complex, what about making a current club a feeder organisation to one of the elite, a nursery? Liverpool tried to forge close links with Crewe Alexandra not that long ago but had to back off because they were in danger of infringing the present day regulations.
The Non-League situation may be more flexible. There are precedents. For example, in the Thirties, Margate were the official nursery club of Arsenal. Promising youngsters got valuable experience then and even senior players in need of action after injury could use the arrangement for match practice.
I do think such arrangements could work again now. There are plenty of individual deals with players being allowed out by their fulltime parent club on work experience or more formal loan agreements.
I am suggesting a more binding relationship between clubs which benefits both parties.
Proper business tie-ups would help the increasingly difficult financial situation in the part-time game at a time when at the highest level there is no shortage of the funds needed to build and sustain such relationships.
No one should belittle the standard of Non-League football, either. In my time with Alan Dowson at Ks we have fielded three players who dropped down from the Premier League. Ian Pearce had a great career at the top level – Chelsea, Blackburn where he helped win the title, West Ham and Fulham.
The young professionals of today might need some convincing of course. Their heads are full of dreams and hopes.
I do believe those aspirations would become more achievable if they have to learn to punch their weight in “man’s football”. That is only really available at the big clubs in the first team. In Non-League football it is a fact of life.