This season in the Championship (or the English Second Division as it used to be known) has seen as much drama as is possible in any league across the world, with record signings, unbeaten runs and history-making games. While there has been success for some, most notably Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion, for many there has been disappointment, with Bolton, Charlton and Nottingham Forest all having borne the brunt of damaging campaigns. Considering many people across the country see the Championship as a second-rate or less entertaining competition in England and Britain, it often doesn’t gain the recognition or coverage it deserves in the modern day premiership-fuelled media. It is for this reason that, in my opinion, there hasn’t been nearly enough attention on the way the top of the Championship is being dominated by the sides who can afford to sign top quality foreign players. For me, this ambitious risk-taking method of transfer business is one which threatens the development of young home-grown talent, and turns this league on its head. What were once a number of hearty underdog sides are quickly metamorphosing into commercially-engrossed teams who will do anything within their means to get promoted. Is this just what they need to do to keep up with the modern game, or is it a worry for the future of English football?
The stereotype of the Championship, at least from what you read from the media, is that it is a stanchion of the English game, producing British talent, and making up for the numerous faults of the Premier League. For the past few decades, it has certainly lived up to its billing (alongside League 1 and League 2) by helping the likes of Jack Butland, Troy Deeney, Rickie Lambert, Aaron Cresswell, Demarai Gray, John Stones and Dele Alli (not to mention most of Leicester’s current squad) progress into the top level of the game in this country. While there’s no doubt this is still going to happen for many more years to come, my concern with the Championship is that these players will be squeezed out of opportunities at lower-league clubs by the influx of cherry-picked, highly talented players mostly from across Europe.
For example, during Brighton & Hove Albion’s rise from League 1 to Championship play-offs over the past five years, young players such as Elliott Bennett, Jake Forster-Caskey, Liam Bridcutt, Solly March and Lewis Dunk were all given their opportunities to impress. This was a great thing for the club, having either gained new first team players (March and Dunk) or reaped financial profits (Bennett and Bridcutt). While this was a golden period for the club’s academy, it cannot be denied that at this current moment in time, there is a lack of youth products coming though. From my point of view, this is in direct correlation to the club’s fight for promotion, as only two British players under the age of 22 have made a start for the club this season (March and James Wilson). Whilst it could be argued Chris Hughton has a more experience-based philosophy, I think it is still vital to the future of the English game to allow more young British players the experience of first-team matches.
This is not only an issue for Brighton, but for the whole of the Championship. During the 2015/16 season, an unbelievable 50.78% of all players to have been in the match-day squad for at least one league match for any of the 24 clubs are foreign (including Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish players). If you assume that realistically about 40% of the remaining 49.22% players which are English players are over 23, you are left with around 10% of all Championship players who are actually products of these team’s academies and have been given an opportunity. From this minute 10%, probably only 2% will have the talent or the chance to play for a Premier League club, and then a mere 1% or less will be chosen as part of the national squad, under 21’s or senior. If we really think that we can continue like this and still produce the quality of players to be able to compete in the latter stages of international tournaments, the FA and us fans are well and truly mistaken. Yes Butland, Gray, Alli, Cresswell and Nathan Redmond have all progressed from the second division, but these players are only the tiny, tiny minority who actually make it (hopefully all to the international stage). It makes you really wonder how much talent has slipped from the fingers of the FA in the past decade or so.
It could be argued that asking for more British academy products to be blooded is both narrow-minded and discriminative of talented continental players. Personally, my belief is that if all these fans begging for England to be successful in the Euros and the World Cup are serious about it, and the FA really believes in its targets of reaching both the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and winning the 2022 World Cup, changes need to be made. Surely these changes need to include the scaling back of the importation of European talent rather than the expansion of it? Now, I know that youngsters from South America, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands to name but a few grow up aspiring to play in England because of the professionalism (and money) we have in our lower leagues, and I am not one to criticise or stop them from being signed. Yes, their leagues aren’t as competitive as ours, and facilities are often better here than in the poverty-stricken inner-cities of Brazil or the small, agricultural towns of the Netherlands, but this is not an acceptable excuse for the way that local talent has been stifled at clubs across the country.
Imagine yourself as an 18 year old at Birmingham, Leeds, Derby or Cardiff etc. who had been snapped up at the age of 8 or 9 and trained for a whole decade at not just the club you play for, but the club you have grown up supporting. You have progressed through all the youth teams, met all of the targets that you had been set, only to be told you don’t have a future in the first team, now or ever. How would you then feel about your situation? Understandably, most would feel annoyed at the management, the board and the decisions taken to buy in players of your position from the leagues of Europe and South America, when you haven’t even been given a fair opportunity. Hundreds, if not thousands of players find themselves in positions like this throughout the top English league every year, some of whom could’ve had the same talent as Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (both Man United) Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) or Zach Clough (Bolton) but haven’t been able to show it. This waste of talent is just the bi-product of our capitalist throwaway culture, in which we all subconsciously feel that we can safely get rid of perfectly suitable items and replace them with new, flashy, improved products every week, month or year depending on the goods, without any negative impact. Realistically, if we all looked at what we did, we wouldn’t repeat our actions, which is how recycling started, why we all believe in buying local food produce now, and why we are fascinated in exploring the possibilities of solar, wind and hydroelectric energy rather than fossil fuels now. Hopefully, in a similar way to all of these changings of guard, the members of the FA will come to their senses and actually start the process of changing squad rulings, with a quota of young home-grown players larger than the current one, if there is one.
While I can’t find a set of official squad rules on the number of home grown or non-British players allowed or suggested for clubs in the Championship (leave a comment if you can), I can assume that they are fairly similar to those in the Premier League. The latest update to the FA’s squad rulings saw slight improvement for the BPL, with the number of non-home grown player restricted from 17 to 13 of the 25 registered, although their definition of a home grown player has now changed. What once had to be an English player, born and raised in their area is now a player of any nationality who has trained in England for three years under the age of 18. While this helps a few players across the country, born in countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica or Australia to English parents, it could set a dangerous precedent into encouraging clubs to look into ways of persuading (bribing) parents of Spanish, German or Italian players to move to England and have their sons trained at English clubs to get away with the rule. This is where UEFA and FIFA are expected to move in and possibly deliver transfer embargoes (such as Barcelona’s recent one), but their evidence is not always guaranteed and they cannot always deliver justice.
While the FA’s work does need continuous momentum and improvement, they should be celebrated for their useful changes so far, and given our support to be able to do what they can. I personally think that more can still be done, with a lot of different options to choose from if we want to become as successful as Spain, Germany or France on the international stage. If you observe the second divisions of these highly-competitive nations, such as the Liga Adelante (Spain), Serie B (Italy) and 2 Bundesliga (Germany) there are a number of stats that differ to the Championship. Most notably, in my opinion, are the goal scoring charts, comparing all scorers in each of the second divisions in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Firstly, it is quite clear that both the amount of games and the overuse of different players contributes to the amount of different goal scorers, with 358 different players having got on the scoresheet in the Championship up until all games today, comparing to 260 in the Liga Adelante, 275 in Serie B and only 229 in 2 Bundesliga. From these numbers, though, the most important facts are the percentage of goalscorers who have nationality of the country they play in (excluding Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish players in the Championship). In the Liga Adelante, it is 20.38%, for Serie B it is 27.27%, it stands at 42.36% 2 Bundesliga and in the Championship it is 47.21%. While the German stats may surprise a lot of people, considering this is a country which won the last World Cup and are probably slight favourites for the Euros, they still pale in comparison to the English ones. Germany probably make up for their lower league disappointments in their bevy of talents across top clubs across Europe, for example Toni Kroos at Real Madrid, Mesut Özil at Arsenal and Sami Khedira at Juventus, while England don’t have players of this calibre.
One of the reasons this number is so high in England is a result of the massive disparity in quality and income between the Premier League and the Championship. These days, the Championship is basically seen as a landing ground for the weakest Premier League teams by the BPL organisers, with numerous victims of the big time struggling in the second division today (Bolton, Charlton, QPR, Wolves, Blackburn, Cardiff etc.). Teams of their calibre have certainly deserved to be in the big time before, but in the long run they all made big mistakes while up there. To stay competitive with the rest, they spent above their means, failed to keep up with the others and eventually were all relegated, losing millions on managers and players, which put them into a hell of a lot of debt. Power got to their heads, and some like Blackpool and Portsmouth have had their clubs ruined by it, The thing is, the BPL spotted this and now pay out parachute payments of £60 million a year, so these clubs can now afford to try the same thing over and over again, managing to convince BPL quality players to stay with a pay rise. This system won’t benefit the English game though, as small clubs will never be allowed to progress (unless they have a Russian billionaire owner like Bournemouth). You could safely bet that Newcastle, Aston Villa and the final relegation victim (Sunderland or Norwich) are going to finish in the top 6 or so of the Championship next season, purely because they are going to be rewarded for failure by the BPL.
To conclude then, I believe that the SkyBet Championship, the English Second Division, just the Championship or whatever you want to call it, has major ingrained issues concerning its control over clubs. It could be argued that these are as a result of the failures of the Premier League, which I certainly agree with, but it doesn’t mean responsibility can be taken away from the league’s directors. The FA are certainly trying their hardest, it just seems that nobody wants to cooperate with them on the aim of bringing through more British talent. Maybe league sides are just so self-obsessed and greedy that they will do anything within the rules to win, ignoring the importance of promoting their own youth. In my eyes, the Championship is becoming a carbon copy of the BPL in bypassing their own academies (which they have spent millions on building up, only to hand pick about one or two players a year to promote), which is just heart-breaking to see. Sure, it’s a slow transition, and I doubt the situation will never become quite as bad as in the BPL, but it is a pressing concern if we as a country do want to be seen and respected as one which does value its youth.
If clubs aren’t encouraged to give young players a chance, we wouldn’t have players like Dele Alli, Jack Butland, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in our national side or in the BPL. Germany’s players, Spain’s first-teamers and Brazil’s regulars are all products of heralded academies, and the only way they got to where they are today is through being given an opportunity by their clubs, by proving their doubters wrong, and becoming successful. If England wants to get to the same level, they need to make their clubs do the same. It’s not just about buying the tractors and pretending to know how to use them when your friends come around, it’s about putting everything into place and hoping for some luck. If they take risks and sow the seeds of youth, they will be able to reap the rewards at just the right time.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!