Living On A Thin Line (2nd Leg)

by Martin Bull

[The 1st leg was published earlier this week – HERE]

Whilst up and down the length and breadth of the country virtually no supporters or managers had a good word to say about the dead end street the Football League reversed themselves into, it was exceptionally grating to hear fans and managers of the Academy sides eulogise about the new opportunity the EFL Trophy afforded them and conclude, nay almost boast, that the chance to play against real league teams, in real stadiums is crucial for their players’ development into real players. That really twists the already serrated knife into a football supporter’s heart.

Cameron McGeehan is one of the few young players who has broken ranks, stood up for himself and declared that I’m not like everybody else. Chelsea paid Fulham £80,000 for him as a 10 year old wonderboy, and later at Norwich City he found himself at a chic Academy with great facilities and all the Delia cookery books his batman could carry home from training.

With the Academy world at his feet he could have remained a secure and stable dedicated follower of fashion but instead upped sticks to head to a decaying Kenilworth Road to play authentic football in League Two. By the tender age of 20 McGeehan had already concluded that “…the Under-21s [as it was called then] is a graveyard for a lot of players. It’s not a good standard of football, it’s slow and there’s not much to it. The game is not the same, it’s completely different to playing in the League…”

Whilst most detractors of the EFL Trophy trial have concentrated on the idea of it being Trojan horse for Academies or B sides being allowed into the actual Football League system, or highlighted the nightmare scenario of two Academy sides facing each other at Wembley, they have often missed the more blindingly obvious issue that this new-look Trophy is conveniently solving a titanic problem the Academies have, namely how to get experience of real football for the whole team rather than just the odd loanee who joins Hartlepool United for a month in the frozen winter.

Category One Academies are hoovering up young talent all over the country and anyone who doesn’t have one will have their best players cherry picked from under their nose at 48 hours notice and at an increasingly young age, with tight-fisted compensation predetermined under the fixed tariff of the Elite Player Performance Plan rules. Reading used shirt numbers going up to 60, and it wasn’t a case of John Doe’s lucky number being 48; they were actual numbers for their squad of around 60 players.

Whilst pecking orders have always existed in football, as they do in many other walks of life, this one is particularly insidious as it maintains the dreary status quo in a far deeper and unfair way than it used to. In the olden days lower league teams would develop players for many years, get the benefit of them whilst they improved, and then would get a decent fee for them if they truly did have what it took to move up the leagues. Whilst that ‘system‘ also had its frustrations, and was bleakly static, at least it was a vaguely fair outcome for both clubs involved, and the player. And if you want to add the England national team into the equation it did slowly produce the best and most mature players for the national team. Looking back it rather makes you wonder where have all the good times gone?

Today however it is unimaginable that a Marcus Stewart could burst straight into Championship football as a scrawny teenager, score three goals in his first two games and then STAY with us for five seasons, including after relegation, amidst the Portakabins and flooded training pitches at Somerdale, before making his opening move to better things as a well respected man.

Things have been moving quickly forward ever since, from Scott Sinclair’s move to Chelsea as a 16 year old in 2005, to the recent examples of Alefe Santos, Donovan Wilson, Olly Mehew, and Marcus Beauchamp moving to Category One Academies to play in fantasy leagues with their fellow young hopefuls. The final two have already been spat out of the system and are now with Forest Green Rovers and Newport County respectively.

As our club voted against the new EFL Trophy format, and DC has made his opinion of it very clear, it’s not our club who is at fault. To help supporters they have even reduced ticket prices to a frankly give away £5 on the terraces. That is half the price of even pre-season friendly games. These are the sort of games my funds set me free to watch so it’s a shame I only have one to potentially go to; I wasn’t prepared to watch Reading U23’s at any entrance price, or even if all of my friends were there.

Lower level teams don’t need to help these young players at bigger clubs. We are already constantly helping develop them by taking them on loan only to see their value rise and availability fall if they do well, or our own club’s reputation drop if they don’t succeed or the player gives an unfavourable report on their time away from the comforts of top level academies.

Queen Victoria was on the throne when the Football League was founded, yet here were are 128 years later and they are throwing all that history away and failing to give the people what they want.

EFL, we are already tired of waiting for you to admit your mistakes and stop your sobbing. This time tomorrow I hope to wake up and find that it was all just a bad dream.

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