Tom Shepherd argues that the concept of feeder teams is not too dissimilar to the current league structure and will have similarly negative effects
André Villas-Boas raised the possibility of introducing "feeder" teams into the English league structure recently. "The youth development system in England is not right, in my belief. The reserve leagues and youth levels are not competitive enough," said the Chelsea manager. Villas-Boas believes that having a Chelsea feeder side in the lower leagues would help bridge the gap between reserve standards and first-team football. He also wants to improve his club's youth development. John Terry, the last player to come through the Chelsea academy and become a first-team regular, is now in his thirties.
Villas-Boas is not the first manager to suggest changing the English league structure. Carlo Ancelotti, his predecessor at Chelsea, voiced similar opinions, as did Rafa Benitez. Both managers cited the Spanish arrangement as an example of the system's success. Spanish reserve teams have been allowed to play in the league pyramid, up to the second level, since the 1950s. Real Madrid's second string, Castilla, reached the Copa del Rey final in 1980. Half of Barcelona's current starting line-up came through their B team – 25 players from their reserves have graduated to the first-team squad in the past four years.
With his sights set on competing with the elite teams in Europe, Villas-Boas does not appear to have given any thought to the interests of the 72 League clubs outside the Premier League. Some of these clubs would have to be demoted to make way for the richer clubs' reserve teams. The inclusion of these feeder teams would also fundamentally undermine the lower divisions, suggesting they are simply a support structure for the Premier League – only good enough for Chelsea youngsters and the like to have a kickabout in.
But this is the way managers of big clubs already see the lower leagues. The current loan system allows Premier League club to use Championship clubs – and even smaller Premier League teams – as a training ground for their untried talent. The January transfer window offered the example of Yago Falque. Tottenham bought and loaned out midfielder to Southampton on the same day, with no intention of playing him until at least next season. Clubs do not even try to hide the fact they are stockpiling young players to prevent another team picking them up. It is considered standard practice in the modern game.
The increase in loan deals has had a knock-on effect in the leagues below. Teams are becoming dependent on loans from higher divisions to keep up with rivals, who are doing the same. Northampton Town, currently sitting bottom of League Two, have resorted to starting matches with four or five on-loan players. Many other struggling League sides are taking on an unprecedented amount of loanees to cover for poor starts to the season. Some of the new arrivals make a positive impact, but it is alienating for fans to see the body of their team made up of players with no real attachment to the club.
The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan next season could allow wealthy clubs to poach players from smaller clubs' academies for a fraction of what they have to pay this season. This new system will only encourage large clubs to snatch up more youth players, with the attitude that many can fail provided a few succeed. Not only could this prove hugely damaging for the development of youth players, but it will also lead to an increase in the already high number of youngsters put out on loan to smaller teams.
The notion of feeder clubs playing in the English domestic leagues may seem outrageous, but as wealthy clubs find it easier to stockpile youth players and loan them out for training and to pick up minutes on the pitch, a situation may soon arise when every young lower league player is in some way affiliated with a larger club. While we might not see a club known officially as Chelsea B any time soon, the current situation is perhaps not as far removed from the feeder system as we would like to think.
From WSC 301 March 2012