A Rational Blueprint For English Football

Ollie Irish

23rd, November 2010


By Alex Netherton

A familiar scene in English football: muddy hoofing is the order of the afternoon

I like watching England fail. It gets me up in the morning. But there’s plenty of guff talked about how to improve the national team. Luckily for everyone else, I’ve cracked it. You’re welcome. The answer is simple: get rid of the teams in the third and fourth division.

France and Spain both have two professional leagues. Germany has three. England has four divisions, contributing 92 teams. Understandably, this is regarded as one of the major achievements of England – we’re committed enough to keep so many clubs going professionally. However, the structure we’ve supported has propagated the muddy hoofing that passes for British football. If the English subscribe to the wish that they want to succeed internationally, then it demands the rationalisation of the system.

The first reason why is, inevitably, money. TV money is scarce already for the Championship teams before some of the revenue finds it way to the even smaller teams. The solidarity payments from the Premier League go the same way. At the moment, owning a Championship team is an excellent way to lose a few million and become hated by your hometown. If this money was given to fewer teams, there wouldn’t be any fewer games on TV, so the channels wouldn’t lose out. But with more cash, the remaining teams would be further removed from the usual financial precariousness.

More importantly for England is that this would be the chance align the styles of play between the Premiership and the Championship. The move from League 2 to League 1, or League 1 to The Championship demands no change in a team’s style. The teams’ limited approach lets people watch long-ball tactics, and there are only rare exceptions. It cannot be right that three quarters of England’s professional leagues educates its trainees to succeed in this manner. No wonder we’re scared of possession, most of our midfielders spend their weekends watching the ball avoid them.

The Premiership is, admittedly, home to Wolves, Blackburn and Stoke, teams that play rampant filth and dole out serious injuries when given the chance. However, there are teams of questionable quality (the standard in the Premiership is the lowest for years) who nonetheless deserve praise for their style, like Wigan, West Brom and Blackpool. Most of these teams play in a more sophisticated style than any England team since 1996. The Big Four don’t have panic attacks after four passes, in clear contrast to the eleven whiteshirt cowards last week and last World Cup. Thankfully there remain talented players for youngsters to study and use as an example to improve. If the English culture changed to focus on possession, there would be a reason to finally ignore the big bastards as the lowest leagues’ most effective players. It would mean that Premier League teams would be more willing to grant loans to the Championship. It beats the current system of employing managers who have played for Alex Ferguson.

We’re constantly told that there are dire coaching standards, and that funding gives English youngsters just three training cones across the country with which to practise. If we had fewer academies, only the best English coaches would remain and only the best young players would have the chance to become footballers, and better footballers at that. Contrast that with Clairefontaine, a national institution producing the finest players for the benefit of both teams and the nation. Contrast that with Spain, where B teams are exposed to their professional lower division.

There are other benefits. Glenn Hoddle’s last chance saloon Second Chance Academy proves there are too many young players following the dream of being a professional footballer eventually rejected. Nobody is fooled by the claims of rounded education for these teenagers. If we had two professional leagues, the number of rejections would be halved.

If the FA carries out an extensive reform on British football, as it intermittently threatens, it would have to disband half its leagues. The FA Cup would finally be euthanised as there would be even fewer upsets, but at the moment it’s in a coma anyway. Most football clubs would have to consider whether it was worth the effort or financially viable to continue outside the top two leagues. Millions of people would be heartbroken. But it would mean that England would stand half a chance of getting past the quarter-finals for the first time in almost 20 years.

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  1. babo says:

    last time blackburn “doled out” a serious injury? answers on a postcard.

  2. Collie says:

    I’ve a feeling your in for some serious abuse from lower league followers!

  3. Ollie Irish says:

    In theory, this all makes perfect sense. In theory. Anything to transform the ‘hoof it up to the big lad’ mentality that predominates in England.

  4. Pete says:

    idiotic on a number of levels

  5. Ollie Irish says:

    … but of course, in practice it’s never gonna happen (as Alex knows full well).

  6. Ollie Irish says:

    Care to elaborate, Pete?? …

  7. Chrs says:

    I don’t like the underlying assumption that all teams in the third and fourth tier play terrible football. My own team, Southampton, play an attractive brand of football on a pristine pitch and are often a joy to watch. Writing off all teams below The Championship as rubbish is pure folly. A good deal of League One teams play decent stuff, from what you write it would seem as though you haven’t been paying attention.

  8. Alexander says:

    My friend made some good points to me, but I disagree (obviously):

    What percentage of prem money goes to champ / league one / two clubs? Very little. Certainly not enough to bail the Championship clubs out of their financial predicaments. And if it was a significant amount there is no evidence that they wouldn’t spunk it away on wages of mainly foreign players?

    Check match reports of teams promoted from league 2 to league 1 and l1 to championship and so on for last ten years. Mainly not kick and run – the turgid merchants get left behind in all leagues generally. See Brighton match reports from this season re style of football. Teams that play good stuff get promoted out of these leagues. Rotherham did it ten years ago with consecutive promotions by playing attractive football and many teams have since.

    If larger clubs had B teams (and only a handful if that would be able to afford them), who would they play exactly, if league one and two were disbanded?

    I think if you had any experience or knowledge of lower league football you would see that it’s more progressive than you imagine.

    I don’t see any salient points

  9. Ollie Irish says:

    @ Chris – Southampton are an honourable exception, no? There is still a lot of hoof in English football, and in terms of how that impacts on the national team, surely it’s a mindset that can only lead to disappointment against the very best sides.

  10. Alexander says:

    Babo, given they’re one of the most consistent foulers, it’s a matter of time

  11. Joe says:

    Article is plain nonsense

  12. Chris says:

    @ Ollie – That may be so, but why punish the entertaining sides (Saints, Brighton etc) in this hypothetical system, by culling their professional status along with the teams that do play something more like “kick and rush”? It would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Anway, deciding who plays “good” football and who doesn’t is surely a completely subjective judgement. Isn’t winning football “good” football (i.e. it achieves its purpose) no matter how a team goes about it? Clubs are independent businesses that legitimately serve their own interests. They were not set up to aid the fortunes of the national side and nor should they be forced to do so.

  13. gamblino says:

    Clueless and fucking arrogant bullshit. Watch some football. Why not just do away with the lower 82 teams altogether and form a nice little London champion’s master-premier-league that you can sky plus and watch at double speed when you return home from another night of being a 2-pint half-wit cunt pundit in Yates’s.

    As if the english game isn’t fucked enough as it is – lets do away with everything that’s made it great and bow down to the moneygivers until there’s nothing left but Sky 3D tippy tappy millionaires on a bowling green. Who cares about that shit and why give a shit about the England team anyway? How’re you gonna spend all of those saturdays in between International tournaments if there’s no football to watch? You don’t care because you don’t understand what English football is really about.

  14. Alexander says:

    Hi Gamblino,

    All I’m asking for is well trained English players and suggesting one way of doing it. 40 or so professional teams is plenty. I do understand what English football about, I just think foreigners do it better.

  15. Iden says:

    I assume you support a Premier League or Championship club? Fans of lower league sides are generally going to be opposed to this ‘rationalisation’ of English football.

    As a Southampton supporter I find the idea agreeable in principle but at this moment in time there are numerous clubs with significant fanbases in Leagues 1 and 2, while clubs like Wigan (who have no fans and would never be able to rise above semi-pro status in France or Spain) are in the top flight. Are you seriously suggesting that Southampton (26,000 in attendance for our last L1 home match and a probable 30,000 tonight against Brighton) should turn semi-pro or amateur?

    The two or three tier professional league structure is sensible in principle but in a free market-orientated culture and sporting league it seems like intervention of this kind is impossible.

    If we could start English Football again from scratch then we could impose a rational structure – but we can’t, we’re stuck with a mess that needs careful refinement.

    This being the case, making concentration of existing resources impossible, I’d prefer to see some of the Premier League (and FA) millions directed towards supporting a better distribution of UEFA qualified, quality coaches starting at the U9 and U12 age groups and up, rather than the reduction in numbers you propose. The National Football Centre at Burton should help a lot, but probably won’t be ready for the better part of a decade yet.

    Coaching is England’s fundamental problem and shrinking the League won’t solve it. Just look at the numbers. There are just under 2,300 UEFA qualified coaches in England while Spain have roughly 23,000 and Germany over 30,000. This means that by the time English footballers meet a decent coach they have spent their whole youth learning how to hoof it long rather than trap, control, pass and move. As David Ginola said recently: 20 is too old to learn technique and awareness, this can only be taught to children.

    Kudos for giving this problem some fresh thinking though.

  16. Tom Addison says:

    Good article, for further reading I really recommend:


    Ths issue isn’t purely technical, it’s tactical too. I’ve written something on this issue for http://www.trulyreds.com that should hopefully be published soon (get your arse in gear Majido!)

  17. Terry says:

    Interesting theory…. Not sure if the number of leagues causes this shit football, Spain has 2 leagues because they don’t have the same passion to support small sides. However it’s worth adding that if the bottom divisions are cut out, the talent pool deepens considerably

  18. Patrick says:

    I think you are completely wrong …. despite the lack of money going to the championship clubs, Englands and even Britains next generation of players are coming from the Championship or even below!

    Smalling, Walcott, Ashley Young, Adam Johnson, Carroll, Bale, Ramsay, Huddleston, Jagielka the list goes on…

    The problem is the top teams have to much money! They go and spend their time and resources buying foreigners at every level, I remember a few years back reading an article about United buying a 9yr old from Australia. The top Prem clubs have as many foreigners in their youth teams as Brits…this is where the problem lies.

    Have a read of my blog; The Championship, the ‘wonder kids’ shop window!


    I also don’t think you can blame the style of English football, recently we have dominated in Champions League competition, so the long ball tactics that you have described haven’t made their way to the top, so by condensing the number of teams wouldn’t make any difference. The problem here is that the England team play a different system to how the top Prem teams play…

    read Does England lack talent?

  19. Dave Mason says:

    It’s people like you that make me hate the premier league, sky, and the joke of a sport that top level football has become.

    L1 and L2 exist because in this country we have enough fans to support professional football that far down the pyramid.

    How about this? We introduce a wage cap in the PL and distribute the rights money evenly down the football league. That would give all 92 clubs enough funds to train youngsters and play what you’ve arrogantly decided is better football.

    I just can’t believe you’d advocate the destruction of community institutions that millions of people care deeply about.

    You arrogant, heartless twat.

  20. Alexander says:


    Read it through, all the way.


  21. Dave says:

    Are you a tory by any chance, you would cripple our economy mate! Think how many pies, beers, buses, flags, programmes, are used/bought…

  22. Alexander says:


    I’m not saying we get read of the teams. They could go semi-pro. Given that so many teams can’t afford to stay afloat most of the time, it might actually make sense to reduce costs. They’d still be around, with as many matches, but fewer costs. Makes sense.

    Also, I hate the English team, so I don’t give one hoot what happens.

  23. Alexander says:

    rid, not read! Gah

  24. Logic says:

    I think something has to be done to change the tide of the national team. I’m not saying that this is the answer, but you have to consider modeling a system that mirrors success in other nations while fitting into the socioeconomic parameters that already exist. Soccernomics has an interesting section on this issue. Let’s face it, the English national team and the USA national team seems to only be divided by a cup in 1966…and that’s about it at the moment.

  25. the ball is round says:

    It’s an intresting article but it seems essentially about getting England to play BETTER FOOTBALL rather then to play better at major tournaments

  26. Mr. Chopper says:

    This is great – comments and all. My favourite comment is from Gamblino who doles out such a note-perfect, bile-ridden rant with such accuracy that I was nearly driven to tears. It’s a thing of beauty.

    Knowing a few players from the lower leagues (and having a hometown team in L2) this kind of idea isn’t really that far from the actuality. It’s the haves (Prem), have-a-bits (Champ) and have-fuck-alls (L1 & L2). England are shit for a number of reasons – we have some fairly decent/excellent players, but together they don’t play well. Now, the latter problem is a mentality/management issue, not helped by the number of games and high level of play they have to play at (sometimes) 3 times a week.

    The former problem is mainly due to money – the Premier League wants to be the best league in the world. It wants the best players and the best teams, turning over the most money for the best possible product out there. It can either do this and bring in the best players for whatever money, or it can work for the country and help make the HG players the best they can be; that doesn’t mean they’re the best in the world. Either the Prem is the solution or it’s the problem.

    Knowing both sides of the story, I have to admit it’s more the fault of the Prem than not. There’s way too much money in the product that is the top league – teams usually only stay in the Prem if they spend, year on year. If you don’t have enough for this then it doesn’t matter how much you try, as your players will just get poached. The ultimate point is this – it’s not the spirit of the game. These businesses (which top clubs are) are built on working class people with shared dreams, supporting a team they’ve usually loved all their lives. You can’t look much further the G&G/FCUM saga for ammunition.

    But knowing people who play in L1 and L2, they’re talented but they couldn’t be arsed giving it 100% when it counted. One in particular was too busy living the playboy Prem dream, earning more than any of his mates (which, at 18, £300 a week is more than most), not trying in training, falling back on his skill, etc. L2 was an easy place to rest in. He learned at the age of 25 that he’d chucked it up the wall a bit and started to put the effort in, trying to teach the younger kids his mistakes. Thankfully he’s gone up to L1, but he knows that he could have done more. And now he can see so many of the other kids doing exactly the same, cos most people don’t wanna know. They just wanna live.

    So, to sum it up, this isn’t that mad; it isn’t that far from the truth. But the Prem has fucking ruined football… And they need to admit that.

  27. […] A Rational Blueprint For English Football » Who Ate all the Pies […]

  28. S-League Player says:

    Excellent article. Because it has achieved what every reformer worth his salt wants: debate.

    Culling the lower leagues might seem like possibly a good move but it just seems to be treating the symptom not the root cause.

    And the root cause is that the English football system is simply
    not producing enough young players/managers/coaches capable of making the step up to international/top class football.

    If and when they come along, they are not given the right environment/guidance/breathing space/time to develop (e.g. Jack Wilshere: 18 and already hyped-up, sexed-up, headlining the tabloids but hasn’t yet won a bean. The Emirates Cup doesn’t count.)

    Given the right support/environment, Englishmen have proven to be more successful overseas than at home: Sir Bobby Robson, Steve McClaren (say what you like about the Eredivisie but he has got a Champions medal under his belt and the respect of an entire town. More than you can say about most other English managers, yes Sam, I’m talking about you!)

    So, while I can see the rationale of this suggestion, I really don’t agree it is the BEST move forward. The best would be the FA get their act together and start to develop and nurture talent for the future. Success won’t be anytime soon but it would be worth the wait. After all, haven’t you already waited for 44 years?

  29. […] A Rational Blueprint For English Football » Who Ate all the Pies […]

  30. Iden says:

    So Alexander, if you hate the England team what problem are you trying to solve here?

    England’s solution lies in coaching. But if you’re only concerned with the style of football played in the top flight then the way to change how professional teams play is to change the beliefs of the managers. Except that won’t happen without importing even more foreign managers, simply because there aren’t enough English coaches trained to continental standards.

    It seems to me like you just want to force the kind of Tory style cost-cutting that would kill local clubs and local businesses that support them as surely as the government killed the job-market. The knock-on effect of this would be to create a ‘closed shop’ top two tiers, which probably appeals to some but would get boring very quickly for most of us.

    I suspect you’re an Arsenhole/ManUre/Chelski/Liverpuddle fan – you need to realise there’s a hell of a lot more to football than your precious, entitled little glory club.

  31. steveh says:

    It has nothing to do with how many divisions we have. It’s because we play football in winter. Every other league has a winter break or plays in a warmer climate. Hence the hoof it tactics as opposed to posession football.

  32. Jake says:

    Well that was an interesting waste of time.

    Opinions are great, but let’s get a few things straight:

    To quote “The Premiership is, admittedly, home to Wolves, Blackburn and Stoke, teams that play rampant filth and dole out serious injuries when given the chance.”

    Why not add Arsenal and Newcastle to this list of teams that “dole out serious injuries when given the chance”. Also, by rampant filth, do you mean like the 15 pass move which set up Wolves’ equaliser against Manchester City? Or the 15 pass move for the goal against Tottenham last season?

    “However, there are teams of questionable quality (the standard in the Premiership is the lowest for years) who nonetheless deserve praise for their style, like Wigan, West Brom and Blackpool.”

    Ah, yes of course, West Brom who had 2 players sent off against Blackpool; they play the beautiful game. The second sending off which was a cold, calculated two footed lunge: where was the backlash?

    Oh, hang on, didn’t Wigan have 2 players sent off at the weekend as well? Blimey, this is terrible. They are supposed to be playing the beautiful game!

    My favourite quote of the season was before the Wolves vs Newcastle match which really did start all of the problems that Wolves have had with the press. Chris Hughton came out in praise of Wolves’ honesty in the tackle and said how honest Mick McCarthy was and how this was seen in the team. So he sends a team out that moans and groans every time a player goes near them.

    Tackling should be a two way street: one player has the ball, the other is trying to take it off him. But now so many players are standing their ground and waiting for contact that inevitably they are going to get injured. Injuries are sadly part of the game, but they have been and always will be, not matter how hard you try to get rid of the “thuggish” element.

    To say the standards going through the league are dropping, is a fair statement. But do you wonder why? Because players in the lower leagues are not as well coached as teams higher in the leagues! They do not have the resources available to change this: it is a luxury afforded to the richer and also well run clubs further up the league.

    Obviously money is the prime factor in this: to get a better coach or players, you need to pay for them. But you need the money coming in to cover this. Also, you need the right infrastructure to facilitate improvement: Academy, Training ground, even Stadium, all play a huge part in attracting coaches and players to a project.

    But the main problem at International level is that we are just too damned soft and I don’t mean too soft in the tackle. We have players who don’t play alongside each other week in week out, we have players who don’t seem to have any motivation and we have players who seem to play as though they are on the pitch themselves!

    There is no respect of management from a lot of International players, so an Englishman who is respected at a high level is a must (no one, and I mean no one, springs to mind).

    The attitude of the players also has to change. Too many players now are playing as though performance doesn’t count, simply turn up and the fans will be pleased to see me here.

    But the most important thing for me is partnerships. We need a settled team that can play together and actually know how each other plays. During the France match I noticed Steven Gerrard ping the ball across the pitch to the left side: it went out of play. The only reason for this was because it wasn’t Ashley Cole on the left who would have had his foot 6ft in the air to bring the ball down.

    England players have become too comfortable with playing with the same players once or twice a month, so they play the same game whoever is on the pitch. We need players who play together at club level, not just one star player from each club; players who want to and enjoy playing together, after all, there’s not as much money available at International level as at domestic level.

    But this won’t change as the best players are split between clubs and there is no way that young English talent will come to the forefront when you need results to bring the money in. Remember, you don’t win anything with kids…

    Overall though, your opinion does nothing to address any problems at international level, it’s just designed as a rant against the usual suspects of Wolves, Blackburn and Stoke and lesser lower league teams.

  33. […] A Rational Blueprint For English Football » Who Ate all the Pies […]

  34. […] A Rational Blueprint For English Football » Who Ate all the Pies […]

  35. David Macbeth says:

    Several things wrong with this article but i will do my best to summarise:

    1)You assume that everyone below Championship plays hoofball. I’m not sure when was the last time you stepped down from your ivory tower but the standard of football in Leagues 1 and 2 is generally good and certainly far better than the third and fourth tiers of virtually every country in the world. My team Port Vale (currently top of League 2) have played some great football at times this season, case in point being Tuesday night when we put 5 past Stockport and not one of them was a header or came from a long ball.

    2)You completely devalue leagues 1 and 2 as being unncessary and all the teams in those leagues as being expendable. Lets look at some of this season’s average attendances from these clubs to determine the interest in the lower leagues:

    Southampton- 21,434
    Sheffield Wednesday- 18,444
    Charlton Athletic- 15,382
    Huddersfield Town- 13,280
    Bradford City- 10,777
    Swindon Town- 8,964
    Milton Keynes Dons- 8,320
    Notts County- 7,306
    Plymouth Argyle- 7,192
    Oxford United- 7,133
    Peterborough United- 7,018
    Brighton and Hove Albion- 6,985
    Port Vale- 6,548

    13 clubs there getting more than 6500.

    Some attendances from top flight major leagues around Europe:

    Getafe- 9,666
    Real Mallorca- 12,000
    Almeira- 12,500
    Chievo Verona- 11,300
    Catania- 12,202
    AS Monaco- 5,768
    Nice- 9,736
    Auxerre- 11,406
    Excelsior- 3,246
    VVV Venclo- 7,575
    Heracles Almelo- 8,414
    Willem II- 10,828

    And thats without considering second tier sides. As you can see there is great passion for football in this country and attedances in our 2nd and 3rd tiers in some cases are comparable with 1st and 2nd tiers in other leagues. England can support 92 league clubs because the interest is there.

    3) “Millions of people would be heartbroken. But it would mean that England would stand half a chance of getting past the quarter-finals for the first time in almost 20 years.”

    You wrongly assume there that people who support lower leagues sides care more about the national side than their club- a massive error. I couldn’t really give a crap about the England side these days and pay only a passing interest. Give me Vale away at Macclesfield over England at Wembley any day. Clubs are far important to the national side in this country, so why would we get rid of 48 clubs just to marginally increase their chances.

  36. Alex says:

    David, I hate the England team too. It was just a suggestion. I don’t give one either way.

  37. […] A Rational Blueprint For English Football » Who Ate all the Pies […]

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