Jez George on England C, the FA Trophy & the U's Academy
Just when you thought that you'd seen everything and the authorities could not conspire against the best interest of their member clubs any further, they sink to a new level! They have actually redefined the word "ludicrous". Not only does progression in the FA Trophy equate to a fixture pile up because the competition is played on a Saturday but now the situation is exacerbated still further by an England C fixture. Just to put our argument about the FA Trophy into context, we have now lost five Saturday league matches and if we are successful in the semi final against Grimsby that will become six. The result, with postponements due to waterlogged pitches and before any more disruption that is likely with further bad weather in February, is that should we play in the FA trophy final we will finish the season with a game on Good Friday, Easter Monday, the following Wednesday and then that Saturday. Four games in nine days. Four potentially crucial games in nine days. Four games that could decide the immediate fate and financial security of the club in nine days. Why? Firstly because of the intransigence of the FA in refusing to bring their competition in line with other similar knock out tournaments for Football League clubs which are staged midweek.
I wonder what would happen if the Football League Cup was played on a Saturday? Maybe the voices of the Premier League clubs would be heard somewhat louder than ours. Secondly, if you look carefully at the remaining fixture list for the Football Conference, you will see one huge anomaly. Despite most clubs running out of dates to play, and several including ourselves that will be forced to play twice in the same midweek on at least one occasion, one date will stand out: Tuesday 4th March. No games on that day. Not one of the 24 clubs can arrange a fixture in that week, despite several of us actually having run out of any alternative midweek dates. Why? Because the England C team has a friendly in Jordan! I know, you really couldn't make it up. The most irrelevant team in the history of football is playing the most irrelevant game in the history of football to ensure that each of the clubs that is providing THEIR players are further punished for being successful. What is England C? It is an U24 non league representative team. Why have it? It doesn't exist for Football League players. There is no representative team for players in League One or League Two. Imagine the furore if their players were taken half way round the world for a friendly at the end of winter that has accounted for many of their 46 league fixtures. Our situation is even worse. They don't have to play in a cup competition that makes seven Saturdays redundant and they don't have to fit all their games into a season that finishes earlier than any other competition. Incidentally, they also get to play their opponents once in each half of the season, unlike the random nature of our fixtures that means some teams play each other twice before November and others have yet to play each other. That word ludicrous springs to mind again!
Anyway, taking the premise for one moment that I am wrong and the England C team has huge relevance and importance for players and the development of football, one other question springs to mind. Why this date? If this match did have to be played in the middle of our season, at least go in January or February when games in this country are most likely to be postponed rather than picking a date in the spring that would be used to re-arrange the winter's postponements. The average temperature in Jordan for these two months precludes games no more than our climate.
The problem with this team and the inward thinking of those involved is that it's very existence perpetuates the myth that a divide between "professional" and "semi professional" football can be neatly drawn between the Football league and the Football Conference. It simply is not true. I hate the term "non league". It is disrespectful and ill educated. I listened to Gordan Strachan on TV saying that Kidderminster Harriers were not like your "typical non league team" in that they looked like they had "proper players" rather than players of "all shapes and sizes". Really? In this league, clubs like Luton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Lincoln, Kidderminster et al are just as professional as their counterparts one league higher. No-one speaks disparagingly of League Two clubs compared with their counterparts in League One in terms of professionalism. So why is that assumption made at this level?
Football needs re-organising but power, vested interests and politics always stand in the way of progress and what is right. The only level that anything changes is the top level because for the biggest clubs in the country, finance dictates everything. They have the most power so they get want they want. Look at EPPP. It has been sold by the Premier League and the Football Association as the panacea for youth development in English football. Another view could be that it has been created by the biggest clubs in the country to serve themselves and all the rules favour the biggest clubs as opposed to those provincial clubs who will eventually cease to justify developing young players that can now be signed by the biggest club at a pre-determined rate of compensation rather than their market value. Don't get me wrong, not everything associated with EPPP is wrong and some of the developments will be good for young players. My point is that it's inception comes from self interest and not the best interest of the game. That, in a nutshell, is football.
I also find it ironic that Football League clubs complained that a gun was put to their heads by the Premier League to accept their proposal or lose all their funding. It was. But what about the fact that when we made representation to the Football League for funding youth schemes in the Football Conference they were not interested? No matter clubs met the criteria. No matter that they knew and admitted "off the record" that some of their member clubs didn't even adhere to the minimum standards of the criteria themselves. No matter that we all used to be members of their competition. No matter that once, we were all considered to be worth funding to develop local young talent within our communities. And no matter that less than the 72 Football League clubs drew down funding, so money was available. No, the answer was simple. There is a line. Inside the Football League and you are a professional football club able to develop young professional footballers. Outside it and you are"non league", treated like every semi professional, part time and amateur club in the country. You are not in the "professional game". You are a "grass roots" club.
Time moves on but some things stand still. Unless we win this league or are successful in the play-offs that mean two "non league" clubs have the opportunity to join the ranks of "league" clubs every season, despite at least three up being the designated number of promotion places in every other "league", the status quo remains. We can enjoy the pleasures of endless rearranged fixtures if you progress in the FA Trophy, blank weeks for England C games (the name being very much a PR exercise for the "non league rep team"), 46 league fixtures to be played in less time than any other competition, no youth funding, no protection for our young players within our academy and endless patronising comments from high profile personalities within certain sections of the media.
The status quo will remain because it suits the Football League, Football Conference and the FA. What is right doesn't come into it. No-one cares.
Anyway, despite everything, look at what we are doing. I completely echo all of Richard's thoughts in his notes. The players have been magnificent so far this season and surely exceeded all of your reasonable expectations. They are professional, hard working and honest. They are a credit to their profession and deserve all of our support. And by the way, they are also talented. This level of football does not equate to utopia. It's not fantasy football. Mistakes happen. Players are human beings and if they didn't have any weaknesses, they wouldn't be playing here. But I am proud in how they have represented our club and set an example as the pinnacle of our football operation to all of our young players. I trust that you feel the same.
Talking of which, and in closing, pride would be the overriding emotion to describe my thoughts when I see and hear of our academy's exploits in this country and abroad. I have seen us play the top clubs in the Premier League (more about that in another set of notes) but to play Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund in the same day is incredible and an experience none of our U10 squad will ever forget. The fact that they came so close in both games and drew such compliments from the coaching staff of their illustrious opponents shows the level at which we can compete. Tiny Cambridge standing toe to toe with the biggest and most famous clubs in Europe. And against all the odds.
That is what can define the future of Cambridge United. Achieving against the odds. But to do that we need everyone working together. Let's gets back to that tonight.
Enjoy the game.