The Premier League may be at an all-time high in terms of popularity, but its success belies the fact that English football is failing. More specifically, it is failing young English talent.
On the opening day of the inaugural Premier League season in 1992, 73.1 percent of the starting XIs were made of up homegrown players. This season, the figure dropped to 34.1 percent (source: The Guardian). Of the 61 players bought by Premiership clubs for a fee this summer, just 12 were English.
It is a rather trite point to make, but due to the influx of foreign talent, young English players are not getting the opportunities to shine at the highest level.
One need only look at England's dismal performance at the European U21 Championships or Roy Hodgson's extremely shallow selection pool for the full England team to see the extent of the problem.
Some steps have been made in the right direction. The Elite Player Performance Plan has been launched at a cost of £340 million, with the long-term intention of producing better homegrown players through youth development programmes. Additionally, in 2012 the Football Association opened the ultra-modern training facility St. George's Park, which shall serve as a base for England's national teams and a centre for youth development.
It's all well and good nurturing the kids and raising them through the academies of Premier League sides, but if they never get to see any game time their development is stunted.
To combat this, an FA commission has been set up to explore the possibility of putting Premier League "feeder clubs" in League One and League Two. According to The Mirror, the potential move would see lower league clubs staffed by players from Premier League clubs in order to give them competitive minutes on the pitch. Rochdale, for example, might become Manchester United's feeder team. Perhaps AFC Wimbledon would become an offshoot for Chelsea.
While this sounds like a good idea, it would be met with stiff opposition from the lower league clubs. Their identities would be ebbed away, and they would effectively be hijacked by more powerful teams. They would become Frankenstein-style experiments, with their aspirations to ever compete in the top flight severely limited.
A far better solution would be to let Premier League reserve teams play in the Football League.
Top-flight reserve teams could be entered into the football league system and allowed to rise through the ranks. They would not be allowed to play in the same division as the first team, so a ceiling could be placed at either the top of League One or the Championship.
This way, the brightest youth prospects would be getting weekly competitive football at a decent level, without a lower league club being bastardised for the purposes of serving a Premier League side as a feeder.
This system already works very well on the Continent. In Spain, Real Madrid Castilla and Barcelona B both play in the second tier. In the regional Segunda Division B (the third tier), 11 of the 80 teams are reserve teams, and Real Madrid even has a "C" squad in there.
Over in Germany, meanwhile, reserve teams are not allowed to play any higher than the 3. Liga, the tier in which you will currently find Borussia Dortmund II and VfB Stuttgart II. Numerous reserve teams are found in the regionalised fourth tiers.
Those who would worry about the Championship effectively becoming a reserve Premier League need only look to Spain and Germany, where just two top-flight sides have reserve teams at the highest possible level.
In April, Brentford's German manager Uwe Rosler spoke of the need to emulate the system in his home nation by letting reserve teams play in the domestic structure. He told The Daily Mail:
I think, in terms of youth development, the system in Germany is better than here.
Here we are having development games; there the second team are playing competitive football in the third highest league. They can't go higher than that league, and they have to reach it, but it is a good way to develop under competitive conditions. Here the development games mean nothing.
This is a radical proposition, and one that would potentially change the entire structure of the English football pyramid. Some lower league clubs may even object to being treated as opposition for Premier League test subjects. And when you look at the potential strength of some reserve teams, it would put them above Championship level—without much homegrown talent in the ranks.
However, if the FA are serious about improving the standard of the national team and the pool of homegrown talent, this is a practical and relatively unobtrusive solution.
Should Premier League reserve teams be allowed to play in the lower leagues?