Premier League postponements are a betrayal of a club’s younger players | Josh Gowling
I have been given a simple mandate by my board at Hereford for the rest of this season: regardless of Covid-19 cases or injuries we must fulfil every fixture, even if I have to take five or six players out of the youth team. We have already had several games postponed and it does not help financially, so our priority is to get matches on with whoever is available.
The contrast with recent events in the Premier League is stark. Arsenal have come under particular scrutiny for their determination to call off the north London derby and, to be clear, it is obvious nobody has done anything outside the rules. Everybody wants to protect their own interests but, when you see injuries and other absences overriding Covid as the real grounds for postponement, it seems clear the regulations are not working.
In the National League North we have to play games if we have 14 or more players available. I have registered our under-18 side for that eventuality: we do not have an under-23 squad so, if five or six are missing, I will trust the kids to put on a performance. It makes me wonder why clubs in the top flight are not required to do something similar. It could only benefit the sport, because a lack of exposure to competitive football can damage the careers of academy-raised players.
The Premier League rule is that a club must be able to field players with “appropriate experience”, broadly meaning that they have played at least one senior game at league level this season. When a team fall short of that and have to postpone a game, you have to wonder why. Many of the clubs competing around the top six have squads of more than 50 players on professional contracts, some of whom earn well into five figures each week. Dozens are sent out on loan in some cases, but you are left with large numbers who play only age-group football. The rules need to be clear: if you have a youngster on your books as a professional, they should be included among your eligible players.
As things stand, clubs are essentially saying that a sizeable chunk of the pros they employ are not good enough to play for their first teams. If that is the case, what happens at the end of their contracts? Nobody can be guaranteed a big deal somewhere else if they are released and have not played at senior level. There is an alarming drop-off between the number of players taken on to play in academy teams and the number that eventually make it. You see too many people fall out of the game quickly and it is something that needs to be addressed.
The postponements issue relates directly to this, because young players need to start somewhere. I speak to a lot of my fellow National League managers and will hear stories of players who have dropped down from Premier League academies but can barely head a football, or simply can’t handle the relentless pace at our level. It’s a completely different game to the pretty patterns woven on training pitches and that is why people need to get out and play. The rules should be encouraging clubs to dig deep into their youth resources: only about 1% of young footballers succeed at elite level and we should be doing everything to look after the remaining 99%.
When it comes to the schedule, I can certainly empathise with managers who must now contend with numerous games in hand. We did not play between 11 December and 8 January, and it was tough. It takes time to find your feet after that kind of pause, no matter how well you adapt or prepare your players. Given we will almost certainly see games called off because of the weather over the coming weeks, it might have made sense for the National League to have chosen a more regular Saturday-to-Tuesday rhythm earlier in the season to anticipate the backlog. It is hard to see where all the games will fit in at this point.
We have games in hand on a few of those around us as we look to beef up our play-off push for the second half of the season, but every manager will tell you that they would prefer to have the points in the bag. Sean Dyche is an outstanding manager and will have a right go at keeping Burnley up, but it will not be ideal that they have played four games fewer than some teams above them.
Those games become opportunities to make up ground but they also become far more pressurised, because you know exactly what the consequences are and there is nobody else to save you. When you are not winning you want the games to come around so that you can put things right, and so that you are not training without an end goal every week.
At Hereford we will keep on playing, and I am spending my January trying to juggle my resources to give us the best possible chance of success. I have just passed my two-year anniversary in the job and, for a young manager, there have been all kinds of quandaries and obstacles in that time. From top to bottom, football needs to make sure it gets the big decisions right as we look to emerge from Covid in a healthier position.