According to the American psychologist Gary Klein, desperation is a driver of creativity, a means to unlock insight or solutions that might otherwise have been untried or not even considered.
Right now, English football is in a precarious place, particularly lower down the leagues, where sobering financial realities have bitten and, to some powerful people, Klein’s theory has resonated. How can everyone adapt to survive in the coronavirus-scarred landscape, they have asked? Could radical opportunity arise?
Some in executive positions at Premier League clubs have seen one. It is a reprise of an idea that Greg Dyke, in his then-role as the Football Association chairman, advanced in 2014. Could top-flight clubs develop mutually beneficial partnerships with those in the lower divisions? Or could they set up B teams in, say, League Two for their under-23s?
The Guardian understands the notions were raised during a recent conference call of an influential football working group comprising representatives of a handful of clubs plus the FA, Premier League and English Football League.
It is important to say that there have been numerous calls and webinars during the pandemic and many ideas floated. The varying degrees of traction have been difficult to discern but, like the ripples from a stone in the water, this one has reached people who were not a part of the original conversation. And they are receptive to it.
Dyke’s goal had been to improve the prospects of young English players and he set out three options: strategic loan partnerships between Premier League clubs and those further down; partnerships that were more all-encompassing; and B teams, broadly along the lines of the Spanish model.
Top-flight clubs have long fretted about the playing opportunities for their academy graduates when they are aged between 18-21 and, even though Dyke’s plan failed to garner the requisite support, it did not wither on the vine. At the very least, clubs have continued to see whether they can build relationships with one and other, some involving the exchange of expertise.
Some Premier League executives now want to try again. They can see that clubs in League One and, particularly, League Two are facing oblivion but, in a life-or-death situation, they reason that the choice would surely be life – even with conditions attached. The opportunism is jarring, unpalatable. Welcome to capitalism.
It feels like one of those discussions that could merely rumble on in the background because the obstacles to any agreement would be considerable, particularly over B teams.
“The EFL has previously stated that there is no appetite whatsoever to introduce Premier League B teams into the domestic football pyramid and that position is unchanged,” an EFL spokesman said.
When the EFL allowed Premier League under-21 teams to enter the Checkatrade Trophy in 2016-17, it was a move to help the young players at those clubs to gain experience. But it would go no further. This was not a Trojan horse for the Premier League to infiltrate the EFL.
The reason why B teams have long felt like a non-starter comes down to the integrity of the competition. Ownership of multiple clubs is not allowed because of what would happen if, say, Manchester United’s B team were drawn to face United’s actual team in the FA Cup. Also, there would surely be arguments if some but not all Premier League clubs had a B team. What would happen if a top-flight club with one were relegated? Conversely, would a B team be allowed promotion into the top division?
There are wider issues, those that talk to the cherished place that a lower-league club occupies in their community, the feelings of belonging and identity. Once they partner or even align on any level with a Premier League club, the disconnects could set in. The clubs would no longer be the same.
The more extreme end of any partnerships would appear hard to achieve – in other words, a Premier League club effectively taking over an ailing one in League Two and rebranding it as theirs. But there could be a middle ground, particularly in terms of player loans.
The rules permit EFL clubs to loan a maximum of four players from any one club, two of whom can be over 23. Clubs can name five loanees in a matchday squad. But the EFL would be open to discussing an increase together with the reintroduction of short-term loans.
What would a wider club partnership look like? Those in favour say the Premier League club could send coaches in addition to players to the other; they could share resources on marketing, programme printing and catering, among other things. The lower-league partner could be granted the use of the Premier League club’s training facilities and even their stadium.
The weeks and months ahead promise to be turbulent. Invention will be necessary.