Something strange happened to me this morning. I found myself at my desk applauding a national football association. And not the kind of ironic slow handclap I reserve for Greg Dyke’s boneheaded pronouncements, but genuine appreciation for a piece of terrific work.
The association was the SFA and the reason was its proposal to force top clubs to release some of their youngsters on loan to other clubs. The scheme, where players would be allotted by a US-style draft, aims to improve the quality of football throughout the league and to address the problem of an over-concentration of underplayed young players at top clubs.
This is an idea I love for many reasons.
First, it’s a genuine and radical attempt to tackle a major problem with Scottish football head-on.
Compare with England, whose youth development madness I’ve written about before – where top Premier League clubs dictate that they be allowed to monopolise the best players, regardless of the consequences for the national team – and even the most sceptical person must at least acknowledge that it’s a ballsy move.
And, once you get passed the initial culture shock of a draft, there’s something very appealing about a self-consciously showbiz solution that says: “yes, the Big Clubs will always get first dibs on the best youngsters, but in return, they can’t keep them in cold storage, wasting away at a crucial time in their development… so let’s have a raffle!”
This, then, is an idea that implicitly demands that Big Clubs recognise they are inextricably linked to the whole league and must give back to it. And, for fans of smaller clubs, it’s a chance not just to see some new talent, but to get excited about their clubs and, indeed, the whole of Scottish football again.
In the US, the draft is a three-day extravaganza that’s subject to year-round debate and blanket coverage for at least a month before the first players are picked. In fact, even before one season has finished, thoughts are turning to which players clubs will get next.
Players’ abilities and attributes are endlessly dissected. Clubs’ needs and strategies are exhaustively explored. Fans speculate for months and then gather, on the edge of their seats, to see who they’ll pick.
Now, obviously, things are going to be a bit more low-key if the Scottish version comes to fruition. But think of the possibilities for a sport that has desperately struggled for TV coverage. It creates, instantly, an important new date in the calendar, most likely in an otherwise quiet period.
Capitalising on this with media coverage should be simple and will, with luck, help produce some international attention – just as discussions of shifting the season to the summer would.
Most of all, though, I love the idea because of what it implies about the future of Scottish football. For a proposal like this to come from a national association, rather than a fan group, it shows that, in Scotland at least, football’s administrators are prepared not just to admit football’s problems but to have a good stab at solving them.
One of the things I talk about in my book is the need for administrators to be more willing to learn from other sports, to find interesting ideas, to tweak them to their game’s unique conditions and then to be bold in testing them.
I was in Scotland twice last year for football conferences and I was stuck both by the deep knowledge that many delegates had of the NFL and by their willingness to consider ideas that would be dismissed by the traditional wing of the game as madness.
Because of that, I was impresed enough by the format changes to the Scottish League Cup. This proposal goes well beyond that, however. When I talk to people about what football might learn from the NFL, they always ask about the draft. “It’s terrific as a symbol of fairness,” I say, “but it could never work here. We don’t have the college set-up or the same system of employment law.”
But that’s because I was thinking about it as a tool for signing players, not, as has been proposed, as a way of redistributing already signed youngsters on loan.
And that’s why I was clapping. It’s a great idea taken from one place and then smartly applied to local conditions.
My next thought was that, if it passes, it will be an interesting counter-example for English football. In effect, Scottish youth policy would be diametrically opposed to English. Decentralisation verses centralisation. The needs of the whole of Scottish football versus the demands of the English Premier League. If it works, it could be very awkward indeed for the English FA and the EPL.
It’s early days, of course; the Big Clubs may flex their muscles and have it voted down.
I dearly hope they don’t. But even if they do, it’s a sign that, at least in Scotland, those in charge of the game know that it’s their responsibility to try and reform football on behalf of all clubs and all fans.
What I wouldn’t give for such a moment of clarity to strike at the English FA.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.