‘No’ to league three? a Polish perspective

No to league three

Fleetwood Town fans say ‘No to League three’

Last week controversial new English FA plans emerged regarding the creation in 2016-7 of a league three (a new fifth tier) between league two (fourth tier) and the conference (current fifth tier). This division would be made up of 10 teams from the conference and 10 Premier league ‘B’ teams. Greg Dyke’s aim is to increase the number of English premier league players from the current number 66 to 90 in 2022 – all in order to improve the performance of the English national side.

In England many have been up in arms about the proposal, with people stating that the introduction of B sides would harm the integrity of the British league structure, that very few people will come to watch the new sides and most importantly the system would not guarantee success for the English national team in the future. The argument also goes that the FA plan has been made in order not to upset the Premier League while not focusing on the real problem – the improvement of facilities and coaching at grass roots level.

In contrast supporters of the scheme suggest it would give a chance for English players to test themselves against professional players at a competitive level, allowing them to make the step up to the premier league. They state that the current Premier league u-21 league structure does not offer the standard of play that will prepare players for league football. The FA have also underlined that the Premier league B teams would not be allowed to compete higher than league one (tier three) level.

These proposals are obviously highly controversial in England.  Rightbankwarsaw decided to get a different perspective by asking several journalists from Poland, a country where B or reserve sides in the league are a fact of life, their thoughts about these sides presence within the Polish pyramid.  I talked to two people who represent different ends of the Polish league system, Radosław Nawrot, a Gazeta Wyborcza journalist who focuses on Lech Poznań, and Maciej Wąsowski, a Przegląd Sportowy journalist and CEO of Warsaw fifth tier side PKS Radość.

Radosław Nawrot, Gazeta Wyborcza, Poznań

a) What is your opinion about the presence of Ekstraklasa reserve sides in the Polish league pyramid? 

Last year Lech Poznań made a big fuss about the fact that their reserves (despite earlier information to the contrary) would have to play in such a low league. They strongly believed that making their reserves play in the III liga (4th tier) would mean the death of youth football in Poland and went against the very idea of developing young players at Lech. After a while it became clear that the III liga isn’t actually that poor a standard and that playing in a higher league would mean a larger financial investment than the club had originally thought would be necessary.

I think reserves should play in the II liga (3rd tier), in other words two tiers below the first team. Really I have nothing against them playing in the tier below the Ekstraklasa – but that depends on whether the reserves can survive at that level.

For me however the decision by the PZPN that reserves should play in the league in which they were before the old system* was liquidated is ridiculous. Before 2007 when the Młoda Ekstraklasa started Lech played in the III liga – however the III liga is actually the current II liga, because the names of the leagues changed. I think it’s absurd that they’re trying to convince us that’s not the case.

*Ekstraklasa reserve sides played in the Polish league pyramid until 2007 when a new youth league the Młoda Ekstraklasa was created

b) What advantages does the system provide for a club such as Lech? Is it better than the Młoda Ekstraklasa?
Reserves being in the pyramid is better than the Młoda Ekstraklasa because in the ME the matches never really meant anything. League matches are much better because young players take part in competitive games which have real consequences (relegation/promotion). These matches are also exciting for Lech fans who can support a second team who are fighting to achieve success.

c) Does the presence of Ekstraklasa reserve sides in the pyramid help the Polish national side?
For the moment it’s not completely clear. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely the case, as clubs are forced to focus on young players independent of what level their reserve teams play at. They have to do so due to financial issues. Polish clubs don’t have enough money to bring in good foreign players, so they have to develop their own – this should have an impact on the standard of Polish football but it’s not a given. Football isn’t a completely logical science.

d) Do you understand the worries of lower league fans in England about the proposed changes? 

I understand the conservative position of English fans. It’s true that there is no direct link between the existence of reserve sides in the league system and the improvement of the standard of football in a given country. On the contrary side-effects can arise including an increased financial divide between rich and poor clubs.

Maciej Wąsowski, Przegląd Sportowy

a) What is your opinion about the presence of Ekstraklasa/I liga reserve sides in the Polish league pyramid?

At the moment reserve sides in Poland play at different levels of the league pyramid. Some clubs have their second side in the Liga Okręgowa (6th tier) or the IV liga (5th tier). Currently the highest levels at which reserve sides play is the III liga (4th tier). The PZPN have stated that Ekstraklasa club reserves can not play any higher than the II liga (3rd tier). I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m a supporter of the Spanish system, where second sides play in the second tier of their league pyramid. The Spanish system means that youth players who can’t get into the first team don’t have to go on loan to other lower league clubs. In Poland the majority of Legia or Lech’s young stars ask to be loaned out to clubs from the I liga (2nd tier) so they can develop. Often these players find themselves at weak clubs and therefore have to deal with the tough realities of lower league existence.

Reserves should play at the highest level possible so that young players can sufficiently improve their talents in appropriate conditions – I’m talking here about good training facilities. Polish I liga sides for example often only have one pitch on which they both train and play matches.

b) How do lower league clubs see the presence of Ekstraklasa/I liga sides in the pyramid?

Clubs from the lower leagues see the chance to compete with players from the Ekstraklasa or the I liga as a positive challenge. For the players themselves it’s an opportunity to test themselves against professionals. Often small clubs possess players who could have made it but no-one gave them the chance to show what they can do. Matches with reserve sides illustrate how scouting in Poland is still at a pretty poor level as often players from small clubs are simply better than the so-called professionals. It’s a shame that no-one’s prepared to give these players a chance – basically if a player’s over 23 there’s no way he’ll make it in the game.

Matches against reserve sides are also a chance for smaller sides to show how good they are. Several times I’ve seen teams composed of 11 Ekstraklasa players getting beaten by a decent side from let’s say the IV liga.

PKS Radość (in green and white) beating I liga Dolcan Ząbki’s reserves in July 2012

In Poland it’s common that reserve sides win promotion from a given division – let’s say the Liga Okręgowa or IV liga and don’t want to play at a higher level due to the increased costs involved. These sides decide to stay in the same division. In Poland professional football starts at around the III liga (4th tier). The majority of Polish clubs from the Ekstraklasa and I liga (with the exception of maybe Legia and Lech) simply can’t afford to have two good professional sides because it would mean giving contracts to around 50 players.

c) Does the presence of Ekstraklasa reserve sides in the pyramid help the Polish national side?

I don’t think it has any effect on the national side. From the III liga and above scouting in Poland is definitely improving – something which means that the majority of decent lower league players end up at small clubs in the I or II liga instead of playing for an Ekstraklasa reserve side. To improve the national team it would be better to restrict the number of foreigners in a given side or increase the limit of players under the age of 21. In the Polish lower leagues there are some clubs at which play nine or even ten Brazilians/Nigerians. Examples of this are III liga LZS Piotrówka, A klasa (7th tier) Sarmata Warszawa.

I think that only the Spanish system, where reserves play in the second tier would have a positive effect on the national team. But this isn’t a given – talented players, if they keep up their standard, will always find their way to the national team.

d) Do you understand the worries of lower league fans in England about the proposed changes?

In my opinion they don’t have anything to worry about. For me the proposed reforms would have a positive impact on the development of players and clubs in the lower leagues. If an 18 year old player from say Northampton has a good game against Manchester United B then he might have a chance to move to a better side. Someone might say ‘That Jones isn’t any worse than Macheda, let’s give him a trial!’

On the other hand it might make it more difficult for smaller clubs to get promoted but the presence of Premier league reserve sides would hopefully act as motivational catalyst. I think reserve sides would have a positive effect on the development of local sides who’ll want to show the big clubs that they also possess talented players who can compete at a high level.

Thanks to Radosław and Maciej for talking to me, you can follow them on Twitter here and here

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