On 20th October, the Chairman of the Football League, Greg Clarke, announced that a meeting of its 72 member clubs had approved the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The FA and Premier League claim the scheme is vital to improve the way we develop young players in England, yet there are elements of it that threaten the very lifeblood of the game.
Due to be introduced at the start of next season, the EPPP will see a stratification of the current youth system into four categories. The Premier League want the best young players to be coached at category 1 clubs, but such status will be hard to acquire for many teams.
To be in Category 1 the club concerned must employ 18 full time members of staff to work with the youth teams. Additionally they must spend a minimum of £2.5 million a year on youth development and provide players with accommodation.
The benefits of more contact hours for the most talented youngsters are indisputable; however the way in which this new scheme is being accommodated is disconcerting.
The most striking aspect of the plan is that it will see the abolition of tribunal fees for players under the age of 17. The rule prohibiting clubs from signing youngsters who live over 90 minutes away is also to be axed.
Cutting these safety nets of the smaller teams does not seem necessary to improve the coaching of our youngsters. Rather, it smacks of the Premier League using the EPPP as a vehicle through which it can assert its dominance over English football more absolutely, at the expense of the Football League.
Additionally it is by no means certain that funnelling the best talent to the Premier League academies will be beneficial for development. The ease with which youngsters could be acquired in future brings its own dangers. The clubs who are part of Category 1 will be able to buy players from other clubs for a fixed fee, which at best will reach £130,000, significantly less than they would receive under the current system.
If these teams can buy young players for such a low set fee, then surely this will encourage profligate spending. It will be financially viable for the big clubs to buy several players, where under current rules they may just buy one, and it will be a risk worth taking if one out of six is successful. This rule change could easily lead to the saturation of youth teams at the top level and many players not actually receiving the individual attention that they require.
The need for first team experience will also become a problem with the new system. Even last year under the current rules, Tottenham Hotspur sent players out on loan on no less than 36 occasions during the 2010-11 season. Clearly it is not possible for such a number of young players to all make the grade at the same club and the risk is that this situation will worsen next year. We could encounter a situation where there are vast numbers of players who have no solid base at any one club and are consistently hawked out on loan around the country. Such inconsistencies rarely allow a player to shine.
Neither is it true that one has to start at the top level to make the grade. The current England squad boasts the likes of Joe Hart, Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka, Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Theo Walcott; all of whom served their time further down the football pyramid. To bunch talents such as these all together at a handful of clubs would hinder the progress of many and could well permanently damage development. As it is, there are not many clubs in the Premier League who have proved adept at giving young players a chance in the first team.
These players have proved that there is good work being done in the lower leagues but the criteria for Category 1 membership discounts this. The only factor that is taken into account when bestowing this status upon a club is money. As long as they meet the financial requirements discussed earlier the club can achieve the optimum status.
Previous history of player development is not taken into account, a factor that should surely top the list. Teams such as Crystal Palace and Watford consistently produce home grown talent but they will be given little chance to reach the top tier because of financial restrictions.
The irony is that the Hornets have in fact been trail blazers with regards to youth development and have probably given the Premier League the idea for the new scheme. Watford’s Harefield Academy sees the training of academy players integrated into the school curriculum. As they are all on site, the pupils train throughout the school day without disrupting their education. This enables them to give between 16 and 20 contact hours every week, as much as three times the amount that young players get at even the top clubs.
The new scheme will not reward such endeavour; in fact it will make it much less worthwhile. It will simply be easier for the top clubs to cherry pick players from them for a fraction of the price they pay now. The danger is that many clubs will see little point in continuing youth development schemes when it is so easy for the bigger teams to garner all the talent. In turn this brings worries about the longevity of some members of the Football League.
What is perhaps most worrying however, about the EPPP, is the way in which the Premier League has gone about introducing it. One might wonder why it was that 46 of the 72 football league members voted in favour of the scheme, but they were hardly bargaining from a position of strength.
The Premier League threatened to withdraw the £5 million worth of annual payment, spread across the football league, if the clubs did not approve the plan. Such an action would have surely seen many Centres of Excellence closed down, essentially many had little option.
This raises the question of where the FA stands on the matter. After all they are the ultimate guardians of our game in this country, yet they are happy for the Premier League to do as they please at the expense of the football league. The threat to withhold funding is the type of dictatorial behaviour that should not be tolerated by the game’s governing authority. Yet to the outside observer, the Premier League appears to be usurping the FA as the dominant power in English football.
It is true that there are those involved at football league clubs who have welcomed the scheme, the payments from the Premier League will be of great importance to many. However, the clubs that have welcomed the EPPP would seem to be those who do not have academies anyway, thus are willing to accept this golden handshake.
John Nixon, Carlisle’s Managing Director is one of those who are happy with the development plans. He cites the Spanish example and how Real Madrid and Barcelona have developed players for the national team with great success. What he doesn’t recognise though, is how uncompetitive La Liga actually is. Surely we do not want the same fate for the English game?
There are many things we can learn from the Spanish approach, but it is the high level grass roots coaching that we must copy, not the commercial and political structures. The fact that the big two in Spain negotiate their own television deals is of great significance when one regards the gap between them and the rest of La Liga.
Liverpool have recently made noises about negotiating their own deal and a couple of months back there were murmurings of several Premier League owners wanting to abolish relegation. Such measures appear to go hand in hand with the EPPP. They are indicators that the Premier League increasingly sees itself as the sole power in English football and holds no regard for the Football League.
Whilst improvements to youth coaching must be welcomed, we must be careful not to permanently damage the depth of our domestic game. After all, it is this depth that is our greatest strength.