Value for money a crucial factor
24 February ~ After some soul searching, Oldham Athletic will retain their existing youth set-up. This is welcome news for the majority of Latics supporters but the dilemma faced at Boundary Park echoes at many lower-league clubs, as they consider the full effects of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The question Oldham considered was, should they "scrap the youth programme or pursue a policy like the one at Crewe Alexandra" and put their long-term faith in youth development. The question was framed by falling revenues, rising costs and the impact of EPPP.
The EPPP was designed, so the Premier League explained, to take "Premier League youth development to the next level". Or, as Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parrish put it: "A brazen attempt by the Premier League's wealthy elite to cherry pick the best youngsters from the Football League clubs." Few would argue against the need to shake up youth coaching and development but the EPPP goes further. The combination of a radical overhaul of the financial compensation arrangements when young players move and exacting standards imposed on academies in a new four-tier structure has led to worries at several clubs.
Oldham raised the compensation question by contrasting the £300,000 received, under the current arrangements, from the sale of young striker Tom Eaves, with the initial payment of £12,500 they would get under EPPP. Clubs are asking whether a youth system is any longer "cost effective". Oldham spend around £437,000 each year on their youth set-up, with a little less than half coming in grants, including from the Premier League, while the club makes up the balance of the costs. In the past the equation was simple: sell one Tom Eaves each year and the set-up pays for itself.
Inevitably, it is more complicated than that. Crewe have been successful, over a number of years, both in developing players to sell on – and make money – and providing the core of its first team. Of the squad that won promotion in 2011-12, 80 per cent were home grown. However, just as often the club has had to, as Oldham director Barry Owen put it, "take hits with relegation". If clubs such as Oldham choose to put youth development at the core of their future, both owners and fans will need to adopt a level of patience not always evident in the past. And it comes at a cost. If, as Crewe hope, their academy is graded in the second tier, the expectation is that it could cost in the region of £1 million each year.
Whether or not the numbers add up depends on local circumstances. Yeovil Town had to scrap eight youth teams (Under-9s and Under-16s) and are currently running only an Under-18 team – Category 4 academies can only coach over-16s. To retain their previous arrangement would have increased the annual by cost by as much as £100,000 and involved investment in facilities they did not own. Hereford United's position is complicated by relegation from the Football League and they hope to retain their scholarship scheme for two more years. However, plans for a Category 4 academy have been abandoned and even the currently modest plans are dependent on sponsorship to meet some costs as parachute payments tail off.
Elsewhere, clubs have come to different conclusions. Aldershot have made little money from selling young players but have decided to maintain their youth set-up as part of a bid for longer-term sustainability. Clubs such as Scunthorpe United or Cheltenham Town might point to a more imaginative way forward. Scunthorpe are maintaining their existing structure but have been helped in meeting the requirements of the EPPP through their collaboration with the local St Lawrence Academy while Cheltenham have a similar arrangement with a local college.
Watford's link with Harefield Academy has long been regarded as a model for this kind of link-up. Although the club has confirmed that the Harefield link is safe, it has also announced that the additional investment required under EPPP means it will no longer be applying for Category 1 academy status. It will instead drop to the third tier. Despite attempts by the club to put a "business as usual" gloss on the decision, the concern for some fans is that it might mask a significant long-term change in direction. The effect of moving to the third level will restrict the club to coaching youngsters from 11 upwards and limit the level of competition for Watford's academy teams. Crucially, it will deny the club access to new rules that will permit clubs with the highest accreditation to recruit nationwide. It seems that the demands of the EPPP are putting even well-established youth schemes under the microscope.
Oldham's dilemma has been played out across the country. For now, Latics plan to retain a Category 3 academy and, although limiting the club to coaching 11- to 16-year-olds, it fits better with the finances and physical facilities available. The past seven years has seen the club earn around £1.4m from the sale of young players but if the long-term impact of the revised compensation arrangements is as damaging as predicted, the future of youth development beyond the elite clubs looks bleak. Brian Simpson