27 April ~ When Dean Whitehead moved from Sunderland to Stoke City for £3 million in July last year, one of the main beneficiaries was Oxford United, thanks to a tribunal-enforced 25 per cent sell-on clause. Abingdon-born Whitehead had come up through the ranks at Oxford, joining the club aged nine, and playing for United from 1999 until his transfer to the Stadium of Light for £150,000 plus add-ons in 2004.
He was just one of the products of the youth system to find success at a higher level – Sam Ricketts, Craig Davies and Chris Hackett are others. However, when Oxford were relegated to the Conference in 2006 their well-established youth system was suddenly under threat, as the club lost half of their £140,000 Football League youth development scheme funding in the first year and all of it the following year. In addition, the club loses the protection of registered players after two years, meaning that players brought through the ranks can move on for no money, despite the club's investment in their future.
Oxford aren't the only side to suffer in this way – every side relegated from the Football League experiences the same fate. This means that ex-League clubs, in addition to the financial blow of relegation, also have to find a relatively large sum to keep their youth development schemes in place. These youth schemes fulfil a dual purpose. One, they keep the club grounded in the community, giving youngsters the opportunity to develop their skills with their local professional club. Two, they provide a financial lifeline as players such as Whitehead are sold on.
This is why Oxford, along with other former League clubs Cambridge United, Wrexham, Mansfield Town, Rushden & Diamonds and York City, have founded Protecting Football's Future, a campaign to protect the future of youth development. The campaign was launched on April 13 by Jez George, Cambridge's director of football, with a 410-mile walk from Wrexham to Wembley via the grounds of each club involved. The clubs believe that youth schemes should be judged on the quality of their training and the standard of the players they produce, rather than the league in which their first team play. To lose this vital funding upon relegation from League Two is damaging for the clubs relegated, for the kids involved and for the League clubs who will no longer benefit from the emerging talent that these schemes produce. Martin Brodetsky