Thanks for nothing

Matt Ramsay examines the pros and cons of the Premier League’s proposed Elite Player Performance Plan

A bid to improve the compensation rights of non-League clubs when their young players are snapped up by Football League teams was featured in WSC 279 (May 2010). The issue of fairly reimbursing smaller clubs is set to become a major topic in the coming months, if current proposals to change England’s academy system come into being.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore spoke in February of the benefit Barcelona gain from “pooling young talent nationally”, before outlining the Elite Player Performance Plan he hopes to implement in time for the 2012-13 season. If introduced, every club with an academy will be graded into one of four categories. Players at the highest category clubs will receive three times as many contact hours with coaches as they currently do between the age of nine and 21, in the hope that there will be more technically gifted English players making their way into the professional game. The plans have come about as a result of a year-long review by Premier League director of youth Ged Roddy.

While there is no doubt that there are great potential benefits to be gained from the proposals, concerns have immediately been raised lower down the English pyramid. In order to be classed among the top two bands, teams must spend amounts on their academies that would be far beyond the means of many of the most respected prospect-producing clubs in the country. If even the likes of Watford or Crewe – famous for regularly churning out players who then further their careers elsewhere – stand no chance of taking their place among the top two of the four categories, they face falling even further behind the biggest top-division sides.

Failure to be allowed to work on a level playing field with Premier League clubs will make it increasingly difficult for Football League teams (and those non-League sides such as Cambridge Utd, Wrexham and Luton, who run full academies despite no League funding) to attract and develop players of their own.

Top-rated academies will be able to sign players at the age of nine, while those in a lower band must wait until they reach the age of 12. Lower-league clubs who currently run highly respected schemes will not be able to compete with those who can offer elite facilities and coaches at an earlier stage in a player’s development. It is feared that by the time category three and four schemes start their recruitment, the best players will already have been signed up elsewhere, leaving them to choose only from what remains.

Such clubs will of course still produce a great number of players who go onto the highest level, so the reimbursement they receive for nurturing such talent is something they feel needs standardising. Clubs who lose starlets to the big guns at figures set by tribunal regularly feel hard done by over the fee, such as the highly publicised loss of John Bostock suffered by Crystal Palace to Tottenham in 2008. The Premier League has proposed a framework for such signings in future, with sell-on clauses and payments depending on first team or international appearances rather than up-front transfer fees.

Football League chairman Greg Clarke responded to the proposals by suggesting that up to 40 of his clubs would abandon their work to improve young footballers if they were not assured of being properly compensated. He commented that: “We [the Football League] want to support the plans but not in a way that puts tens of facilities out of business.” An agreement over the compensation structure may prove to be vital for the future of a number of clubs who stand to greatly lose out otherwise.

As a non-League club, Cambridge Utd are currently not entitled to any compensation for players lost to League clubs, but their director of football Jez George sees the drawbacks of the current proposals. “From our point of view, any protection is better than none, which is what we get at the moment. At the higher end it looks like they might be looking to protect the bigger clubs rather than the better ones, and it’s a shame if that’s the case.” Unless the implemented changes give clubs good reason to maintain their current work, there will be fears for the future of football clubs themselves.

From WSC 290 April 2011