Academy awards

Matt Ramsay discusses the problems posed by the restructuring of youth football in England

On October 20 a vote taken by Football League clubs agreed to proposals that will change the structure of youth football in England. While the deal ensures an increase in the level of funding towards academies for the next four years, criticisms of the plans have been quick to surface.

The key result of the ballot will see the existing tribunal system scrapped, to be replaced by a set rate when a young player is snapped up by a higher level club. The fees will range depending on the selling club’s academy status. This will be set by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which was first highlighted in WSC 279. Each club will be placed into one of four categories, but in order to be classed among the top two bands they must spend amounts on their academies that would be far beyond the means of most. Being outside of these bands will reduce the tariff each club is paid.

The vote of 46 in favour and 22 against came after the Football League apparently advised its members to agree to the changes. It will have been a reluctant yes for many. A number of clubs feel that the Premier League blackmailed them into the agreement through threatening to withhold their annual youth development funding if they did not get their way.

This would have amounted to over £5 million per year, the withdrawal of which would have come as a further blow to League clubs following the announcement of their latest television deal. From next season, the BBC will no longer screen matches throughout the season, allowing Sky to pick up the rights at a cut-price £195m over three years. This is a reduction of £69m, more than a quarter of the current contract.

Without this money, it was feared that a host of clubs would be unable to run academies sustainably, leading to the closure of many. Clubs relegated from the Football League have shown how difficult it is to run their set-ups on less income. When Mansfield Town’s two-year parachute payments had run out, following their relegation to the Conference, the club simply shut down their youth team as it had become unsustainable.

Clubs at the top of the EPPP scale will be able to offer more contact hours and the best facilities to the most promising young players in the country. It will also do away with the 90 minute rule, which limits where clubs can sign their players from. This will of course benefit those players good enough to make the grade at that level and enhance their chances of a top-flight career. If the national side is packed with world-class players in ten years’ time, the Premier League can point out that the EPPP is a fantastic initiative. But that does not consider the cost to clubs in the Football League.

MK Dons midfielder Oluwaseyi Ojo made national headlines less than a week before the vote by signing for Chelsea. Despite being just 14, the England Under-16 player will go to Stamford Bridge for an initial £1.5m, potentially rising to £2m. If a repeat of that transfer takes place when the changes are implemented for the 2012-13 season, Chelsea would be required to play less than £150,000.

If a Premier League club are able to pick up players of such potential for such fees, there will be little to deter them from hoarding a great number of youngsters. Knowing that they would not be paying huge amounts, they might acquire ten such players per year, in the likelihood that only a couple would go on to be good enough for the first team. This in turn will stunt the development of players who might otherwise have gone onto establish themselves at a lower level at a younger age.

WSC covered Cambridge United director Jez George’s campaign to improve the rights of non-League clubs who gain no funding or compensation despite running full academies (WSC 290). October’s vote brings his side closer to the club’s Football League equivalents, but not through his own set-up being given enhanced benefits.

George’s counterpart at nearby Peterborough perhaps summed up the prevailing mood best when giving his reaction to the vote. Barry Fry commented: “Lower-league clubs will look at how much it costs to run their academy or school of excellence and think that, if the Premier League can nick their best players for a low price, what is the point of
investing in it?”

From WSC 298 December 2011