The future price of failure

Failure to gain league status can have an impact on all levels of a club. One area it affects is youth development funding, which is only allocated to clubs in the Football League. Matt Ramsay questions whether this is fair and highlights a non-League director who is trying to raise awareness of the problem

Last May’s Conference play-off final between Torquay United and Cambridge United represented a clash between two sides seeking to return to League Two after periods of non-League exile. Yet there was more at stake for the winner than just promotion and a considerable increase in television income.

Torquay’s 2-0 win earned them £180,000 in funding to run their youth set-up, while Cambridge’s extended stay in the Conference means they continue to receive no funding at all. The Football League Trust makes the money available to all member clubs to allow them to run their Centres of Excellence (CoE), both at Under-16 and scholarship level, and offers the right for compensation for all members if a young player is signed by another club. Non-League clubs receive none of these benefits if they have spent two years outside the League, even if they are a side with an existing CoE in place.

There are seven Conference sides who are in this position and a group has now been formed named Protect Football’s Future (PFF), led by Cambridge United’s director of football, Jez George. For the second consecutive season, George is embarking on a marathon fund-raising walk to increase awareness of the predicament non-League sides find themselves in.

The hope is that any non-League club will become eligible to apply for the same funding as League sides providing they meet the criteria set out by the governing bodies. It is hoped that this “Walk for Change” will make serious inroads into the campaign to right the injustice that footballers as young as nine are having their futures compromised by authorities judging clubs solely on the successes (or failures) of their first team.

The CoE at the Abbey Stadium has seen current Premier League players Jack Collison and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake leave at a young age to make their names elsewhere, while Michael Morrison is currently starring in the Leicester defence hoping to make the Championship play-offs. While Morrison rose to prominence by making over 100 first-team appearances before departing aged only 20, the other two never got to the stage of signing professional terms.

It was only because the U’s were in the Football League at the time that they were due any compensation for their lost talent. When 15-year-old Jackson Ramm was recruited from their set-up to Blackburn Rovers’ youth side last season, it was only because of the integrity of the Premier League club that Cambridge received any compensation – under the current rules Blackburn were not obliged to pay anything.

This reflects the qualities of only one of the affected sides. The six other clubs in this position are Wrexham, Mansfield, York, Rushden, Luton and Oxford. Michael Owen, Matthew Upson, Danny Murphy and Jack Wilshere are among the top-level players who started out in one of these CoE’s. The clubs are currently required to fund their youth teams themselves, placing a massive strain on sides that have no television income to boost attendance or sponsorship revenue. Yet the clubs have continued to invest their time and money in developing young players at the risk of no reward for their efforts. George explains the exasperation he feels.

“We believe that the current rules regarding funding and registration of players outside the Football League is wrong. Clubs inject money but are met with a double whammy as they cannot protect the registration of their players. Football League clubs get funding and protection while there are clubs in the Conference showing equal quality and a greater financial commitment but with no protection. This is something which is easily remedied with no cost to anyone. We strongly believe that funding and protection should be judged by the quality and output of each individual youth scheme, within a clear criteria set out by the relevant authorities, and not the results of the first team.”

The “Walk for Change” begins in Wrexham on April 21 and George will be travelling to the other six clubs before arriving 410 miles later at Wembley on May 10. Here there will be a meeting between George, the other clubs and the Football Association. With a number of top-flight clubs supporting the bid and the Conference clubs working together, hopes are high that the campaign will achieve its goals of forcing change to help improve youth development in football throughout the country.

From WSC 279 May 2010