Youth opportunities

Tim Springett looks at the implications of the Bosman case for clubs' youth football policies, and comes up with a novel idea

One of the more apocalyptic consequences of the Bosman judgment is the very real fear that clubs, particularly those outside of the Premiership, will cut back their youth development programmes as a consequence of no longer obtaining transfer fees for players they produce. ‘Sell to survive’ will no longer be possible. Clubs have, traditionally, relied upon transfer income to finance their youth policies; Lincoln City commented recently that the £500,000 they received from Newcastle United for Darren Huckerby will pay for heir youth scheme for four years. If the players these clubs train will simply be poached by richer rivals with no recompense available, what incentive will there be to recruit and train youngsters?

This was one of the points put to the European Court of Justice by UEFA in defence of the transfer system. The Court’s instructive response was that, whilst the prospect of receiving transfer fees was likely to encourage football clubs to seek new talent and train young players, it was not an adequate means of financing such activities, particularly in the case of smaller clubs. Only a limited number of those originally recruited went on to play professionally. Transfer fees, therefore, were unrelated to the actual costs borne by clubs of recruiting and training both future professional players and those who would never play professionally.
Furthermore, the Court said the same aims could be achieved at least as efficiently by other means which do not impede the freedom of movement for workers, although no examples were given.
One system which FA officials are reputed to be examining is that which has operated in French football for a number of years. On joining clubs from school, players are signed on contracts which expire when they reach 24, at which point they become free agents. If another club wishes to sign them before their contracts expire, compensation is payable to the developer club – still lawful as the player is under contract. The drawbacks are that the hit-and-miss nature of transfer fees as a means of financing youth development programmes is still present. Furthermore, France does not have anything like as many full-time professional clubs as England, so the system might be inadequate here. It also depends on the whether the players themselves wish to be bound by long term contracts in their formative years. Many promising youngsters in this country are transferred well before the age of 24.
The FA might find a better system by looking closer to home. Many companies in the UK rely on the recruitment of school-leavers for their Iabour requirements. Training costs are far from insignificant and the risk of poaching by employers able to pay higher salaries or offer improved working conditions is a constant threat But because of the overriding importance of ensuring a steady supply of high quality employees, companies have banded together to form Industry Training Organisations (ITO’s), funded by themselves, to achieve this.
Football could get in on the act. An ITO for football could comprise the FA, all the clubs in the Premiership, the Endsleigh League and perhaps the GM Vauxhall Conference and beyond, the PFA, the FA’s School of Excellence and any other bodies with an interest. It could work by levying a charge on all clubs, related to the ability to pay, with the richest clubs putting in the most, which would be put into a central fund. Then clubs whose youth schemes were particularly good at churning out talented players snapped up by other clubs would receive grants from the fund to reward them for their efforts. It would act as an incentive scheme, not a subsidy. This would give it the added advantage of providing a means for the game to invest in the most successful schemes. Hence these clubs would be the biggest net gainers. Clubs which did not produce their own players would be net contributors.
In this way, if the Lincoln Cities of this world produced a player through the ranks who left for a Premiership club, the compensation they received from the fund could be more closely related to the expenditure involved in finding and developing the player. Provision could be made for subsequent extra payments based on the player reaching thresholds of Premiership appearances or playing for England.
Such a scheme would achieve the triple aim of providing incentives for the continuation of youth development programmes, supporting smaller clubs and not interfering with players’ freedom of movement. Not bad, eh? Surprising that the football authorities never thought of it before.

From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month