Last week Andre Villas-Boas said that Premier League clubs should be allowed feeder sides in the Championship. The vast majority of fans feel it’s a non-starter and the Football League rejected it outright. But the idea of elite clubs wanting an increasing slice of the youth development pie is a familiar and worrying one. Football Supporters’ Federation deputy chair Jon Keen explains why…
Back in October 2011 the Elite Player Performance Programme (EPPP) was introduced despite opposition from many fans and a number of Football League clubs. Although the major controversy sparked by EPPP was the level of compensation (and how it’s calculated) when a young player moves from one side to another, other fundamental changes deserve analysis too, especially those relating to the organisation and grading of academies.
Under the previous youth development system, there were just two levels of youth development centre across all clubs, whether Premier League or Football League. These were Academies and Centres of Excellence, and the difference between them was the minimum level of facilities required at each – for instance an Academy would need an indoor covered training area.
But instead of these two levels, there will be four levels of youth development centre under EPPP. At the top will be Category One academies, the so-called “Super Academy.” It’s estimated that an EPPP Category One academy will cost £2m+ a year to run as it requires a high level of coaching and facilities. Category One academies which set-up accommodation and educational facilities or partnerships will also be exempt from the 90 minute (the restriction on the recruitment radius) rule making it easier for elite clubs to pool talent from across the country.
At the next level, Category Two academies will be roughly equivalent to academies under the old system, with Category Three academies similar to existing Centres of Excellence. Below these will be a new level, Category Four, limited only to registering young players between the ages 16–18. They will pick up released players.
All levels have greater flexibility in the time that can be spent each week coaching young players and there are also changes in player registration rules with young players permitted to sign a pre-scholarship agreement at 14. This is a crucial breakpoint which, should a youngster jump ship to another club, raises the question of compensation. And that is the biggest bone of contention among many clubs.
Under the old system the level of compensation was decided either by mutual agreement or adjudication via the Professional Football Compensation Committee (PFCC). The decision was based on the potential of the player so, for example, when Jermain Defoe moved from Charlton Athletic to West Ham United aged 16 the award was £400,000 upfront with another £1.25m based on future club/international appearances and a 15% sell-on fee.
Under EPPP the Addicks might not have secured such (relatively) favourable terms. If mutual agreement on compensation cannot be reached the PFCC adjudication will run to a set formula based on the cost of training and the level of academy where they have been trained, without taking into account potential. These figures are strikingly low:
- For each year in an academy between ages 9-11: £3,000
- For each year in a Category 3 academy between ages 12-16: £12,500
- For each year in a Category 2 academy between ages 12-16: £25,000
- For each year in a Category 1 academy between ages 12-16: £40,000
So the maximum for a 16 year old moving from a Category 2 academy to a Category 1 will be £109,000 (three years at £3,000 and four years at £25,000). There are also cumulative fees based upon the number of appearances (up to a maximum of £1.3m) if the player makes 100 Premier League appearances. Add-ons will also be incurred for a player transferred between the ages of 12-16 (20% of the next fee if the player moves before turning 24 plus 5% of all future domestic fees).
The final set of changes concerns funding. Under EPPP, the total funding provided by the Premier League for youth development will increase although it will be paid in a different way. Instead of a lump sum distributed by the Football League, the Premier League will pay a proportion of core funding for each academy, according to its level. This will range from £775,000 per year (one-third of the cost of a Category One academy) down to an £100,000 for a Category Four academy (two-thirds of the running costs). These subsidies will increase gradually over the four year life of this EPPP agreement.
Had the clubs rejected EPPP it’s been reported that the Premier League would have withheld more than £5m currently set aside for youth development and set up their own programme. EPPP was thus passed at October’s Football League although some football industry figures stuck their head above the parapet to launch stinging attacks.
“This is a brazen attempt by the Premier League’s wealthy elite to cherry-pick the best youngsters from Football League clubs so they can comply with Uefa’s new regulations over how many home-grown players should be in their first-team squads,” said Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish in the Daily Telegraph.
Peterborough United’s Barry Fry told the BBC: “What frightens me is that a lot of clubs will pull out of having a youth system altogether. 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?”
What does the FSF think?
The stated aims of the proposals are solid ones – to increase both the size of the youth talent pool and the quality within it. But we have concerns that EPPP just won’t do this. There are four core criticisms:
- Compensation. Fixed scale compensation packages for young players allows Category One academies to “Hoover up” promising youngsters safe in the knowledge that big bucks will only have to be paid out if players actually make it. This allows a level of speculation on the part of the buying club as there’s no chance an independent tribunal will compel them to pay huge compensatory packages to the selling club. Football League clubs who have previously depended on their academies to develop their teams and unearth the odd diamond might now be less inclined to do so if those players can be poached cheaply.
- A lost generation? Category Four academies will be cheap and easy to run, a very attractive proposition to League One and Two clubs. As they can only take on 16-18 year olds the expensive business of real youth development will be avoided. But that means young teenagers who might have got their chance at a lower-league side could now be lost to the game forever.
- Short-termism. EPPP has been agreed for a period of only four years, with no guarantees of funding after that period, but the development of a young player can take ten years or more. Permanent changes are being made to youth development based upon temporary funding arrangements, which can only be a real concern for the long-term.
- One rule for one. EPPP breaks a long-standing principle of equality across clubs. There are now more favourable rules in youth development for Category One academies. This will discriminate against the academies at smaller clubs.
Thankfully there are a few safeguards in place and some ways that Football League clubs can minimise the impact of EPPP.
The first of these is to offer promising young players a pre-scholarship agreement at 14. Any youngster signed to a pre-scholarship agreement at 14 is outside the new EPPP compensation system. So the “bargain basement” for promising players doesn’t happen if Football League clubs commit to players at that age. And because compensation under EPPP rules can be based upon mutual agreement there is scope for Football League clubs to create a bidding war for a much sought after player.
Clubs outside of the elite can also dangle the carrot of first-team experience. Several Championship academies have successfully beaten Premier League ones to the signature of young prospects by showing their track record of blooding youngsters. This has proven to be an attractive selling point for game-hungry teenagers.
Finally, the biggest safeguard against Category One academies stockpiling is the limit on the number of players permitted at each age group – and these limits remain unchanged under EPPP. Thirty players in each age group are allowed at 9-14 gradually decreasing to fifteen in each age group by the team players are aged 17-21. This is critical to prevent Category One academies from monopolising youth development and any change to that would be resisted at all costs.
While we have major concerns about EPPP the FSF recognises that the Football League has voted to accept the proposals – they are now irrevocably in place. But we will closely monitor the effects they have on (largely) Football League clubs. The elite clubs must be held to account for any negative results emanating from these changes.
One big “selling point” of EPPP is that it will help develop young players for the England and Welsh national teams. We remain sceptical that this will be the case as opportunities for young players will still be limited but we’d be happy to be proven wrong on that.
Youth development is more important than any one club or individual league.
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