In light of Chelsea move – do we need better regulations?

Isaiah Brown

It was announced this morning that Chelsea have signed former Fulham keeper Mark Schwarzer on a one year Bosman deal. But while the veteran goalkeeper, who is the Premier League‘s second longest-serving No.1 behind David James, represents one end of the footballing spectrum in terms of age and experience, another Blues signing this summer symbolises the opposing end in young starlet Isaiah Brown.

The former West Brom midfielder became the second youngest player in the history of the English top flight last season, making his debut for the Baggies senior team at 16 years and 117 days old. But this summer, he’s been lured to Stamford Bridge, where he’s already took part in his first senior training session and joined the Chelsea development squad in New York for their pre-season tour.

But all is not so rosy back at the Hawthorns. A fee is yet to be agreed between the two clubs, despite the young Englishman making his way down to West London and hopping on a plane to the United States, and the Baggies are now planning to take the issue to court and settle the matter in an official tribunal, having turned down an offer from Chelsea that West Brom Sporting Director Richard Garlick described as “disappointing”, according to Sky Sports News.

The disagreement is centred around the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP for short), voted into effect in October 2011. Its proposals are based on the need to improve the situation of youth development in England, as the national game has dwindled under the imposing monetary power of the Premier League. Much of it administers marginal gains all round, in terms of coaching, facilities, better education for youth players, and the re-categorising of almost every aspect of how academies are run.

But additionally, a large chunk of the EPPP is dedicated to restructuring compensation packages between clubs for youth players who jump ship to rival academies, replacing the old model of regular tribunals to decide on appropriate fees with fixed tariffs based upon the number of years a player has been at his academy, measured against the categorisation of the academies involved in the transfer (now done on a system simply rated from one to four, with category one the highest).

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It’s a complex but rather rigid system, that leaves West Brom in this instance entitled to just £209,000 for Isaiah Brown. It’s understandable that the Football League and the FA wish to keep the issue of money away from home-grown youngsters as much as possible, but it remains remarkably unjust that the Baggies will receive such a nominal fee for a player that is not only touted as a future Chelsea star, but also a potential regular for the England national team. Do we need fairer rules for our young starlets, and are the EPPP rules having the desired effect?

West Brom’s counteracting claim to protest against the current youth transfer structure focuses on the fact that Brown joined the club three years ago, before the new compensation legislation came into effect, and therefore his transfer fee should be determined by the preceding rules. Whether or not their argument has a case is for the lawyers to decide, but regardless, there is little doubt that the Baggies are getting conned out of a promising young player, who was scheduled to sign a professional contract at the Hawthorns this summer and play a cameo role in the first team next season.

Richard Garlick and Chairman Jeremy Peace have put their heart and soul, and considerable finance to boot, into the West Brom youth set-up in recent years. The facilities have been improved year upon year, while Peace has invested £2.5million per season to bring his academy up to Category One standard, according to the EPPP laws, which in theory should have protected the club’s youngsters from being prised away. When you consider the salaries of the coaches and the cost of equipment alone, that can be directly linked to Brown’s development since he joined the Baggies in 2010, the overall bill will easily total higher than the guaranteed £209,000 compensation, or the offer from the Blues, which the tabloids are yet to accurately source a figure for.

The unjust situation may come as a surprise to many, but it has been prophesised for some time – in fact, Crystal Palace Chairman Steve Parrish vented his concerns in The Telegraph just months after the EPPP’s incarnation, citing that the new rules best serve the footballing elite, at the expense of the rank and file clubs of the Football League.

Parrish wrote in his column after his club’s FA Cup win against Manchester United in December 2011; “The long-term effects of EPPP, which will lead to top youngsters being snatched away from Football League clubs for derisory amounts of compensation, threaten to be far more damaging… The gulf between the top sides and the rest will become a chasm and the strength of English football will just be measured by whether Manchester United can give Barcelona a game in the Champions League.”

If before, Parrish’s words of warning were just a theory, that claimed the EPPP was brought into effect to serve the top clubs in England rather than the national team, they now have a case in point with Isaiah Brown.

It’s equally as concerning as the nominal compensation fees that the EPPP proposals have also done away with the ’90 minute rule’, that once forbade youth players from joining academies that were beyond an hour and half’s travelling distance from their home, and protected the rights of regionality by establishing historical catchment areas, now allowing youngsters to pick and choose from any team in the country that is willing to sign them on a scholarship.

Similarly, the logic of the EPPP clearly has its flaws. The desire to get promising youngsters to the best academies in terms of investment, quality of staff and facilities, is a valid cause, yet it doesn’t take a genius to work out where Brown is likely to receive more game time and first team experience.

Perhaps Chelsea is a particularly extreme example considering they’ve failed to bring through any considerable young talent to the senior squad, with the exclusion of Ryan Bertrand, since Roman Abramovich purchased the West Londoners ten years ago, which is no doubt due to the turbulent nature of the Russian billionaire’s administration rather than the wealth of youth facilities at the club’s disposal, but even the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, who have a much better reputation for bringing their starlets through to the first team in the right manner, won’t be able to offer Isaiah Brown a parallel level of top flight action in comparison to the Baggies, who already handed him his senior debut last season.

For all the furore surrounding the 16-year-old, there’s every chance he will slip into the background at Stamford Bridge, and struggle against the competition of young talent sourced and scouted from all four corners of the globe, whilst the chances of ascension into the first team fold remain unlikely while Abramovich continues with his method of applying pressure on his managers for short-term success.

But perhaps the footballing equivalent of elitism is the price we have to pay to improve the English game at national level – the old way clearly wasn’t working in bringing the right players through. But nonetheless, its hard to find a justification for a system that not only limits the power of smaller clubs keeping hold of their most promising players, but also does the disservice of protecting bigger teams from having to pay for the privilege. It stops the trickle-down effect that has made the Premier League so strong in terms of widespread quality throughout, and also prevents lesser teams benefiting financially from losing out on players that could go on to be the future of the club.

My alternative proposal is simple – at player level, a small percentage of their wage for the remainder of their career is given back to the academy in which they first learnt their trade, while clubs have to pay landmark amounts based on first team appearances. It accepts that youngsters should not be tossed between clubs for fees in the realms of millions of pounds, while respecting the rights of teams who have poured money and time into personal development, and have sacrificed the club’s future by letting their promising youth products leave, by providing them with adequate compensation.

Either way, the situation has to be addressed sooner rather than later, and Isaiah Brown is now living proof that the EPPP proposals are unjust to say the least – unless you’re Manchester United, City or Chelsea, who can now pick out any player they want from any academy in the country, without paying for the privilege.

Do we need a fairer system than the EPPP? 

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