Another nail in the coffin as Premier League clubs benefit from reform

I think it’s fair to say that the football league is in a rather tempestuous place: struggling with a debt crisis of its members whilst watching the elite Premier League clubs drifting ever further away from their humbler counterparts. The introduction of the play-off system has been a positive of recent times adding extra incentive and money in the late season. However, the current reforms on offer might not be quite so beneficial.

The proposed plans to revamp the player academy system in the leagues are being received, at best, with mixed reviews. To some the plans are inconvenient, and for others they are disastrous.

The reforms state that instead of receiving compensation for academy players as decided by a tribunal, with each team offering their evaluation of the player, the clubs will now receive a set figure for every year the player has been at the club. Simon Burnton (Guardian) gives the example of Luke Garbutt, signed by Everton from Leeds in 2009 as a sixteen year old. A tribunal decided Garbutt’s price at over £600,000 but the new system would price him at just over £130,000.

The elite player performance plan, or EPPP, will therefore make it easier and cheaper for top Premiership clubs to sign academy players from those in the lower leagues. Not only will tribunals be scrapped but so will the rule saying that clubs can only sign players under the age of sixteen if they live less than ninety minutes away. The idea is that top clubs will spend more time training the youth prospects and as a result the young players, the clubs that signed them, and hopefully the English national team will benefit.

However there are numerous problems with this theory and there is the very real danger that it will only be the Premier League clubs that benefit from the change in rules.

First of all: club academies can be a great source of income for lower league clubs and whilst not all clubs will suffer, the clubs with brilliant academies will. The removal of the tribunals could be feasible, if the new proposed compensation was more generous then it would be understandable. But frankly you have to ask the question of whether such a small returns on players that take so long to nurture will be reward enough for the lower league clubs? Will they continue to invest in youth development in the same way if the rewards are not so great? Not only will they receive less money for their academy graduates but also they will also not be able to hold on to them as easily as any club in the country could poach them.

As far as the national squad is concerned I understand the reasoning that young players should be coached by the best coaches at the top clubs but the danger is that with less rewards on offer perhaps the lower clubs will stop producing talented players at all because of a lack of incentive. Where would the national team be without the constant stream of talent being produced by smaller clubs? Are we suggesting that we want to put all of our trust in the coaching systems at a few clubs when there are some excellent academies around Britain at ‘smaller’ clubs? Take Southampton for example who, in the last five years, have provided us with Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Surely this is an academy that we should be supporting not undercutting.

Furthermore, with the players costing less for the top clubs, what’s to stop them from simply taking many more academy players even if they don’t necessarily think they’re good enough? The lower club might be losing a player that the other team barely even wants. What is more is that whilst the youth players at bigger clubs might receive better coaching they will receive a less intensive form of it with so many more youth players signed.

Yes, we want all of our prospects to be coached by the best, but is this reform not simply a proposal to get around the problem that there are not enough good coaches to go around. The solution should not be to take human resources away from the ‘smaller’ clubs and effectively give them to the ‘bigger’ clubs but should instead be a huge investment in the way we train coaches in this country.

There are less than 3000 English coaches with either A, B or Pro badges from UEFA. Spain, Italy, Germany and France all have between 18,000 and 35,000 each. The EPPP will not solve this. The creation of the FA centre at Burton (to be opened mid 2012) will go some way to aiding this problem but more needs to be done, and I’m not sure that this reform is the answer. If anything it might exasperate the problem. If the top clubs do start to take on more and more, cheaper, academy graduates from other clubs they may also need to increase their coaching staff. I wonder which clubs they will be taking the extra youth coaches from?

However there are some positives to the scheme for the small clubs involved: their grants for youth development will be increased next year if they accept the proposals. However, whether the grants are increased by enough to make it worthwhile for league clubs to train players that they will lose early and for little money is yet to be seen.

Frankly the Premier league should be offering more money to clubs for youth development regardless of whether they reform the academy system or not. The fact that they are withholding this season’s grant until the proposals are passed suggests that they have too much financial clout and some feel that that the FA should step in.

There might be good intentions behind this reform but ultimately the smaller clubs are losing players, money and possibly members of their coaching teams, and for what? So the top clubs can have more talented youngsters and increase the gap between them and the clubs they pillaged both monetarily and in quality.
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