Will the Elite Player Performance Plan make any difference to English football?

It is over a decade since Howard Wilkinson’s Charter for Quality reforms changed the youth development system in England, and it appears that the time has come for another revamp of the youth set-up in this country. The Premier League have announced the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which if fully approved could come in as early as next year, making whole-scale changes to the academy set up in this country. The aim of the plan is to revamp the youth development system in order to produce more top quality home-grown players to benefit both clubs and the national team.

The EPPP is a dramatic reform, which paves the way for clubs to match the Barcelona model of training youngsters. Current rules limit coaching hours and place travel restrictions on young players, but this plan aims to change all that. It is aiming to bring in 15-20 hours of coaching time per week for ages 9-16, up from the current target of 5 hours, which will bring it closer into line with other European countries. Coaching is currently limited to 2,000 hours between the ages of 10 and 18, but the EPPP would up that to around 10,000 hours, which will no doubt make a huge difference to the young players in England. It also aims to scrap the travel rule, which currently only allows sides to sign players based within 90 minutes travelling distance of the club. The new plan would mean that the bigger clubs could effectively take players from different areas and move them into a residential complex on site, the thought behind it being that the most promising players can only benefit from playing amongst the best.

Under the proposals, clubs youth operations will be put into one of four categories or tiers. Clubs in the highest tier will have far fewer restrictions placed upon them in terms of the amount of coaching time they can provide per week, and the age at which a child can be trained, also the travel restrictions will not apply to them. The cost of equipping a category one or two training facility means that these tiers will be out of reach for the majority of Football League clubs who have produced exceptional talent in the past. Restrictions in terms of accessing players will apply to tier three and four clubs, which could then force them to abandon their youth operations altogether, as they will not get access to players until a much later age. This could effectively mean that the best youngsters will all end up at the bigger clubs no matter where they come from, as the smaller clubs might not have the funds or resources, to be able to compete in this area.

Manchester City have already announced plans for a huge new training complex, which would place them at the forefront of youth development in this country. Fortunately for them they are in the luxury position of being able to create such a complex, but the teams that will be able to achieve anything like this are few and far between. The EPPP could rule out very good academies because of money, which is wholly unfair to smaller clubs.

The changes in the constraints on travel and the notion of compensation being restricted to smaller clubs, could also have a very negative aspect. Smaller clubs who see their youth academy as an additional revenue steam, would lose out on this valuable income, and it could render their programs ineffective. It would be terrible if small clubs had to abandon running their youth set-ups, and could effectively work the opposite way and kill youth development in this country. The changes could make the system more elitist, with finance dictating what category a clubs academy belongs to, and smaller clubs forced to close their academies due to the financial strain.

A large proportion of top quality Premier League and England stars actually came from the lower leagues and were produced by smaller clubs, so it would be a shame if these academies were eradicated. It seems that the changes-which seem to be coming from the Premier League instead of the FA-are not in the interest of the lower tier clubs, and clearly favour the bigger clubs, which poses problems. The Football League still have to ratify the plan before it gets the go ahead, but you would think that they would have to make some changes to the plan, as it does nothing to favour clubs in the lower tiers. Compensation levels need to properly weighted to ensure the smaller clubs can survive, and the restrictions in terms of access to young players need to be more lenient than they are set out to be in the plan. There must be a place for smaller clubs in the programme, as they have produced so many talented youngsters over the past few decades, they provide vital experience and more often than not can toughen up a player, before he moves onto a bigger side to progress his career.

The ideas behind revamping youth development are long overdue, but there are other changes that need to be implemented as well. The link between academies and the first team has to be stronger, as there is plenty of top quality talent at the bigger academies who don’t get a fair shot to make their senior side. If the big clubs are having first options on the nations talent, then they have to ensure that young players will be given the experience they need in order to give them the best chance of making it in the game. We don’t want even more youngsters to fall by the wayside, which seems to happen far too frequently in the modern game. At the top clubs, young players often sit and watch on as money is thrown about and foreign players are brought in, which render it impossible for them to breakthrough into the first teams.

The changes proposed-particularly regarding coaching time-are likely to overhaul youth development in this country, but other changes also need to made. The way children are selected for academies, the manner in which they are developed, and the transition between academy and first team level must be looked at, if we are to truly revamp youth football in England. The EPPP does propose some radical changes, but these are unlikely to have the desired effect on youth development unless the whole mindset and attitude around the youth system in England is changed as well.

Do you think the elite player performance plan is likely to make any difference to youth development in this country? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below, or following me on Twitter @LaurenRutter for more comment and debate.

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