In Part One, we looked at the national team, and Greg Dyke’s commission which has been set up to try and improve the talent coming through. One common observation has been the fact that Dyke’s commission lacks any representation from the Premier League, who ultimately hold the balance of power in the game in this country. Love or loath the role the Premier League have in our national game, the fact is, without their buy in, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done in football in this country.
The situation with the FA and the Premier League since inception in 1992 has probably been done to death. Personally, I don’t think the whole situation has been described better than by David Conn in his excellent book, The Beautiful Game. If ever you wonder about how things came to be in modern football, and the potential problems, I suggest you give it a read. The abdication of power by the FA at the time the Premier League was set up was misjudged, however the games’s progress ever since has not improved things. Never have the FA had less say over the modern game, and the leading clubs more power. Which makes Greg Dyke’s admirable intentions all the more a lost cause unless he gets the buy in of the Premier League.
Nevertheless, it is pretty well known the vast amounts of sponsorship money that the Premier League era has brought to the game, and yet the difference between the haves and the have-nots has never been greater. The Premier League clubs will, with some justification, point out that they are providing the entertainment, so they should be allowed to spend their millions as they see fit. However the worrying lack of investment in the future of the English game in comparison to ever increasing wages of even the most average player smacks of a very short sighted strategy. Perhaps we are counting the cost of the FA’s complete surrender of power to the Premier League in the 1990s and ever since?
The Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) has been held up as one of the leading ways to improve the development of young players in the English game, with the main principle being to increase both the number and quality of home grown players gaining professional contracts and playing first team football at the highest level. Indeed there are several positive elements to the scheme, namely allowing more coaching time between the clubs and the young players, encouraging the fostering of links between academies and local schools. However, despite the FA seeming to back the scheme, there are some major flaws in the plans. Firstly, the whole idea was created by the Premier League (another example which poses the question of who really runs the game in this country), and it is pretty clear it is the Premier League clubs that benefit most from the scheme. Although the EPPP was voted in by the Football League, this was only the case after the Premier League threatened to hold back a large chunk of TV money that is passed on by the Elite to the lower divisions. This gave many smaller clubs little choice but to accept the proposals or lose the lifeline of vital income. No wonder the whole move was considered little more than blackmail.
Of course this brings up the question of why the Football League clubs would not be keen to accept the EPPP? Well the main reason is the compensation received for young players if they decide to move to a bigger club. While such a move is rarely of long term benefit to the player, the promise of much riches and the chance to work with top players can be too much to resist. Previously, the smaller club could at least demand a decent level of compensation for the time invested and the potential of lost transfer revenue later on – an example here is the move of John Bostock from Crystal Palace to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 for upto £1.25 million, a fee which was decided by a tribunal. Under the EPPP, and dependent upon the status of Palace’s own academy, they would have been due in the region of just £300,000. Further payments would be due if the player went on to make first team appearances at his new club, Bostock struggled to break into Spurs’ team and was subsequently loaned out to lower division clubs, so Palace would have received precious little extra money.
A case such as that of John Bostock would not be a worry if the original club in questions is granted the highest grade of Academy (these are categorised 1 to 4, with 1 being the highest). Again however, the grading system massively favours the bigger teams, which unsurprisingly enough are those enjoying the riches of the Premier League. A category 1 academy is expected to spend a minimum of £2.3 million per year on their academy, putting it financially way out of reach of the majority of clubs outside the top division. With the ever increasing demand for instant success from fans and club boards alike, managers are hardly likely to favour spending a large chunk of their finances on developing younger players. Bring in some experience on average wages and at least you’ll keep your heads above water. Gone are the days of innovative youth set ups or perhaps any rewards for the quality of your work. It’s all tick boxes and fulfilling criteria. As an example, (and yes I’m using them again), Watford had one of the most highly respected academies in the country, one which other clubs would come, study and take away ideas. Connected to a local school to maximise the contact and coaching hours, not only did it produce players, it also ensured those that didn’t make it went into society with qualifications. The new owners that arrived in 2012 decided they could run the same model going forward but only apply for Category 3 status, commenting that nothing with the academy would change, simply that the EPPP was just a grading system. From the outside, it looked like Watford were “downgrading” their academy, when in reality, they didn’t want to be forced to spend money that was only to ensure some boxes were ticked.
But hey, if the leading clubs with all the money create world leading academies, then surely everything is positive for the future of young English players? Well not quite, and again an example of the Premier League’s actions claiming one thing, but in the end giving enough flexibility to ensure that in reality the leading clubs can pretty much do what they want to look after themselves. Take a look again at the main principle of EPPP, and indeed, the stated vision; To produce more and better home grown players. The important thing to look at here is the definition of what a “home grown player” is. According to both the Football League rules, and the EPPP document, a home grown player is “a player who irrespective of their nationality or age has been registered with any club affiliated to the FA…for a period, continuous or not, of three seasons or 36 months prior to their 21st birthday”. So “irrespective of nationality” is effectively part of the Premier League’s plan which apparently will improve the quality of English players. A club can can bring in a youngster from abroad aged younger than 18, and after three seasons that player ticks the box of a home grown player. An excellent high profile and recent example is Adnan Januzaj at Manchester United, who will become “home grown” at the end of this season. This sort of thing will hardly encourage leading clubs to work harder with English players when they can ship in talent from abroad at a young age. And which young foreign player would be able to resist the opportunity to join a leading Premier League club given the potential riches on offer?
So should clubs be doing more to develop younger players from these shores rather than shipping in youngsters from abroad, or ignoring young players in favour of highly paid recruits bought for vast transfer fees? The use of restrictions on foreign players is one advocated by many in the game, including former England manager Glenn Hoddle, who is part of Greg Dyke’s commission, and the current u21 manager Gareth Southgate. Apart from such an idea being extremely difficult to enforce due to EU workforce legislation, it also misses several points. The influx of foreign players has undoubtedly raised the profile of the overall game in the UK and made the Premier League what it is today. If you take out a large chunk of that talent, the product becomes far less attractive, and far less valuable – the current riches enjoyed by the Premier League would surely diminish. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing in a game that’s become increasingly driven by greed, however in addition, there’s no evidence suggesting that having more foreign players has made English players any worse. England’s performances are no better or worse for the Premier League. However the biggest point of all is that a quota system or restriction on foreign players will not get to the root of the problem.
I was fortunate enough to attend a coaching seminar with the Arsenal assistant manager Steve Bould last season. Arsenal of course have a thriving youth set up, although have received criticism from some quarters for having a large number of foreign players in their Academy, and not producing as many English players through their ranks. Bould was asked as to whether Arsenal would be happy to produce an all English Academy, and he replied that he would be more than happy. When asked why this wasn’t happening now, he simply replied “the English players coming through are not good enough”. This for me is the crucial point – teams in this country would have no need to scout abroad if the best players were already on their doorstep, and the fact is they’re not. In addition, by the time the youngsters get to the clubs, it may be too late. The required level of technical and tactical knowledge may not be there and it will be a lot of work to correct any issues.
In the final part of this blog, we look at the reasons why players coming into the elite game in this country are not good enough, what is being done to improve things, and what more could we be doing as a game, and as a country to improve things at the grass roots of the English game.