Academies and the EPPP: Can the Footballing Authorities Do More?
Twenty one months ago, we relaunched a redesign of our site with a post from John McGee on the Elite Player Performance Plan – still to this day one of most talked about and read articles. However, coverage of the EPPP has been greatly diminished in recent months and a degree of normality has settled in. Here, Dan Yeo reminds us of some of the implications of what remains a fundamental adjustment to the way English football is organised.
Academy football is tough. Across the country, professional youth setups are extremely difficult to get into and even harder to progress through. The national team is desperate to bring through more talented stars, but are academies doing enough to prepare their youngsters for a potential life without football?
Players like Gareth Bale, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are examples of recent high-profile graduates but, for every player that comes through the academy system and makes the grade, there are many others who fall short. As much as we must continue to push through the very best players, we must also nurture and support those not fortunate enough to progress.
In 2011, the FA, Premier League and Football League collaborated to create the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), an initiative they said would “increase the number and quality of Home Grown Players gaining professional contracts in the clubs and playing first-team football at the highest level”. They also made it one of their key focuses to “help clubs foster links with local schools in order to help young players get the best out of their football education, as well as the academic side”. It was voted in by the seventy-two league clubs (46 for, 22 against, 3 no-shows and 1 abstention) and, it must be said, initially all sounds incredibly positive.
But how does it work?
Each club’s academy is assigned a category, out of four, based on a number of factors, such as quality of facilities and amount of investment. The following requirements and restrictions define the four classifications:
Category One: £2,325,000 required annual investment, no minimum age
Category Two: £969,000 required annual investment, minimum age of 9
Category Three: £315,000 required annual investment, minimum age of 11
Category Four: No required annual investment, minimum age of 16
At present, twenty-one clubs (Arsenal, Aston Villa, Bolton, Blackburn, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Norwich, Reading, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, Tottenham, West Brom, West Ham and Wolves) have announced their Category One status, which allows them to target the best potential talent.
One of the most significant changes that the EPPP has introduced is the way in which transfer fees are calculated for out-of-contract youth players. This is something which, in the past, was determined by tribunal, although this process has now been considerably streamlined. Going forward, a standardised method of working out value will be applied and players will now be worth a set amount, based on set criteria.
Number of years at an academy:
Age 12 to 16: £40,000 per year for players registered at a Category 1 club
Age 12 to 16: £25,000 per year for players registered at a Category 2 club
Age 12 to 16: £12,500 per year for players registered at a Category 3 club
Age 9 to 11: £3,000 per year for players registered at a club
Number of first team appearances (up to 100):
Premier League: £100,000-£150,000 for every 10 appearances
Championship: £25,000 for every 10 appearances
League One: £10,000 for every 10 appearances
League Two: £5,000 for every 10 appearances
This new methodology has been met with stern criticism from a number of parties including, most vocally, West Bromwich Albion chairman Jeremy Peace, who has accused the system of pandering to the “big clubs” by allowing young players to go for nominal transfer fees. He described the EPPP as “very disappointing”, posing the question, “Why are we spending £2.5million to be another club’s academy?”
It would appear that he has a point. As a Category One club in the Premier League, a West Brom youth player with over a hundred first team appearances could have a maximum value of £1,509,000 if his contract expired and he elected to go elsewhere. This fixed, arbitrary figure completely disregards the potential such a player might have and could end up leaving medium or smaller sized clubs disillusioned with the academy system.
One example of this is Wycombe Wanderers who, last year, closed their academy and became the first of the seventy-two league clubs to dispense with a youth system. The shutting of the academy, which has previously brought through Matt Phillips and Roger Johnson of QPR and Wolves respectively, was as a direct result of the EPPP and its “financial limitations” and “increased demands” on clubs.
The consequences of more teams following suit could be extremely detrimental to youth development in England and would certainly not fulfil the aforementioned promise of the EPPP to “increase the number and quality” of youth players in the country. As Jeremy Peace also points out, the larger clubs will become inundated with young players they have acquired for token fees and subsequently delay their development, leaving them in their academy systems or simply getting rid of them, rather than giving them the chance to play football.
Those players who don’t make the grade may fall by the wayside for many reasons and these factors could well be intensified by the EPPP. Some youngsters aren’t big or strong enough for their age group; others don’t progress at an appropriate rate; some players become disillusioned or struggle to deal with the mental pressure; and finally, there are those who suffer career-ending injuries.
This is possibly the saddest and most difficult way for a youth prospect to end their playing days. It was the case with Sean Highdale, the former Liverpool U18s and England U16s player, who was involved in a car crash in 2008. His legal case was one of the most high-profile in recent years and, although he received considerable financial compensation, it certainly won’t make up for the loss of a career.
This is the issue academies and football authorities must seek to address. They need to prepare their youngsters for every eventuality and focus on educating them as people, not just footballers. According to the PFA, only around 20% of 16-year-old academy scholars will still be playing professionally at 21, so this really is of vital importance. While it’s something the EPPP claims to focus on, its methodology so far could eventually increase the number of dropouts, so we need to find other ways to cater for them.
Encouraging children to take up coaching from an early age would be really beneficial to them. That way, even if they don’t make it as players, they have a chance to stay in the game. Sports science courses are also widely available and something authorities should seek to encourage, while Sam Allardyce recently claimed that failed footballers should be put into referee academies to help improve officiating standards.
All of these are fantastic alternatives for those not lucky enough to make the cut at the highest level. Planning ahead for a career beyond playing football, either staying within the game or moving elsewhere, is absolutely imperative. The educational programs already in place at many academies are admirable, but English football must be willing to go even further in its support for academy prospects.
Not all young players will stroll into league football — perhaps the number will fall further if Jeremy Peace’s warnings about the EPPP are justified. But, if more teenagers are educated about coaching and refereeing, the English game may well end up benefitting itself as well as the individuals that don’t quite make the grade, whether the Elite Player Performance Plan works out or not.