Anyone who takes even a passing interest in the Football League, let alone obsessives like us, will be aware of Thursday’s vote to approve the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). For those of you who remain unaware aware of its details, the EPPP can be summarized either, by its cheerleaders, as a blueprint for the improvement of the England national XI or, by its detractors, as an attempt by the Premier League to rig the market for youth players in its favour.
While this blogger was otherwise engaged, esteemed commentators elsewhere have explored the pros and cons of the plan itself. For the record, it is this blogger’s belief that the EPPP is potentially a catastrophic development for Football League clubs, removing both an ever more vital revenue stream and, most importantly, one of the greatest pleasures for a fan – seeing homegrown talent take the field.
Which makes Football League chairman Greg Clarke’s post-vote statements all the more infuriating. Among those fans expressing their dismay at the outcome of the vote yesterday, there was a degree of sympathy for Clarke’s position, which I was minded to share myself. Not after reading this:
`I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that this is a major step forward for English football.’
`While there are a couple of issues we were concerned about, one of which was compensation, we are strong supporters of the plan itself.
What is most confusing about this is that the man charged with defending the interests of the 72 Football League clubs is directly contradicting the views of many of his members. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish was scathing in his assessment of the compensation scheme laid out in the EPPP. And he wasn’t the only senior club figure to criticise the plan: Burnley chief executive Paul Fletcher was equally as dismissive of the Premier League’s intentions, while Barry Fry (not someone who we would naturally agree) raised the salient point about the viability of youth development schemes for League clubs once the four-year grant scheme agreed as part of the EPPP deal expires.
Even more confusingly, Clarke has in the past made the right noises. At a hearing of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee in February this year, he seemed to understand and agree with the concerns of League clubs and fans:
(In response to a question from Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders about the tribunal system for youth transfers) `I think it has become accepted that clubs under the current scheme can get fair value for their players. If a small club spends money on player development, brings in youth talent and develops that talent, the current system means that the tribunal usually gets fair value about right. The club selling will think it is not enough, the club buying thinks it is too much, so arguably it is probably about right. We have serious concerns about youth development. Should we be forced on to the FIFA model, which is designed in a completely different way, the amount smaller clubs will get could decrease markedly, which could once again seriously prejudice the finances of smaller football clubs and potentially force many of them out of youth development. Currently, only two
of our 72 clubs have no youth development facilities. Should they become less and less profitable, because many of them make a bit of money selling players to big clubs, they will not be able to afford youth development. Some of them, for example Crewe, make about £1 million a year from youth development because they have a real investment in both people and facilities. If that is undermined by the new
proposals it will change the business model for a lot of small clubs.’
(Following a question by Conservative MP Damian Collins regarding Clarke’s stance on the EPPP) `Of course. I fundamentally buy into the proposition that we need to do more to develop our youth talent, but I am a businessman. I have spent 30 years working for and running large public companies, so I try to start from where do we need to be in five years and what do we need to do to get there and examine the parameters of the problem, because I am always frightened of unintended consequences of action. If, for example, we attract all the best talent to the Premier League clubs and cut off youth development inadvertently, because I do not think the Premier League are trying to put the small clubs out of business, I just think they have not thought through the economic consequences. Some clubs are good at developing talent. Middlesbrough are good at it, Southampton, Charlton, Crewe. If the economics of that proposition goes away so they can no longer afford to do it, you are forced into a model where a few clubs will develop our top talent. I believe it is better for the game that all clubs embedded in the community develop their talent. Of course the top clubs will have an advantage, I accept that, but I would not want to see them create that advantage, then abuse it by undermining the economics of the smaller clubs, because I think that would be bad for English football.’
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the apparent volte-face, though. There seems to be a pattern emerging under Clarke’s tenure. In May 2010, changes to the system of parachute payments to clubs relegated from the Premier League were approved, despite serious concerns from League 1 and 2 clubs. The statements issued by the Football League after the vote (held, as this week, at the Bescot) struck a very familiar tone:
`Whilst many clubs expressed concerns about the proposals, their acceptance was considered the only viable way forward. The Football League will now work in good faith, with the Premier League, to ensure that the resulting contract and regulatory changes are good for both competitions and football as a whole.’
Not only were the words of the Football League PR machine similar, but the Premier League’s strategy for forcing the deal through was divide-and-conquer. Reports at the time were full of dread regarding the potential for a breakaway by Championship clubs, while the proposal was described as a `take it or leave it’ offer.
Clarke’s words of comfort following that vote, with hindsight, would seem give clubs in the lower two tiers of the League cause for grievance:
(In reference to questions asked by League 1 and 2 representatives) `They asked for more information, they wanted to know how their interests would be protected and I explained to them how we would involve them in formulating our policy with respect to youth and development and youth transfers.’
For when it came down to it, instead of leadership in the members’ interests, we got supine acquiescence to the Premier League’s agenda. That Richard Scudamore has the chutzpah to remark on Football League clubs `coming at the issue from an economic perspective’ is not surprising, but for the chairman of the Football League to parrot the egregious Premier League chief exec’s line, having previously expressed principled opposition to the very plans he now lauds, is unforgivable.
Casting my mind back slightly to the otherwise disappointing Dispatches documentary `How to Buy a Football Club’, I thought that the look on Greg Clarke’s face and the weary tone in his voice as he admitted his organization’s powerlessness in the face of the alleged dodgy dealers was revealing. If Clarke is unwilling or unable to stand up for his members, perhaps it is time for the League to find a chairman or woman who will.