For our first proper post following the big redesign, we are very pleased to welcome back John McGee. Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher is John’s blog devoted to Carlisle United and he likes nothing better than to rail against anyone who disagrees with him on Twitter under the nom de plume of @epouvantail – he’s a little smug at the moment given the club’s continued robust play-off push. Here, John steps back a little in order to ponder the likely impact of a measure that got us all excited last autumn.
You probably haven’t heard of Dean Henderson, which is a good job, as I’m about to tell you a great deal about him.
When I was asked some weeks ago to take a fresh, and perhaps more sober, look at the onset of the Elite Player Performance Programme (EPPP) as the very first piece on the newly licked version of one of my favourite football sites, I must admit to blanching. Surely it had all been said? And by so many illustrious authors?
To those of you who have forgotten, may I point you in the direction of this excellent summary at Twohundredpercent, to this winsome, but right minded polemic from the brilliant Gary Andrews at Two Footed Tackle and most pointedly to the club backed campaign from the excellent Crystal Palace fanzine Five Year Plan – more of which later.
For what it’s worth, my instincts are to side with those who see the intricacies of EPPP as a death knell for lower league football – a choking off of a desperately needed revenue stream and a step to remove the one value which is lacking at the top level but which the smaller clubs have in spades; a spirit, identity and sense of community. That the decision to replace market driven negotiations and tight controls on youngsters travel times with stair-cased, performance linked payments and free movement of players would place both of these in jeopardy is at the heart of those very strong arguments against EPPP. In this article I hope I can make you at least think again about the definitive nature of these outcomes and appreciate both that the change may not be as damning as our instincts predict but that there may even be some long-term positives for clubs down the divisions.
In all of this I will steer clear of the motivations behind the change – that these plans will precipitate a windfall of home-grown English talent in the medium to long term continues to seem utterly fanciful. That the Premier League, in their threats to withhold solidarity payments, have behaved like a cabal of silk pursed oafs is not in question – indeed it remains little short of sick making.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse
To answer the question for those who aren’t compulsive Googlers – Dean Henderson is a 15 year old goalkeeper on the books of Manchester United. Until summer of this year he’d been with his local club Carlisle who had worked to convert him from a bullocking but limited centre half to one of the top talents in his position in the UK. The smaller United’s Centre of Excellence chief Eric Kinder went so far as to say he was the best player of that age he’d seen in the position – as a man who coached Blackburn youth teams and saw the passage of Mark Gillespie to the Cumbrians’ first team squad, that’s a pretty strong statement.
Unsurprisingly the teenaged stopper quickly caught the attentions of the host of Premier League teams within shouting distance of Brunton Park – Newcastle, Blackburn, Bolton and the two Manchester clubs all showed interest in him. But it was the magnetic pull of Old Trafford which held the most allure – and what boy from the North West wouldn’t want to play for its biggest team (sorry Liverpool and City fans)?
At a recent meeting of the Carlisle United London Supporters Club, United Chief Executive John Nixon took up the tale in response to a pointed question from the floor about his decision to vote, and lead, a majority of clubs to ‘vote for Christmas’ (as a fellow blogger put it). Nixon is a member of the Football League board; I had little personal doubt that this fact meant he’d voted in favour but was disappointed by his trotting out of the same lines used by the toadying Richard Scudamore and the beleaguered Football League Chairman Greg Clarke. What debt do Carlisle United owe to the England national team?
His response to us displayed the trademark honesty which he shows in less formal situations. Whilst continuing to toe the hackneyed line, we were given a sanguine explanation of Dean Henderson’s transfer as illustration of the fact that, in his view, little would change in real terms.
Henderson, thought Nixon, had rather unsurprisingly had his head turned by the Old Trafford giants. Not only that, but so had his parents. ‘How difficult,’ mused Nixon ‘do you imagine it is to tell the Dad of a player whose lad could go to Man U, that he can only move on my terms? Let me tell you, it is soul destroying, and I had to do it half a dozen times.’
Man U offered to resettle the Hendersons in Cheshire, to send their son to an elite school and to provide him with footballing chances the likes he could never have wished for at Carlisle. Was it wrong that they wanted what seemed the best for their son? It’d take a heart of stone to suggest otherwise.
Nixon went on to muse on the difficulties of the current system beyond the emotional tug. Negotiations are easier said than done. The final consideration into Carlisle United’s palm was, he said, ‘about the same’ as the staircasing outlined by EPPP – he suggested that this was more than just coincidence before adding that ‘in situations like this it works just like a real market; the big outfit gets the deal they want and the little outfit gets what they can. So I had to decide on issues like pushing for a ‘Champions League’ clause, knowing I might lose money upfront. Under EPPP that’s all built in.’
It is a point well made, as it is worth dwelling on the fact that United could flout the current travel rules by using their well stocked coffers to move a whole family over 200 miles.
It was, said Nixon, ‘one of the most complicated negotiations I’ve ever done’ – that from a man with over 40 years of business nous in his locker is a strong statement. It wasn’t helped, he added, when first team manager Greg Abbott ‘received a letter after we’d dragged our feet a bit’. Nixon suggested our imaginations would lead us to the scribe but concluded by drawing attention to the five players who’d taken the M6 hop from Carrington to Carlisle during the 2010/11 season.
This is obviously an isolated case but perhaps serves to outline a suggestion that some degree of market pricing controls may not necessarily act against the smaller club – indeed the earn outs built into the set up could well allow for more structured and astute financial planning. Whether the amounts of consideration are large enough remains to be proved, though again the instinct is to side with those who have admitted that they offer scant recompense for the loss of a future international.
Too Much, Too Young?
The lowering of the amounts of consideration granted for youngsters at tribunal is at the crux of much of the criticism of EPPP. It is this which has caused the smarted fans of Crystal Palace, led by the editors of Five Year Plan, in a club and player backed protest against the change. Amongst those lower league clubs who will be affected it is likely that Palace, who rely heavily on home grown talent will suffer most of all. In a recent interview with FourFourTwo magazine, the club’s academy director Gary Issott spoke proudly of the 26 debuts of Palace bred players in the last eight years.
Palace clearly have a lot to lose – to fans the notion of losing a star turn like Wilfried Zaha (projected market value of £10m+) or Nathaniel Clyne for peanuts before they pull on the famous red and blue stripes is a step too far. Palace, claims Issott, continued to invest an annual budget of around £1m even in the grip of a recent administration which was, said the then chairman, Simon Jordan, the fault of the low compensation (£700k) paid by Spurs for teen sensation John Bostock. Although there is truth in Issott’s suggestion that youth development saved Palace transfer fees, there also seems to be merit in the claim that leveraging club debts or futures on the untapped potential of young players seems to be a staggeringly poor business model.
In other words, if EPPP heralds an end to the days of £2million returns for untried kids, is this necessarily a bad thing? One wonders whether discourse on the subject has been coloured by the potential pots of gold at the end of the youth development rainbows. With Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe and Oluwaseyi Ojo all recently joining Liverpool from Football League clubs at a combined fee of over £4million it is a trend which seemed likely to continue.
But all round football lurk cautionary tales about the potential paucity of this model – consider the fates of Leeds United’s celebrated ‘£5million Kids’ Michael Woods and Tom Taiwo who joined Chelsea in a fanfare deal which Ken Bates remarked on as ‘robbery’. Woods is now retired through injury and Taiwo is a regular feature on the Carlisle United bench – and disregard the views of some Carlisle fans, he’s there on merit.
With frugality the new buzz word in the Football League as clubs work towards implementing the Standard Cost Management Protocol which permits only 60% of revenue to be spent on player wages and steps taken to lower the number of matchday substitutes to five as a cost saving measure, perhaps now is the right time for similar steps to be taken around transfer fees? But why not do this right across football and why penalise only the small clubs? It remains to be seen whether EPPP remains the exception that proves the rule.
Spirit of a Community
When corresponding with a friend who thinks authoritatively and eruditely on footballing matters he took an impassioned stance on EPPP’s erosion of the vitality of local football, which, in places like Carlisle or Exeter, sits at the heart of a community. As then, I still feel that this is a weak, though noble, argument. It is their place as an institution, not their people, that define the club’s community role.
Consider, for example, the number of Cumbrians in the current Carlisle United team – one, goalkeeper Adam Collin. Consider next his route to Brunton Park. Not from the club’s own academy but from Newcastle United via Workington. Indeed, there has been no notable Cumbrian graduate from Carlisle’s academy since the twin successes of decrepit Premier League trebuchet Rory Delap and the silk slippered Matt Jansen in the late 90s. Recent successes such as Gary Madine (a Geordie) and Tom Aldred (a Lancastrian Scot) have come through as bruised windfall from higher ups, been given some TLC and sent on their way. It is this model which would likely be followed by most smaller clubs under EPPP – and it too has its merits.
So why don’t Carlisle have a slew of talented young Cumbrians champing at the bit? The case of Dean Henderson provides the answer – so many of them are already swallowed up by local behemoths in the North East and Lancashire. This is already a problem at the country’s most isolated football club. You may make a strong argument that this is a priori ‘wrong’. I’d agree with you but highlight the irrelevance of your point – plus ça change.
Indeed, it cuts both ways. This season Carlisle were forced to release promising defender Will James from a youth loan from Blackburn. The reason given was that Blackburn had to maintain registration and thus provide James with his football linked education (in the form of NVQs). A 200 mile round trip was making this unfeasible and thus a player who made the Rovers youth second XI went from ‘having a chance with us’ to quote Carlisle’s head of youth Kinder to having ‘no chance’ at Blackburn. If the removal of travel restrictions allows more James’ to develop ‘the long way’ then surely the argument against unrestricted movement of young players is weaker still?
In researching and planning this piece I’ve found a certain view calcifying in my mind – that in 5 years time we may even come to consider this episode as a storm in a teacup. By then the lunacy of the current reimbursements should have been recognised as off balance for starters.
We may also move away from the model of ‘leveraging on future potential’ and clubs may become more, not less, financially stable as a result.
But the over-arching thought is that nothing much will change. High minded, odious and one eyed the whole project may have been but the success of Football League imports like Anthony Pilikington and Danny Graham and late blooming pros like Grant Holt, Gareth McAuley and Mark Gower in this year’s Premier League suggests that the order is already beginning to shuffle. The Football League no longer merely feels like the Premier League’s nursery, but a viable market for players of all ages. EPPP, through its encouragement of more player churn at a younger age, is only likely to entrench this model further. Development will remain the Football League’s watchword, but perhaps its time to forget the emphasis on youth?