Sandbags and Landgrabs: The Elite Player Performance Plan
More frequently than ever, writes Adam Bushby, something happens in football that makes the inside of my head look like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Ian Ayre’s recent comments on television revenues from abroad, for instance. Sepp Blatter speaking about transparency at Fifa. Paul Merson attempting to speak per se on Soccer Saturday. Peter Scudamore’s 39th game proposal.
With the slow soul destruction of the average football fan (those whose clubs aren’t involved in Premier League title races or the Champions League) ostensibly his aim, it is another Scudamore brainchild that threatens to divide further the already conspicuous gulf between the haves and the have nots.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), or to give it its code name, ‘Love the Premier League: Fuck everyone else’. I hope you’ll pardon my French here, but only expletives are really appropriate when considering a system (voted in under duress on October 20 by a margin of 46 to 22) that seeks to keep the power with the few to the detriment of the many ad infinitum under the pathetic, almost offensive guise of benefiting the national team.
To paraphrase, the EPPP will replace the tribunal system currently in place. In essence, a cap will be put on the amount a club can receive for a promising youngster: £3,000 for each year of a child’s development between nine and 11; rising to between £12,500 and £40,000 per year when the player is in the 12-16 age range.
Only the richest clubs will prosper from the new rules. And here’s why. Seemingly arbitrarily, a ‘category one’ academy must ensure an annual budget of £2.3m is put in place, as well as employing 18 full-time coaches in a state of the art environment. And it will be the clubs boasting category one facilities that will sift through the talent at the bottom of the pyramid, free from the geographical restraints of the old system, bolstering their home-grown quota at a fraction of the cost.
The worst sort of bullying tactics were employed by the Premier League in this sorry episode: threatening to withhold the youth development funding it provides the Football League: £5.4m of it, to be precise. A drop in the ocean by Premier League standards perhaps, but potentially a lifeline for smaller clubs. It’s hard to negate the bitter taste left in the mouth from such a cynical, strong-arm ploy when, barely audible over the din of Premier League chairmen rubbing their hands together, the Football League’s own chairman Greg Clarke hazards that: “There is always the danger under the new scheme that larger clubs will become more predatory but we hope we don’t see that.” Indeed.
Reduced compensation means less financial risk involved for top clubs, who have been given carte blanche to cast the net ever wider, with no guarantee of discovering more diamonds in the rough. And whether or not the big boys’ talent scouting is ultimately successful, smaller clubs will be left out of pocket and weaker on the pitch as their former starlets rot in Premier League reserves when they should be turning out for a Football League club. Simply, more players starting their development at fewer clubs means fewer opportunities to play. Considering this is just one of the criticisms levelled at the English system’s methods of player development, reinforcing a lack of contact with ball and pitch seems not only counter-intuitive, but completely mindless.
So what of the national team? After all, the Premier League often hides behind the smokescreen of acting for England’s benefit. Since Euro 2000, reform has perennially been just around the corner. It’s surprising the FA heads can even do their jobs at all considering the amount of roots and branches that must be cluttering up the offices.
The solution, it seems, is very much a case of looking back to the future; Lilleshall. Or more specifically, a number of Lilleshalls across the country, acting as regional centres of excellence. But this would require a degree of centralisation that is very much the domain of the Premier League, rather than the FA.
In closing Lilleshall in the late 90s in favour of several regional outposts, then FA Technical Director Wilkinson had the right idea, but his mistake was to take the power for player development away from the FA and place it solely in the hands of the clubs. Wilkinson’s aim for a few academy centres developing players turned into scores of clubs operating their own academies with no obligation to be mindful of the interests of the national team.
The problem is that the FA has ceded power to the Premier League, whose chairmen’s eyes glint with ever-growing dollar signs, presiding over clubs that specialise in self-interest. Until this overarching desire for Premier League clubs to make as much money as humanly possible in the short term is subordinated by the English game’s dire need for high-quality youngsters in the long term, the inevitable result is going to be a poor England team — with the odd high spot only arising due to home advantage (1966, 1996) or a rare confluence of good players and good fortune (1990).
Power has to be wrested from the Premier League. The beneficiaries would also be more widespread as smaller clubs would see their best players mixing with the best youngsters in the country at regional academies run by the FA. If the Premier League is unprepared to cooperate — their academy systems are patently not helping the national side any — then the FA must fight its corner and prove that the Lilleshall model from over a decade ago worked for the clubs as well as the national side.
Germany and France have rightly been held up as fine examples of focusing on home-grown talent development over the past few decades. Clairefontaine and the other 11 French regional academies were put in place with Lilleshall as their blueprint. Germany, meanwhile, requires all 36 clubs in the two Bundesliga divisions to operate centrally-regulated academies, with at least 12 players in each intake needing to be eligible to play for Germany.
English football’s best chance of progress is to follow suit and establish a national centre for elite players of all ages, fostering a philosophy of ball retention and focusing on technical skills, fed by a system of regional academies. The irony here is that for most countries, this would constitute an innovate forward step. For the English, however, it would be a recourse to the practice of more than a decade ago, for some reason deemed insufficient just as it was inspiring the rest of Europe.
The success of domestic clubs and the success of the national team do not need to be mutually exclusive. There is a system that could benefit every side from the bottom to the top, as well as providing England with a firmer bedrock of talent. But the answer does not lie with the best kids being trained with the best clubs, nicked from their local sides for a pittance – that much is clear. The FA has the resources to make regional academies a success. But it must stand up to the Premier League now or forever be in its shadow.