Why do Crystal Palace and Watford disagree on EPPP?
Debate over the decision of the 72 Football League clubs to vote in favour of introducing the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) rumbles on. Last night, representatives of three Championship clubs renowned for the success of their youth setups discussed EPPP as part of a special report broadcast on Sky Sports News.
Georgie Thompson posed the questions to Nick Cox (Head of Youth at Watford), Tony Carr MBE (Director of Youth Development at West Ham United) and Steve Parish (Crystal Palace chairman). It was another sign that there is no easy answer to the rights and wrongs of EPPP due to the wide variety of clubs affected by the proposals.
Both Cox and Carr opted to sit on the fence for the most part, declaring broad support for EPPP but stopping short of exalting its merits too vociferously. While Parish has been openly critical of the plan, the Palace chairman was quick to point out the positives before expertly laying out the argument against it on behalf of his club. And although the case he made was largely based on how EPPP might have a negative effect on the Eagles, there was also a wider perspective on whether this move really will benefit the English national team.
Carr can be overlooked for the simple reason that West Ham probably have more in common with Chelsea than Crystal Palace or Watford when it comes to youth development. Although clearly a luminary in the world of academy football, he offered little to the televised debate. The real interest could be found in the apparent differences between the views of Cox and Parish, specifically the depth of feeling on Parish’s part.
Arguably the most important distinction Parish raised during the programme was the undue emphasis given to the reliance of some Football League clubs on transfer fees received for young players. Palace, he said, do not produce young players solely, or even mainly, so they can sell them on to the biggest clubs in the country. They want academy products to remain with them and become integral to their first team. Under the expert stewardship of Dougie Freedman, the supporting evidence for this approach is crystal clear – just take a look at the league table.
Palace currently lie 3rd in the Championship, the team that earned a point against Reading on Saturday having included four former youth team players – Nathaniel Clyne, Sean Scannell, Jonathan Williams and Wilfried Zaha. This quartet – aged 20, 21, 18 and 18 respectively – have helped Palace to so far confound expectations outside of Selhurst Park, if not those of all Eagles fans. Clyne and Scannell have already racked up over 200 league appearances between them while Scannell also joined Williams in recently signing a long-term contract with the club. EPPP might not have harmed Palace’s chances of convincing these players to stay once their first-team involvement was cemented, but there is a real danger that many Football League clubs will struggle to retain four young players capable of league football into their late teens under the new rules.
Of course, not all clubs take the same road as Crystal Palace. But a glance up and down the country at some examples of contrasting approaches should give a further indication as to why Parish feels so strongly about EPPP. We are living in an age of acronyms, with talk of EPPP following hot on the heels of FFP – Financial Fair Play. With these mysterious new rules and regulations in the pipeline, many clubs are beginning to veer away from tradition.
Two of the main headlines yesterday, for example, related to Newcastle United’s win at Stoke City and the latest move for El-Hadji Diouf. Newcastle are currently reaping the benefits of an inventive transfer policy, bringing in the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba to replace Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll. The story of their scouting system, led by former Northampton Town manager Graham Carr, has been told extensively in light of their recent successes. Less well documented is the new Doncaster Rovers model. Agent Willie McKay is effectively using Doncaster both as an experiment and a money-making scheme, with Diouf the latest high-profile capture after the previous acquisitions of Herita Ilunga, Pascal Chimbonda and Chris Kirkland.
What has all this got to do with EPPP? At this stage, not a lot perhaps. But these are just two examples of clubs which have altered their focus dramatically with finances in mind. The fear must be that EPPP will cause many Football League clubs to rethink their youth setups. Given the scant rewards now on offer for finding the gem who would previously have made an academy worthwhile, change would be understandable. Without the carrot of a big pay-out, surely there will be a growing tendency for clubs to ditch their academies altogether and pad out their squads with players rejected by the elite at an older age. Stricter financial controls demand that every penny is well-spent, particularly in the lower leagues.
Parish also made the point that there is little firm evidence to indicate that the quality of coaching at bigger clubs is demonstrably better than that provided by the likes of Crystal Palace – or Watford. This is where Cox’s thoughts would have come in handy as part of the televised debate. Watford appeared to welcome the introduction of EPPP, saying that many of its less controversial elements have already been put in place at the club’s Harefield Academy. The subtext is that Watford will hope for their setup to be granted Category One status, reducing the danger of EPPP impinging on transfer fees they would currently receive for young talent. Cox spoke optimistically about the club’s aims, stating “we feel we’ll be unique because we know more about this model than any other club in the country”.
EPPP means different things to different clubs. Not all of the 46 that voted in favour of its introduction will have needed the “blackmail” of the Premier League’s threat to withdraw solidarity payments. Some pay little attention to their youth setups and do not rely on profit from the sale of youngsters to survive. But there must be cause for concern at the differing stances taken by Crystal Palace and Watford, two clubs which do pay attention to their academies and both aim to fill their squad with products of their respective youth teams.
In his programme notes for Palace’s game last weekend, Parish summarised his thoughts on EPPP at the end of a thought-provoking article on the subject as follows: “There’s a lot that’s good about the EPPP but there’s too much compromise in the current proposals to appease the top clubs. If the EPPP is right, and longer and better coaching will produce more elite footballers, then the top clubs should and will do it anyway. We shouldn’t have to pay for it in the lower leagues by giving/gifting them all our youngsters so they can sell them back to us when things don’t work out.”
Over at Vicarage Road, Cox is more optimistic. “The challenge for us is to keep on doing what we do”, he told Watford’s official website. “Parents who want their son to have a good education, first-class coaching sessions and to reach their full potential, will choose to stay with us at Watford. We have an environment where kids want to be and where they can enjoy themselves. They have an affinity to the club and feel part of the family, and I would suggest that many of our kids do not want to leave this Football Club. Moving forward we need to get to the point where that doesn’t change.”
Should we be worried by the contrasting reactions to EPPP from two clubs whose youth policies appear equally vibrant and rewarding? At a stage when most football supporters are still struggling to decipher how the new rules will affect their club, this seems like a comparison that needs examining in greater depth.
Sky’s report is a step in the right direction and it was interesting to hear the views of Crewe guru Dario Gradi on the matter during one pre-filmed segment, but the majority of armchair football fans were instead watching Gary Neville analysing a series of Premier League games ahead of Newcastle’s trip to Stoke on another channel at the time. It would also have been nice to hear Cox and Parish have a proper debate between themselves about EPPP rather than merely take it in turns to answer Thompson’s questions.
The questions remain. Are Watford burying their head in the sand over EPPP or are they right to remain confident that their thriving academy will benefit from the proposals? Should Crystal Palace be feeling similarly optimistic or are they right to keep banging the drum about the more worrying aspects of the new rules? One thing is for certain – the debate needs to continue as fans begin to make sense of it all. Thankfully, Steve Parish is doing an excellent job of making sure nobody takes EPPP for granted.