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Don’t let big clubs poach the game-hunters

The top Premier League clubs rarely develop young homegrown talent, they just stockpile it and waste it.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Why are Crystal Palace fans wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan ‘EPPPIC FAIL’? Accustomed as we are to failure, it’s not the club’s new strapline. And no, it’s not a spelling mistake either. The slogan is part of the burgeoning campaign against the Premier League’s new ‘Elite Player Performance Plan’ (EPPP).

The EPPP is designed to modernise the English youth-academy system but the plan has sharply divided opinion within the game. The Premier League voted in favour of the proposals. So, too, did 46 of the 72 Football League clubs, many of whom don’t have academies and were lured by the carrot of increased funding for youth development. However, 22 Football League clubs, notably those with successful academies such as Palace and Leeds, voted against the EPPP. As its critics see it, the plan is a cherry-picker’s charter, which makes it easier and cheaper for the big Premiership clubs to poach talent from the lower leagues.

No one would disagree that something is rotten in the state of English football. Technically and tactically our players lag behind the rest of the world. England’s wretched showing at the last World Cup has exposed the shortcomings of homegrown players. English football can certainly produce athletes but, with one or two exceptions, our players are uncomfortable when it comes to keeping possession of the ball. These days the benchmark for youth development is Spain. We’re in thrall to Barcelona. We can’t get enough of all those little chaps playing death-by-passing tika-taka. And so we’re copying their youth development methods.

The objective of the EPPP is to create a modernised four-tier academy system which, according to Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, will ‘give the most boys the best chance, the best possible development’. Category one ‘super-academies’, which will cost around £2.5million a year to run, will have to employ at least 18 full-time staff and have residential provision. The 90-minute rule, which prevents clubs from recruiting kids outside their local area, will be scrapped. Crucially, the top academies will give coaches considerably more ‘contact time’ with young players – one of the key features of the Barcelona model. Better coaching, more contact time: what’s not to like about the EPPP?

No one disagrees with the aspiration to drive up standards of youth development. The most controversial aspect of the EPPP is the scrapping of the tribunal system, which compensates clubs who lose academy players to larger clubs. Under the EPPP, tribunal fees will be replaced by fixed tariffs that, in practice, mean that the selling clubs will receive substantially smaller upfront returns on their investment. The fee is fixed at £3,000 for every year a player has been with an academy from the ages of nine to 11. The fee from 12 to 16 will range from £12,500 to £40,000 depending on the academy status.

Look, I know the tribunal system isn’t some kind of socialist utopia. The playing field is certainly far from level as it is. It’s been getting progressively more uneven since the Premier League was set up in 1992. In short, the Premiership clubs gobble up the lion’s share of TV revenues while throwing a few crumbs from the table – laughably called ‘solidarity payments’ – to the Football League clubs for youth and community development. But as TV deals have become ever more lucrative, the gulf between the top flight and the rest has widened. In this context, the tribunal system – for all its imperfections – provided smaller clubs with a degree of protection against the threat of youngsters being poached from their academies. Given the astronomical wages they pay their players – the top five Premiership clubs had wage bills in excess of £100million in 2009/10 – you’d imagine that tribunal fees are relatively small change for these clubs. But no, the elite clubs evidently resent compensation fees such as the £700,000 Spurs were forced to pay up-front for Palace academy starlet John Bostock.

I want to like the EPPP, I really do. I’ve tried to remove my red-and-blue tinted spectacles and look at the positive benefits it will bring. I’ve tried to set aside, in a dispassionate journalistic way, my instinctive mistrust of the predatory motives of the Premier League. I can see that not all lower-league youth systems are as good as those at Palace or Southampton and that better quality control is needed. And yet I still don’t like the plan. Why? Because the EPPP is based on the premise that the best young players ought to be developed at the biggest clubs.

And yet, if you look at many of the big Premier League clubs, their record of bringing through homegrown talent is pretty dismal. When did a Chelsea youth product last graduate to become a first-team regular? Of the current first team, only John Terry came through the ranks. Arsenal are often held up as an exemplar of youth development. Yet the Gooners’ academy is stuffed with youngsters creamed from French and Spanish clubs. Spurs have plenty of young British talent but players like Tom Huddlestone, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon were poached from the academies of lower-league clubs. The top clubs’ academies aren’t production lines but finishing schools for talent nurtured elsewhere.

Agents will persuade parents that their kids are better off in the academies of the top clubs. Better players, better coaches, better facilities – not to mention more money – that’s what they’re promised. The example of John Bostock is a cautionary tale. Given his debut by Palace when he was 15, Bostock was the wunderkind who’d captained England Under-17s and was attracting interest from Europe’s top clubs. Just after he’d turned 16 and before he could sign a professional contract at Palace, he was poached by Spurs. Yet now, three years later, after unsuccessful loan spells at Brentford and Hull, Bostock’s career has stalled.

Why isn’t a move to a big club’s academy necessarily a good idea? Because the one thing that Premiership clubs can’t offer is regular first-team experience. Yes, they’ll get the odd game in the Carling Cup and will be farmed out on loan. But this isn’t the same as being nurtured and carefully blooded in the first team as Wilfried Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne, Sean Scannell and Jon Williams have been at Palace. Clyne, who is only 20, has already notched up over 100 first-team appearances for Palace and played every minute of every league game last season.

I’d love to see the EPPP produce more footballers who have good technique, are comfortable on the ball and have a football brain. But I’m not holding my breath. In its current form, the EPPP will make it easier for big clubs to poach and stockpile promising youngsters, most of whom won’t get a sniff of first-team football. Let a hundred Jack Wilsheres bloom, Richard Scudamore might say. In reality, we may end up with a big scrapheap of John Bostocks.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside

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Topics Politics

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