Below is a guest piece I wrote recently for The Secret Footballer’s site.
Looking at youth development policy, it was published in the week that Richard Scudamore declared that the Premier League has just two metrics for its success: attendance and global viewing figures. In the piece, I examine the effectiveness of the Premier League’s EPPP and the FA’s B teams proposal, and then question the assumptions that what’s good for the top PL sides is good for the national side and for the rest of football generally and that, even if it isn’t, the needs of the PL outweigh the needs of lower-division football.
To me it’s pretty clear that policymaking in this area, as with so many others in football, needs a much broader definition of success…
The Premier League’s policymaking on young players springs from a damaging and delusional attitude towards competition.
The performance of the England team, the trough our Champions League clubs are wallowing in, the lack of home-grown players in the Premier League (PL). All of these problems, if problems they are, are being blamed on the way we train, develop and bring through young players. Strangely, though, the “we” here is always implicitly everyone outside the big five clubs. Despite taking the lion’s share of players, money and acclaim, the suggestion is always that the rest of the pyramid isn’t pulling its weight.
To say that policymaking in this area is disjointed is an understatement. The “Pant Gnomes” that govern English football seem to have a three-step plan that runs something like … Step 1: Gather all the talented young players together … Step 3: Win! What Step 2 might actually be is the problem.
When the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was introduced in 2011, it reformed youth football based on the assumption that a smaller number of centres of excellence was the best way to develop talent. As such, it was a plan extremely favourable to the PL, granting them more access to young players while greatly reducing the cost and risk of poaching players from other, smaller, teams. It gave clubs more time with players and strengthened links with schools, both very sensible sounding. But it also allowed the highest-rated academies, largely those in the PL, to recruit nationally from under-12 level upwards. All other academies are limited to recruitment in a 90-minute travel catchment area until under-17 level. The EPPP, then, gave mostly PL academies a five-year head start on the other teams.
Now, if you support a lower-division club and you want to watch your most talented young players, you’d best go to the next under-11s fixture because there’s a good chance that, the moment you have a useful young player, he will be snatched away – like a Lego brick in a toddlers’ tower-building contest.
Ironically, at the very moment it was pushing for greater access to young players, the PL was also closing its reserve-team league, the consensus being that it didn’t provide properly competitive fixtures. What replaced it – the under-21 professional development league – meant that, by design, the PL would produce more and better academy graduates … but would have nowhere where they could get to play with and against experienced pros.
The crisis of competitive games, then, is entirely one of the Premier League’s making.
Frustratingly, though, the obvious solution – a limit on the number of young players PL clubs can have – seems not to be desirable. At least from the PL’s perspective, that is. There’s an unmistakable sense that they are a precious commodity to be hoovered up and kept away from lower-division clubs, where amateur coaches might ruin them with too many shuttle runs and long balls.
The PL, then, will do anything, anything at all, to help players bridge the gap between youth and elite first-team football. Anything, that is, except give them a chance to play for, and be owned by, a different team.
And so the idea of allowing Premier League B teams emerged from the laboratory of a footballing think tank and escaped into the wild. The Football Association tried to make it appear sensible, a logical step in helping develop the future stars of the England team, but there was an outcry around the leagues and the proposal was dropped.
Try as campaigners might to kill it off completely, though, this zombie idea keeps coming back to life, mostly recently when the Football League discussed allowing B teams into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (JPT). Remarkably, the League approved this idea in principle, despite not having been formally asked to by the Premier League. This was the footballing equivalent of a rabbit offering to bite off its own leg if only the wolf would agree not to eat the rest of it.
But no matter how resilient an idea, the B teams proposal remains a flawed one, especially in its current form. Cup competitions, by their nature, provide only a few games and, even then, only on an unpredictable basis. This year’s JPT winners, Bristol City, played just six games. Not just that but only seven teams played four or more matches and over three-quarters of them actually played two or fewer games. Enough for a young Abou Diaby, perhaps, but hardly likely to transform most players’ level of experience.
The competition might be restructured but it’s hard to see how the number of games could be significantly increased without imposing a burden on the already clogged lower-league schedule. And even if could be, did you find yourself thinking at any point during the last World Cup finals in Brazil: “The team’s lack of experience in the JPT is painfully apparent?”
I doubt if even those proposing the idea believe it’s a credible solution to English football’s ills. More likely, it’s the thin end of a wedge; a way of establishing the B team principle before a pretext – a poor showing at Russia 2018, perhaps – is found to reintroduce the original plan of full league participation.
At the bottom of all this is a largely unspoken set of assumptions: that what’s good for the top PL sides is good for the national side and for the rest of football and that, even if it isn’t, the needs of the PL outweigh the needs of lower-division football.
But I don’t feel that way. I support the England team but my allegiance doesn’t trump my loyalty to my club. (The FA should be careful before assuming that most, or even a majority of football fans, would be happy to place the needs of the national side above the well-being of club football generally.)
Historically, too, I used to support Premier League teams in Europe. I cheered on Manchester United and Liverpool to their epic Champions League victories because I saw them as our representatives in Europe. I no longer feel that way.
Proof that what’s good for PL pipelines isn’t necessarily good for the rest of the game can be found in the report in which FA chairman Greg Dyke first flew a kite for B teams. Its recommendations section begins with a statement of principles, which name-checked the Football League, the Conference and the pyramid generally. The first principle, though, above these was: “We must do nothing to impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League overseas.”
Rather than a “principle”, of course, this is simply a statement of the constraints under which the FA labours, an admission of its own impotence. If you take it as a starting point, you are automatically committing to a programme of subordinating the rest of the pyramid to the Premier League.
Indeed, Bryan Klug, the director of Ipswich Town’s academy, which last year narrowly missed getting the coveted Category One status that would allow it to scout nationally, suggested that the criteria were being adjusted to shut out smaller clubs. “For me,” Klug said, “and this is my opinion, the judgement seems to be made on the amount of money you spend on it rather than the quality of what you do and the amount of players you’re getting through.”
For many fans of lower-division teams, the conclusion is this: the Premier League isn’t much interested in international football. And it would rather do without relegation. In fact, it would probably quite happily see every Football League club in the country shut down to maximise TV audiences for its product. It’s only remaining use for the football pyramid in England is as a farm, a breeding ground for the next generation of players.
Steve Coppell, the former Crystal Palace and Reading manager, speaking in the Daily Mail, said: “The Premier League is a handicap system, with the big clubs putting out 25 or 30 players on loan. Football should be provocative and change it. Have a squad of 25 by all means, chop and change them in January, but you don’t need 70 players.”
This echoes “The Secret Footballer” who, when advising parents about where a young player should go to develop his career, said: “If you want him to have the best chance of playing, then send him to Bristol City or Brentford.”
What we have, then, is a system that produces players who aren’t good enough to play for their own clubs yet aren’t allowed to improve by playing for anyone else. It’s a crazy situation and, above all, it’s not working. Even the top clubs know that. Their own submissions to the FA report, for example, criticised the effectiveness of loaning players, admitting that it sometimes retarded their development. What the PL isn’t prepared to admit, yet, is that more of the same – further centralisation of talent – may not necessarily be that answer or that, if it is, it may be at a price too high for the rest of football.
So the question has to be asked: why must we “not impair the European prospects of our top football clubs or reduce the attractiveness of the Premier League overseas”? How did maintaining the cash flow of the PL become a guiding principle when reforming something as fundamental as youth development? If, as I suspect, the answer is “because the Premier League is too powerful to be opposed”, then we need to look at the fitness of the FA to run our game.
It is a simple matter of fairness that no club should be allowed to have two teams in the league. To concede B teams is to convert the existing financial inequality into a permanent state. It’s to say that Chelsea – four league titles – are bigger than Huddersfield Town or Wolverhampton Wanderers – three each – not just now but bigger for ever.
For such a proposal to come from a national association is an indication of an organisation that has badly lost its way.
So, it’s time to strike a balance. Time to say that the PL, having dismantled the tribunal system, blackmailed the league into accepting EPPP and abolished its reserve league, can’t simply demand further accommodation on youth development.
Those players who they want to hoard, as if they were little more than investments in a portfolio, were children who came to football first not through the PL but by playing at break times, by practising with the local team and by turning out for their school or county.
If there are insufficient places in the squads of top teams to properly develop young players, we need to improve the quality of coaching in the rest of the game. We need to decentralise youth football, investing some of the PL’s billions not in more parachute payments but in a radical programme of upgrading the pitches and coaching at the lower levels so that players reach academies in far better shape and so the pool of players capable of being useful professionals grows.
In the meantime, we might also look to impose a “use it or lose it” rule on PL clubs as a quid pro quo for having first dibs on young talent. This would limit the number of years a player can remained signed to a team without making, say, five or more league appearances a year. The NFL has something similar with its practice squads, the group of ten developmental players that each team is allowed.
They train with the first-team squad and if, in the course of the season injury or poor form in the team creates an opening, they can be promoted instantly into the main squad, ready for action. The catch, though, is that all practice squad players are, effectively, free agents. They are paid by their team but if any other team offers them a roster spot – a place in the first-team squad – they are free to sign with them. What’s more, no player can remain on the practice squad for more than three years and nor can any player join a practice squad if he has previously played more than a third of a full season’s games in any one year.
The practice squad system, then, allows clubs to keep a pool of talent around the first team, training them to the highest standard and allowing them to step in when needed. But what it does not do is allow them to monopolise young players by hoarding and then discarding marginal or late-flowering talents. Instead, they have to put a player in the squad, accepting their mistakes, or release him to find a place at a club where he can get playing time.
It’s just one idea. Who knows, perhaps a terrible one?
The point, though, is this: however well the PL competes abroad – financially as well as on the pitch – it should never be allowed to trump considerations of how competitive and successful football is at home. The Premier League elite’s self-interested obsession with guaranteeing victory is harming youth development.
Policymaking in this area, as with so many others in football, needs a much broader definition of success.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.