In June, Premier League chairmen voted through an enhancement of club academy systems. Their Elite Player Performance Plan, detailing the new structure of the academy system in general, is meant to work alongside the FA’s Young Player Development scheme, a 25-point plan to improve the coaching of young footballers. The two together are intended to improve the quality of players available to the national team in the long run. Premier League clubs do nothing for purely altruistic reasons though. They of course will have the benefit of the use of these better-quality players if the plan comes off. With UEFA’s financial rules kicking in soon and the PL’s squad rules insisting on 8 home-grown players in each 25-man squad, top-level clubs suddenly have an urgent need to improve the quality of player their academies produce. It’s a win-win situation for everyone at the summit of the English game, though less so for lower-division clubs.
The idea behind the EPPP isn’t a new one; increase the number of hours clubs can coach children. It’s the main principle behind the much-praised La Masia youth institution run by Barcelona, where the very best child prospects are housed and receive schooling in the club’s boarding-house, the set-up allowing sufficient time to enable an intensive footballing education also to take place. Sir Alex Ferguson made comments following Manchester United’s defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final in May that for English players to match the technique of those of Barcelona they must receive a similar number of hours coaching as youngsters. Though these plans predate Ferguson’s comments, the thinking is the same. Remove the current restriction of a maximum of 90 minutes coaching per day for children under the age of 16, and the standard of footballers produced will increase. Indeed, limits imposed by the new plans will mean it’s possible for kids at English academies to receive more coaching than Messi et al did at Barcelona.
The EPPP proposes a 4-tier system, regulated independently. The top category 1 classification will allow clubs to sign players younger and give them more coaching once signed. This classification will therefore be extremely sought after, allowing clubs with it to get the most promising players into their system before clubs without can even talk to those players. Such an advantage doesn’t come cheap however. To be assessed as deserving the top classification, an academy needs to employ more and better qualified youth coaches and to possess a certain standard of facilities. It’s estimated that the financial cost of a Category 1 academy will be around £2.5m per year. That’s a lot more than clubs spend at the moment, but a lot less than buying a promising reserve teenager. To put the requirements in perspective, no club would currently qualify as Category 1, Category 2 being broadly similar to current youth set-ups with academy status. The new system also allows residential facilities to be used and scraps the requirement for players to live within a 90-minute drive of the academy’s training ground, meaning any English youngster can now be signed by any club. A top-level club serious about basing their success on their youth system has no option but to achieve category 1 status, as from now on even local talent previously unavailable to most other clubs will be fair game to all. Clubs without that status will be unable even to compete for the best talent for a number of years.
For a club like Newcastle, unable to compete any more in terms of headline signings and concentrating their strategy on searching for value in the transfer market and developing young players, it is vital to gain whatever advantage is available in these fields. No doubt the temptation is there for our hierarchy to stick with the current arrangements and accept category 2 status. The main difference to category 1 is in not being able to provide residential facilities. They would still be able to coach children from the age of four and sign them from nine years old as the top-level academies would. However, although category 2 gives access to players at the same age as category 1, it does not allow them to be coached as intensively and as maximising the potential of the very best recruits is the whole point of the scheme, settling for category 2 would seem to be something of a missed opportunity for the club.
If the club wishes to achieve a category 1 or 2 classification, those academies are required to have no fewer than 17 youth coaches. The club’s own website lists less than that, though it may be that others exist who aren’t mentioned there. The greatest change is likely to be in facilities. Residential accomodation will be required in the vicinity of the Little Benton centre, if not actually on site, along with both indoor and outdoor pitches. Those who have noted improvements to the training ground over the summer have mostly wondered if this expenditure is coming out of the supposed Andy Carroll transfer kitty. Club chiefs have always been cagey over how that money would be spent, making only vague commitments to keep the money within the club. Perhaps upgraded academy facilities are included in that.
Would anyone argue with such spending considered on its own merits? I’d say it’s vital to the club’s future, unavoidable if we’re to steal a march on similar-sized competitors. The problem likely to arise is one of PR. Trying to present it as an alternative to a major signing in the summer transfer window may well be attempted on September 1st. Despite the general good sense of the spending itself, such an explanation may not go down so well with a support desperate to see some signs of ambition in the immediate present, and it would be a shame if building for the future were viewed as a bad thing by fans because of cynical attempts to excuse a lack of current transfer spending.