Well and Truly EPPPed Off!

Amongst all the normal Premier League hype over the past week, there have been only a few mentions of the Elite Player Performance Plan (or EPPP as it is better known). But this is something that every supporter of a Football League club really ought to know all about, since this is something that could change the whole nature of the English game, and indeed threaten the existence of a good number of Football League clubs.

For the uninitiated, EPPP is the Premier League’s plan for youth development for the future, and this scheme was voted through at a Football League meeting on Thursday, by 46 votes to 22 with one abstention. (Only 69 of the 72 Football League clubs attended the meeting, if you’re wondering why the numbers don’t add up.) By all accounts this meeting was contentious, with many of the 72 clubs opposed to the plan, but it was voted through in the end, partly because the Premier League threatened to withhold the latest instalment of the £5M they give the Football League clubs each year for youth development. It may also be significant that these proposals include an increase in this youth development money for the next four years.

There are substantial changes in this proposal, but it centres around the development of four levels of youth development academies at clubs, with different requirements and criteria at each level. At the top level, Category One academies (also known as “Super-academies) will require a full time coaching-staff of 18 and residential accommodation, and will remove the current restrictions on the “contact hours” that can be spent coaching each young player. However, the estimated cost for running such a Category One academy is a minimum of £2.5M a year, so it’s unlikely this will be within the reach of many Football League clubs. At the lower level, Category Four academies will exist more or less just to assist 16 year-olds released from other academies – the age at which academies can recruit kids varies across the levels, even though the “golden age” for youth development is aged 7 or 8 – kids not picked up by this age are unlikely to fulfil their potential.

So far so worthy, and most people won’t have too many arguments with the aims of this scheme. But there are a couple of provisions in these proposals that most impartial observers believe could be ruinous for Football League clubs, and so could damage the whole structure of the English game.

The first of these is the scrapping of the 90-minute rule. This rule currently says that an academy scholar must live within a 90 minute drive of the academy itself, and so limits the geographical area from which a single club can recruit youngsters. As this is now scrapped, the whole country is a free-for-all for the big clubs.

The most contentious part of all, though, is the scrapping of the tribunal system which has always fixed transfer fees for the movement of young players when clubs have been unable to agree a fee – such fees have typically been judged according to a player’s potential. Under the EPPP scheme, when a young player moves to another club or academy (almost inevitably a Category One academy at a Premier League club) the fee will be set according to a set scale, designed to reflect the cost that the academy has invested in the player’s development, but not taking into account in any way the potential of that player. As an example, this development cost is fixed at £3,000 a year for development between ages 9 to 11, with a range from £12,500 to £40,000 for each year’s training for kids aged 12 to 16, according to the status of the selling academy.

There are many, myself included, who believe this is a scandal that will harm so many Football League clubs, for whom the development and sale of promising players is such a vital part of their financial survival strategy. For this scheme gives Premier League clubs the ability to cheaply “hoover up” and stockpile promising kids – getting them each at a knockdown price in the region of £100,000. For many, knowing how a number of premier League clubs have behaved in the past, it’s a no-brainer to think that they’ll try and pick up as many such kids as possible at such knock-down prices – after all, if you can grab 10 promising 16 –year-olds at £100,000 each, you only need one to turn into a million pound player to have broken even. What happens to the other nine, or the football league clubs who lost them, is quite another matter, of course.

With such a glut of young talent there is also, of course, the likelihood that Premier League clubs will more frequently loan out their young players to Football League clubs to gain experience. If this happens, it is likely that the nature of the League will change as it becomes less a competition where you gain success by your own endeavours and more one where success is largely determined by how many Premier League trainees you are able to obtain.

Of course, once the vote was cast, Football League Chairman Greg Clarke came out on favour of the proposals, but even he seemed wary about this new compensation system, saying “There's always a danger under the new scheme that larger clubs will be a bit more predatory. We hope we don't see that....” Well, Greg I have to say that you trust the ethics and integrity of Premier League teams a whole lot more than I do, although I do recognise that once your member clubs had voted for this you had no choice other than to publicly support it.

Others though, have not been so diplomatic. Barry Fry, never a shrinking violet, has said “Lower-league clubs will look at how much it costs to run their academy or school of excellence and think that, if the Premier League can nick their best players for a low price, what is the point of investing in it?” And Dario Gradi, who I consider one of the most gifted and knowledgeable coaches of young players this country has ever seen, said “Basically the Football League clubs have been bullied into agreeing to what the Premier League wants. ... What they are saying is, 'If you don't do as we say, we won't give you any money'. ... I'd think big clubs have approached at least a third of our players already."

I’d imagine my feelings on this scheme are clear (I’ve almost worn out my keyboard by typing on it in such a rage) – so I was particularly upset to discover that Reading voted in favour of these proposals, even though Nicky Hammond acknowledges that the compensation package proposals are “a contentious issue.”

Yes, I appreciate that the club’s one vote wouldn’t have made much difference to the end result, but I still think maximum kudos is due to clubs like Crystal Palace, Ipswich and Wycombe who are reportedly clubs who opposed this change throughout and had the courage and principles to vote against the changes.

The Reading FC Academy Training Dome


That’s not to say that Reading don’t have the courage and principles – they believe that their academy offers something which gives them an advantage over others, including potential Category One academes under the new system. This is their track-record of developing players, and of allowing young players to break through into the first team – Gylfi Sigurdsson, Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan and Simon Church are just a few examples of this, with more undoubtedly to come in future. The club reckons, probably correctly, that this is likely to attract players and keep them in their academy, since players will want to play rather than be one of many in a Premier League academy, all competing with each other and with foreign stars to get a game. They can rightfully point to the signing and retention of England under-18 starlet Jordan Obita, who joined Reading’s academy aged 8, despite the attentions of much bigger clubs for his signature.

I don’t dispute any of the club’s arguments, but I do feel that this is all a big, big, risk. For instance, who knows whether Premier League clubs will be in the market to buy successful future academy players when they are able to cherry-pick so many other promising players at a young age. And as a Premier League club wanting to lure a player away from a smaller club’s academy now has to pay much less for the privilege of doing so, this frees up funds for less honest inducements – we’ve all heard the stories of parents acquiring new houses or cars just before a promising young player moves academies. Again, we ‘re back to just how much you trust the ethics, honesty and integrity of your average Premier League club.

But on the subject of ethics, honesty and integrity, the very way that these proposals only went through once the Premier League threatened to withhold existing payments of youth development money leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth, and you have to ask yourself why they had to resort to such strong-arm tactics to get these proposals accepted by the Football League.

Having said that, though, it is their normal modus operandi, since the changes to parachute and “solidarity” payments were reluctantly accepted by the Football League last year only after the Premier League had threatened to withdraw all such funding. All this proves is what we knew already – that the Premier League holds all the power in English football and is quite happy to use whatever economic muscle it wants to bend the Football League to its will.

So we’re stuck with this now the Football League clubs have accepted it, and the nature of football politics means, I'm afriad, that all the protests and petitions in the world won’t change it – even more so as this issue isn’t anywhere on the agenda for all but a brave minority of football journalists.

But almost certainly the changes voted by the Football League on Thursday 20th October 2011 will be far-reaching and will have a major impact on the future of Football League clubs. And a significant number of commentators believe this impact will be a negative one, and that in return for a small short-term increase in youth development funding Football League clubs have signed away their economic future.

As a postscript, one of the main justifications for these changes is that they will benefit the England team in the long term. Now, where have we heard that before? – Oh yes, that was one of the main justifications for the breakaway of clubs to form the Premier League in 1992, wasn’t it? Not only has there been no noticeable improvement in the standard of the England team, but that decision has crippled and neutered the Football League. That went well, didn’t it?

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