The future's bright - the future's EPPP!

The potential for Reading's academy graduates is unlimited, thanks to Category One accreditation. - Alex Livesey

After what was for many such a disheartening and disappointing season, this week Reading announced what I consider to be the best news to come out of the club for many years. And it’s real, genuine, actual, good news – not just the usual marketing information dressed up as “news” that we see so much of these days. Because, after a period of uncertainty, the club has at long last been granted accreditation as a Category One level academy under the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Programme) scheme.

The EPPP scheme was introduced the best part of two years ago, at the behest of the Premier League, and in many ways the Football League clubs were railroaded into accepting it by the Premier League’s financial muscle. The controversy rumbles on, with many clubs and many influential coaches criticising the scheme and the way it was introduced, and predicting that it would irretrievably damage youth development. I wrote about this at the time for TheTilehurstEnd, highlighting many of the dangers of this scheme : Well and Truly EPPPed Off

In the light of this article, why am I so pleased about Reading’s announcement? Because there are two main bones of contention amongst critics of EPPP. The first is that the four different categories of EPPP, and the grants paid for clubs running these, will lead to many smaller clubs abandoning any form of youth development whatsoever.

The second, and much more widely voiced concern, relates to the way clubs are compensated when young players move between academies at different levels. This controversial aspect of EPPP involves replacing the old Professional Football Compensation Committee (PFCC) scheme with an EPPP compensation scheme.

The PFC scheme – better known as the Tribunal scheme – meant that when a player under the age of 24 moved between clubs and those clubs could not reach an agreement a tribunal would set the fee, based upon the player’s potential. The EPPP compensation scheme is fundamentally different, and involves compensation being paid at set levels, based upon the cost to the selling club of developing that young player and nothing else. This disregard of just how good a player might be means that the compensation payments for the next Wayne Rooney would be exactly the same as for the next Bas Savage – and this is what has so enraged critics of the scheme, many of whom have called this scheme “a poacher’s charter.”

In fact, a recurring theme of the criticism is that EPPP will “allow the Premier League clubs to have their choice of players from other clubs” – but this slightly misrepresents the reality, because it’s based upon an assumption that Premier League clubs are all EPPP Category One academies, and this just isn’t the case. Twenty-three clubs applied for Category One status in November 2011, 17 of them Premier League teams at the time, with Reading being one of only six then-Football League teams to apply. So far only 20 teams have been accredited as Category One status, with the likes of Newcastle and Crystal Palace as yet failing to make the necessary grade – the necessary criteria are assessed by an external certification body, and are extremely stringent, laid out in a thick, thick, manual.

But the one thing that everyone seems to agree on – even critics of EPPP- is that the basic idea behind the scheme is good, and that the coaching provided at the highest level, Category One, academies, will be as good as it’s possible to get. Previous restrictions on the maximum number of coaching hours any young player can receive have been lifted, as have limits on how close such players must live to the academy location, so these academies are in a position to hothouse the most talented youngsters and give them all the coaching necessary to bring out their full potential. Indeed, Category One academies have provisions for providing accommodation and educational facilities for young players – which is one of the reasons that each academy is vetted quite so rigorously and why clubs are finding it so hard to attain this accreditation.

But the end result is youth development designed to be the best possible, and the envy of the world. And despite the criticism of the different levels of academy, the key aim is that all academies at the same level will perform at the same level of excellence and produce players of the same high standard. Which is why Category One accreditation is such phenomenally good news for Reading. There’s an elite club of academies providing the best standard of coaching possible – and we’ve been given membership to that club.

And this membership of the coaching elite also protects Reading from the elements of EPPP which have received the harshest criticism – the fact that EPPP is tilted to favour the “biggest clubs” in how they can attract and retain the most promising youngsters. Category One status means that Reading can now be counted as one of those “biggest clubs”, with the cards tilted in our favour. So not only are we immune to “bigger clubs” poaching our most promising kids we could, if we so desire, poach the most promising kids from “smaller clubs” and their Category Two to Four academies. Not that I’d condone that sort of behaviour, of course, but if any system is organised to favour certain clubs, I’d much rather that my club was one of the 20 advantaged than one of the 72+ disadvantaged.

But it does get even better for Reading, because one of the factors that kids and their parents take into account when selecting an academy – and the most talented kids of all will be able to pick and choose – is how likely they are play regularly. Many Category Two academy clubs are making it a “selling point” that they will give opportunities for young players to break into the first team, whereas this is unlikely to happen at the very biggest clubs where they have the wealth to pick and choose players from across the world, leaving few chances for kids to break through.

Reading is now superbly positioned to have the best of both worlds. The Category One status and its elite standard of coaching will act as a magnet to attract young talent, and our relative size and track record of bringing kids through into the first team will double that attraction. We might be competing against 19 other Category One academies to attract the cream of the talent pool, but kids and parents will know that the opportunities to play and be successful are so much greater at a club the size of Reading than at a club the size of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc. A Category One academy which promises opportunities to break through into the first team is a dream combination.

So when I say that I think this award is the best news to come out of Reading for many years, that’s not hyperbole. The EPPP bus was starting to pull away, but we got on it before it left, and by securing our status as one of the elite clubs in English youth development this gives us a superb foundation that will help ensure a conveyer belt of the very best young talent available to us.

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