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Why Premier League Academies Are Strangling The Lifeblood Of The Game

Thursday 20th March 2014
Locked away in the vaults of the Premier League's official site is one of the most intriguing documents you will find about the state of British football; it is the Premier League's official Youth Development Rules, updated for the 2013/14 season.

Perhaps even more interesting is its Charter for Academy Players and Parents, which has been updated for the 2013/2014 season.

On the second page of the charter, the FA Premier League clearly identify what the mission of the academy system is, stating:

“The aim of the Academy system is to help young players maximise their potential in football, education and life. It puts well-being and personal development at the heart of everything we do. Our aim is to develop well-rounded individuals as well as high quality players. Clubs provide expert services, support and advice to Academy Players and parents and every young player should enjoy and value their Academy experience.”

While the underlying aim of an Academy Experience may seem to be about developing the individual, regardless of how their football career turns out, every club invests in their academy for one reason and that is to churn out the next generation of football superstars. While the pro-forma may toe the politically-correct line, there is no denying that clubs seek a return on their investment in youth by the development of top quality players.

Yet, surrounding the development of the Premier League Academy system are lots of side issues which have seldom been discussed. What effect do Premier League Academies have on Lower League teams and their ability to develop their own players? What effect does it have on the players themselves and lastly, does the Academy System even work as it is intended to?

Let's take a look at each of these issues separately:

Premier League Academies And Their Effect On Lower League Teams

The first thing to note is that in their wisdom and to protect lower league teams (presumably), the FA Premier League do have regulations about how far a player can live from a club in order to be eligible to become an academy member. For children aged 9 to 11 it is one hour, for 12 to 16 year olds, 1 and a half hours (unless you are recruited to play for the national teams) and from ages 17 to 21 there is no restriction.

In theory this sounds like a considered plan, but in practise, it is very different.

Take Manchester for example, where two of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United and Manchester City are based. A 90 minute travel time to Manchester encompasses both the east and west coasts, extending as far north to almost Scotland and beyond Birmingham to the South.

This area alone covers the vast majority of England and certainly encapsulates some other footballing hotbeds, such as Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Liverpool, the Wirral, Birmingham, Stoke, Preston as well as many more smaller towns such as Wigan, Blackburn, Burnley, Blackpool, Stoke, Oldham, Bury, Stafford and similar.

The upshot is that with far more money available to spend on scouts, far more places in an academy available and far more prestige attached, Premier League Academies can cherry pick the best young talent from an area that goes beyond their locality.

While this is great for Premier League Academies, it does mean that smaller local sides will lose out as players they would ordinarily have signed up, are instead flocking to the wealthier and more attractive climes of the Premier League.

Even if a smaller club does persuade a talented youngster to play, then as they progress through the system and reach age 17, they face a struggle to hold on to them.

A good example of this is at Tranmere Rovers, who saw talented defender Scott Wootton leave the club as a youngster to join Liverpool, followed a few years later by Tom Ince, Paul Ince's son, who also left at a young age to join Liverpool, although this is not mentioned in his Wikipedia page.

Ordinarily, in the past these players would have learned their trade at Tranmere and gained experience playing first team football for the club before moving on, often for a sizeable transfer fee. However, with the new academy set up, it is easier than ever for Premier League teams to cherry pick the best youngsters from lower league sides for relatively little money (often derisory amounts).

The knock on effect to Lower League sides of this is huge. In the past, lower league clubs often made money by bringing talented players through the ranks, letting them prove themselves at lower league level and then selling them on to bigger teams. This income was the lifesaver for many teams who often relied on it to ensure they could remain in operation from one season the next.

Nowadays, the trend is that Premier League Academies snap up the best young talent and then loan players to lower league sides. However, this doesn't help fans gain an identity with their club. A team packed full of players from another team doesn't have a clear identity and feels somewhat mercenary. It is easy for a team heavily reliant on loan players, to struggle for an identity and a genuine feeling of being a team.

What results are a group of financially struggling, poor-performing lower league teams with no clear identity, no long term plan and reliant on loaning players from Premier League clubs. The sad thing is, most clubs have little interest in playing or even keeping most of the young players they loan out; they are simply playing the numbers game in the hope 1 in 100 players turns out to be a first team squad player.

Premier League Academies And The Effect On Players Within Them

With hundreds of players of all ages in Premier League Academies, what are the effects of this system on the next generation of players?

Certainly as the Charter and Youth Development Rules clearly show, the FA Premier League has given this considerable thought and clearly outlines how players are to be treated. Certainly, the modern academy player receives a far better all round football and educational experience than pros of 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

For this, Academies should be commended. The fact they encourage players towards getting a good education so they can nurture a career outside of football if they don't make it (as the vast majority don't) is hugely important and a real benefit of this system.

For those that do earn a professional contract though, it is an uncertain future. Academy Football is supposed to bring out the best in youth players at the highest level, but many clubs at Premier League level seldom bring through a player from the youth ranks to their first team, even if they are of the standard of a potential England international.

A good example is ex-Tottenham defender Steven Caulker who had to move from Tottenham Hotspur to Cardiff City in order to gain regular first team football, yet Caulker is good enough to be a potential England international and a possibility for the World Cup 2014 squad.

The fact of the matter is, for all the money spent on academies, big clubs still look elsewhere for talent, usually abroad. Even clubs with a proven track record of bringing through talented players, such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal, are increasingly turning away from their own pool of talented Academy youngsters and looking abroad for players.

This means every season, a large number of talented professionals are left without a contract and scrambling for a club in the lower leagues, hoping they will be taken on, with no guarantee that they will as the money is not always there.

As a result, the cream of English football talent, which should be being nurtured at lower levels of the game initially as they develop their talents, instead starts off at the top and then filters down through the leagues, often out of the game completely.

In Conclusion: Does The Academy System Work?

It's clear from the FA Documents that they have a huge amount of faith in the Academy system and the clubs certainly feel it is a worthwhile investment. Certainly, the bigger academies are hoping that they will receive a return on their investment by one or two players making the first team.

However, it is a pretty inefficient and one-sided system. There is an equally good case for believing that many of the top players in Britain today would be better served coming through the ranks at their local lower league club, learning the game, playing first team football regularly and progressing through the leagues, before experiencing life at a top club.

A perfect example of this is the case of Southampton and we'll take a look at precisely why this is the case in the next article in the series.
Thomas Richardson
Big Newcastle United fan but even bigger fan of anything about the beautiful game. Englishman living in Scotland and currently taking plenty of stick for it. Best football moment Gaza celebration Euro 96, worst Kevin Keegan rant 95/96 season and eventual outcome.

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