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Whole new ball game for academy system
The academy system, as English football knows it, is about to change drastically following a vote which was controversially passed among the Football League chairmen last week. Chief football writer Paul Fraser talks to the North-East's five professional clubs to see what they think of the Elite Player Performance Plan
IN the corridors of Walsall's Banks's Stadium ten days ago, the vote was cast to change the face of the academy system which has served the NorthEast so well for more than a decade.
Only 22 of the 92 clubs - plus three no-shows and one abstention - in the English league were willing to stand up and go against the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which has been hailed as a "major step forward" by Football League chairman Greg Clarke.
Such a step will significantly alter the way schoolboy footballers are scouted, with the 90-minute travelling time restriction (60 minutes for under-12s) scrapped in favour of a more open network.
What that means is that a club from the South can sign a teenager from the North without having to uproot the player's whole family just to fit in with the rules, like Manchester United did when they took Kieran Richardson away from West Ham United a decade ago.
Had the likes of Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson, Jordan Henderson or Andy Carroll just been emerging in schoolboy football now, there would be a greater chance that Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle would be gazumped by the lure of Old Trafford or Anfield.
Premier League clubs, and much of the Football League it would seem, insist there is more to it than that. Forget the open market which now exists in targeting talented teenagers, it is argued the EPPP will provide the platform to deliver more talented players.
Better for the English game and better for the national team's chances? The region's Premier League duo, Newcastle and Sunderland, certainly think so.
"It can only be a good thing, " said Sunderland boss Steve Bruce. "The thing they are trying to get over is that the biggest talent in this country goes to the biggest and best academies. That can only be a good thing, of course.
"They are trying to get the best players in to the best academies, which I think can only be good for the game to produce an England team or whatever. If good players play with good players, they get better. Fact."
What the Football Association and the EPPP supporters insist is that contact time between young players and coaches will increase.
Under the current academy system, the idea of Howard Wilkinson in 1998, coaches can only spend an hour-and-a-half a week with academy players, who had to live within the 90minute drive.
Not only will such a restriction be lifted, club academies will be divided in to four categories, with the Category 1 clubs (in many respects the most wealthy) allowed up to five hours contact time and access to the best young players around.
Sunderland, and Newcastle, are pushing to be regarded as a Category 1 club, which means they can effectively take their pick of the best.
For that, though, they have to boast a number of things, not least having to stump up a large part of a Ã‚£2.3m budget and provide 18 full-time members of staff, which is obviously a large outlay for non-Premier League clubs.
Sunderland's academy director, Ged McNamee, said:
"One of the big pluses is the access time. We are behind many clubs on the continent.
The climate is an issue to countries like Spain, as is school finishing times, because kids can go to academies at 2pm in many cases abroad.
"It's different here. Some clubs are looking to put schools on site, so they can have their kids with them all the time. Some clubs abroad do that, like Barcelona. There are ways around it. For us, if we were Category 1, kids would have to come here every day, as soon as they have finished school they will have to come here."
Newcastle are just as excited about it. There will be greater accountability and more checks, but there is a feeling on Tyneside that the game will benefit - even if it means tougher competition in their own back yard.
"We have had some outstanding players come through the academy system, " said manager Alan Pardew. "It is quite simple, if we want to produce better players, then they need to have more time with the ball at their feet.
That's basically what they will try to do and implement that.
Technically, that is where we need to be. I am all for it."
The vote to adopt the controversial EPPP means clubs will receive increased funding over a four-year period but Premier League clubs will be able to take on academy prospects for dramatically reduced fees, before add-ons.
The finer details of the proposals are to be discussed in the middle of next month, when Premier League shareholders will be presented with proposals that need to be discussed more closely.
Among the initial proposals that have already been passed is the abolition of the transfer tribunal system. League clubs will instead pay Ã‚£3,000 for every year they develop a transferred player between the age of nine and 11 and a maximum of Ã‚£40,000 a year for nurturing a young player's career between the ages of 12 and 16. There are further benefits, depending on a player's career progression.
It means the likes of Adam Johnson could have left Middlesbrough, initially anyway, at the end of his contract for a lot less than the Ã‚£6m they thought they would receive from Manchester City had it gone to a tribunal 20 months ago.
"It will force clubs' hands to look at players at an earlier age, " said Sunderland's academy director, Ged McNamee, who has nurtured talents like Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback and Grant Leadbitter.
"We will have to make sure we are not losing our better players to other clubs, so we will have to make decisions earlier on them. We know we will have the Uniteds, Chelseas or whoever looking, so we need to have made decisions on the good players we have a lot earlier."
He added: "The new way would mean every club knows what they would have to pay.
We brought in a French kid this year who cost us a lot less than an English kid would have done from a club here, so that should be better now. It's going to be more transparent.
Clubs will know what they have to pay. It won't go to arbitration."
Middlesbrough, widely regarded as having one of the most effective academies around under the guidance of Dave Parnaby, know the changes will mean more expenditure, particularly if they want to fall into Category 1.Three seasons in the Championship would make it more difficult.
"It's something we've thought long and hard about, what category we want to put ourselves into, " said Boro boss Tony Mowbray. "You've got to spend a lot of money to be in Category 1, which gives you the ability to pick from anywhere.
"If one of the top four or six teams in the Premier League want to come and set up an academy in the middle of Middlesbrough, they'll be within their rights to do that now.
"But the big selling point for our club is the ability to play first team football and the history of this club bringing players through the academy into the team is very good.
"Most parents would want their sons to play first team football with their home town team."
Lower down the football spectrum, it is easy to come to the conclusion that clubs in League One, like Hartlepool, or even in the Conference, like Darlington, will find it harder to attract talented youngsters - and keep them.
"I'm worried that Premier League clubs will be able to set up satellite centres anywhere they want again and I don't think that's right or fair, " said Pools boss Mick Wadsworth, knowing his squad boasts home-grown graduates Antony Sweeney, Adam Boyd, James Brown and a rack of prospects on the verge of his first team.
"It's a situation where I think some lower-league clubs might just abandon youth programmes below 16 years old and just hoover up released players from bigger clubs.
"It horrifies me the idea of scrapping your youth system and concentrating on hoovering up Premier League academy players who are released. That's not because of the practicalities of it, because there is a lot of common sense in it in terms of economics and fiscal policy.
But God help us all if that happens - it would be a very disappointing day if it did."
For Darlington, potentially, it could be even worse, which could lead to the scrapping of a youth system that has produced the likes of Dan Burn, Curtis Main and Michael Smith, who have gone on to play at a higher level.
If Darlington can keep their youth team ticking over, which would mean being regarded as a Category 4 club, they will be entitled to about Ã‚£100,000 a year under the EPPP.
"If you are a league club, and you have been in the conference for more than two seasons, you lose funding from the Football League, " said McNamee, whose Sunderland academy have allowed Jamie Chandler, Jordan Cook and David Dowson to play for the Quakers in recent years.
"There are a few clubs like that. You do lose the money.
It's going to be a big question mark for Darlington if they don't get promoted."
The plans may have been passed, the proposals are to be discussed further, and the debate will linger on. Only in time, though, will the impact of the EPPP really become clear.
IT is hoped the Elite Player Performance Plan will help produce more players for the national team, while its critics suggest top clubs will be able to build up youth ranks full of the best young talents around.
For that to happen, the top clubs need to be regarded as a Category 1 club, which would enable their coaches to spend five hours a week and have the pick of the most gifted youngsters.
Basically, and before the finer details are discussed in the middle of next month when a further meeting is planned to discuss the proposals, these are the guidelines that will separate the four categories.
Category 1: A club's academy must have an annual budget of Ã‚£2.3m, at least 18 full-time members of staff. It must also provide the best facilities, including places at schools or on-site boarding schools.
Category 2: They would not be entitled to the full five hours a week contact with the players because they have not met the requirements laid out on education and funding.
They would, like Category 1, be able to train boys from four years old and sign them at the age of nine.
Category 3: Academies would not be able to get hold of young players until the age of 11.
Category 4: Clubs in this category would effectively be on the look-out for players who are being released at the age of 16, or players who have not been picked up by that age.