Is the Elite Player Performance Plan damaging English football?
On 20 October 2011, the Football Association, Premier League and Football League introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan. It was brought into effect by the seventy-two league clubs, of which forty-six voted in favour and twenty-two against, with three no-shows and one abstention. The EPPP, as it’s otherwise known, is a youth development initiative designed to revamp the academy system in England and bring through more talented players. But, two years on, what impact has the scheme had?
Since its inception, it’s fair to say that the EPPP has caused more than a little controversy. The majority of criticism has been levelled at the decisions to re-categorise the country’s academy system and the streamlining of compensation fees for youth players moving from one club to another. The changes appear to cater to the elite clubs, with the Premier League apparently threatening to withdraw their multi-million pound funding for lower league youth teams if the EPPP was rejected.
Paul Scally, Gillingham chairman and one of the twenty-two who voted against the reform, said: “It [the EPPP] feels very much like the Premier League forcing the Football League into submission. The Premier League can come into our youth systems and take which players they like and we get compensation through a ridiculous structure that has been developed by the Premier League.”
The change that an infuriated Scally is specifically referring to is the introduction of a fixed method to calculate the compensation owed by clubs signing a youngster from another academy. In the past, when a teenager moved, the clubs involved utilised a tribunal system to determine the value of the player. For example, Chelsea signed Oluwaseyi Ojo from MK Dons just before the EPPP was introduced for a reported fee of £1.5 million. Under the new rules however, MK Dons would have received a paltry £150,000. The formula takes into account the number of years at an academy and the number of first team appearances however, even with the most promising and proven talent, still produces a disturbingly low final valuation.
Another vocal critic of the EPPP – and there has been no shortage of them – is West Bromwich Albion’s Jeremy Peace. The Baggies chairman recently blasted the scheme, claiming: “In the short term, it isn’t working. And I’m not convinced it’ll work medium term. The way it’s structured, these lads are going to go to the big clubs – that’s the seduction.
“Why are we spending £2.5m to be another club’s academy? We’ve brought in a whole load of staff, all these facilities and then a club can come along with £200,000 and say ‘here you go, thank you very much’. It’s about the big clubs, not about clubs like us. Perhaps £2.5m would be better spent bringing in a player rather than spending it every year on the academy.”
Peace raises an extremely discerning point and one that, worryingly, has been illustrated by three clubs since the EPPP was first introduced. Less than twelve months after the new regulations were put in place, Wycombe Wanderers became the first league club to shut down their academy system, blaming the ‘financial limitations’ of the Elite Player Performance Plan. They were soon followed by Hereford Town and Yeovil, who cited similar issues as their motivation, all of which tarnishes the EPPP and only reinforces the views of detractors like Scally, Peace and Peterborough Director of Football Barry Fry, who claims:“The Premier League wants everything and they want it for nothing.”
His concerns are in genuine danger of becoming a reality though and his assertion that “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?” is certainly justifiable.
So, what about the positive side of the EPPP? It received the backing of the majority of league clubs in England and, although many votes were cast reluctantly and despite its bad publicity to date, the manifesto does highlight one particular shortcoming in previous approaches to youth football – the issue of education.
One of the key areas that the initiative highlights is ‘helping clubs foster links with local schools in order to help young players get the best out of their football education as well as the academic side’ and this is something that has been very much glossed over in the past. The problems with the EPPP’s transfer policy will inevitably lead to top clubs taking a chance on more players and subsequently casting more of them aside, so a stronger focus on academia is utterly vital and something that has been seriously lacking in the past.
And it isn’t just failed players that this applies to; teenagers are forced out of the game for a number of reasons and an increased emphasis on providing them with useful qualifications is both positive and necessary. Some quit football as a result of psychological burnout, as Dr Andrew Hill, lecturer in sports and exercise science at the University of Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences, has discovered, while many more end up prematurely retiring because of injury.
One of the most high profile instances of an academy player being forced to hang up their boots early is Sean Highdale, a former England U16 international and Liverpool U18 captain. As a result of his promise and the support of Liverpool’s coaching staff, he won his personal injury case against those who caused his car crash and gained a considerable amount of financial compensation. However, he admitted himself that he ‘had to face reality’ following his accident and is a prime example of the kind of player who would have benefitted hugely from improved academic qualifications.
These positive factors by no means make up for the shortcomings of the EPPP, but they do address an almost separate problem in youth football. For too long, players not good enough to make the grade at the highest level have been cast aside without a second thought but this new aim, amongst the various inadequacies of the rest of the scheme, could make a genuine difference. With only around 20% of academy players still playing professionally at the age of 21, we need to make a wholehearted effort to look after the players that don’t quite succeed, as well as the ones that do.