Youth overhaul will damage Football League
On Thursday, Football League clubs voted in favour of proposals that could result in the Premier League picking up their best young talent for a fraction of what they currently pay. There were 46 votes in favour, 22 against, three no-shows and one abstention.
I'm told it was a reluctant "yes" from many of the clubs, who felt they had no choice. If they voted "no", the Premier League threatened to withdraw over £5m of funding that they give to lower league clubs each year for youth development.
It is all tied in with the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which will radically modernise youth development in England, introducing a four-tier academy system. The new deal will see every club receive an increase in their funding for a guaranteed four-year period, with the amount determined by their academy status.
Against a background of a reduced tv deal and an uncertain economic climate, most Football League clubs are understood to have welcomed the funding increase - but Peterborough director of football Barry Fry told me the Premier League's threat felt like blackmail.
The Premier League is confident EPPP, which will be implemented for the start of the 2012-13 season, will ensure the best players are developed by the best coaches at clubs using state-of-the-art facilities.
The idea is that it will help the most-talented players realise their potential. Ultimately, this will benefit not only the club that develops them but also the England team.
"This is a bigger step change than Howard Wilkinson's Charter for Quality," said a Premier League spokesman. "That was an incredible piece of work, which everybody bought into. But that was a stake in the ground and everybody has marched past it. The new plan is a great example of English football working together to raise standards across the board."
There is widespread support for many of the ideas and aspirations contained with EPPP at Football League level. I have spoken to chairmen, managers, academy directors and players. All of them believe the new system will succeed in many of its aims.
Manchester City's Joe Hart began his career at Shrewsbury and is now the national team's first-choice goalkeeper. Photo: Getty
But the insistence that the new set-up is combined with an overhaul of the tribunal system, currently used to determine a fee when clubs cannot reach agreement for the transfer of a home-grown player, has infuriated many in the Football League.
Two years ago, the Football League agreed to enter discussions about a new formula. This has bounced back and forth between the two bodies for most of 2011 but the Premier League has now made its final offer.
There will be a fixed tariff dependent on how long a player has been at the selling club. For example, the fee is fixed at £3,000-per-year for a player's development from nine to 11-years-old. The fee from 12 to 16 will depend on a club's academy status but will range from £12,500 to £40,000.
This will bring to an end Premier League clubs paying large fees for the best young talent in the Football League. Chelsea this week reportedly shelled out an initial £1.5m to MK Dons for 14-year-old Oluwaseyi Ojo. Under the new system they would be able to buy him for less than £150,000.
An academy director at a Championship club told me it was the flawed nature of the current tribunal system that forced Premier League clubs to pay a competitive price. The Premier League argues the bolt-on amounts the selling club will receive if the player is a success at his new club will ensure it is a fair system.
But this is dependent on a player going on to establish himself at a top-flight club. The academy director I spoke to believes it will lead to a situation where Premier League clubs "hoover up" the best young players aged nine to 16 at lower league clubs.
It will be worth a top-flight club buying several young players for under £100,000 on the basis they can afford for several to fall by the wayside - as long as some succeed.
There is an argument this will most benefit top-flight clubs who currently do not have a successful record in youth development.
The academy director told me: "Do you think Manchester United are too bothered about EPPP? They already have a first-class system and this is probably just extra paperwork for them. It is clubs that don't work well who will be desperate to put it in place because it will make their lives easier."
He believes this will stunt the long-term development of players who have moved to a club where they suddenly find themselves a long way from the first team.
John Bostock moved from Crystal Palace to Tottenham after a tribunal set his fee, but has found first-team opportunites at White Hart Lane limited. Photo: Getty
A good example is John Bostock, who joined Crystal Palace as an eight-year old and made his first-team debut aged 15. He was controversially signed by Tottenham as a 16-year-old, with a tribunal setting an initial fee of £700,000, with a further £1.25m dependent on first-team appearances.
However, he has yet to make a Premier League appearance for Spurs and has been loaned out to Brentford and Hull, his path to the first team blocked by seasoned professionals.
Under the new system, we could see a lot of youngsters at top-flight clubs being loaned to lower leagues to gain first-team experience.
What's more, the changes could lead to a scenario where academy directors at Football League clubs will have to try to instigate an auction to force up the price if a top-flight club shows an interest in one of their younger players.
The academy director added: "If a Premier League club came in for one of my 12-year-olds and the tariff said I could only get £20,000, I would have to try to start a bidding war by trying to get other clubs interested in him. This would probably involve an agent - and I would have to try to persuade the player's parents to take the biggest offer."
Of the 72 Football League clubs, only Hereford and Morecambe do not have a youth development system. The changes are unlikely to lead to an immediate reduction in the number of academies because the new system actually increases funding for clubs.
But the chairman of a League Two club told me that, further down the line, when the fixed period of extra funding has ended and lower league clubs are losing their best young players for next to nothing, many will decide to scrap their youth systems.
The academy director agrees. He added: "Youth systems at Championship clubs will survive because they will be able to cherry-pick from smaller clubs. But, for the likes of Barnet and Stevenage, I imagine it will be the end for them."
The Premier League itself is adamant that it is a fair system and the reforms are necessary. But they could cause a long-term problem that will transform the landscape of youth development in the Football League.