Tuesday 28 February 2017

Big fish have ensured it's sink or swim for feeder clubs

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

The greatest club side in football today has the most successful youth structure in the world feeding into it. There are many reasons why clubs in England come nowhere near to matching the success of Barcelona's famed La Masia academy, but a few of them were removed last week.

The rules regarding the development of youth talent in England changed considerably on Thursday afternoon when Football League clubs voted in favour of the elite player performance plan (EPPP), as put forward by the Premier League. Clubs can now sign players from any part of the country, where previously they were limited to those who lived within 90 minutes. There are no longer any restrictions on how often they can be coached and, significantly, they're going to cost a lot less than before.

All in all, a cracking deal for Premier League clubs. For those in the Football League reliant on selling players to stay in business, it may turn out to be very damaging.

The competition among clubs to sign the best young talent at the earliest possible age is incredible. Agreeing a set of rules is one thing, but ensuring clubs abide by them is another matter altogether. The guidelines are clear for all, but as head of youth recruitment at Millwall in 2003/'04, I saw exactly how things operated in reality. As with most clubs, the first-team manager had limited funds at the time so there was pressure on us to sign the best available kids from the area. And I found there was little adherence to rules of any kind.

We always expressed our disgust any time a schoolboy of ours was illegally approached by a bigger club, but never saw anything wrong with doing the same ourselves. Smaller clubs were seen as legitimate targets from which to prise away talent. Clubs flex their muscles when they can in these situations, but all seem to cry foul when others do likewise.

But it wasn't only the smaller clubs that we hoped to infiltrate. I remember being surprised to learn we had a youth scout from a Premier League club on our payroll. His role was to inform us of the progress of the lads in their academy, and of how they were viewed internally by their club. Specifically, he was to inform us in advance of who may be released even before the players themselves knew. Failing to make the grade at a club of their size meant nothing to us. The standard required to get into Millwall's first team was lower, so we did our best to ensure we were in pole position to capitalise.

Twenty-two of the 72 league clubs voted against the proposals (three didn't turn up and one abstained), and it's easy to understand why. The new arrangement could lead to the biggest clubs enticing the best talent from all over England. With relatively low levels of compensation afforded to the clubs they leave, it may widen the already considerable gap between those in the Premier League and beyond. While that does nothing to protect the interests of the lesser clubs, it is hoped it will lead to greater quality of coaching and development in those who may have what it takes to make a career. But it may also force some League clubs to change how they operate.

The clubs that rely on selling their best young players for large amounts may now fear for their future, but perhaps the new arrangement may lead to the implementation of business models which aren't quite as reckless. The likelihood of producing a player from the locality good enough to sell for significant amounts isn't great, but you would be amazed how many clubs aim to exist by doing just that. If any club goes out of business in the coming seasons, they may well point to the EPPP as the beginning of the end for them, but I would guess a more

honest appraisal of events would nudge the finger of blame a little closer to home.

Though the clubs may have felt they had no choice in voting through the proposals (the Premier League withheld its annual contribution of £5.4m for player development until the issue was resolved), it is hoped this will have a positive impact on the England team. The reasoning behind this is simple: the best young players will be spotted and signed by the clubs with the biggest budgets and best facilities. It is assumed (though not correctly in all cases) that these clubs have the best coaches. Whether or not it has any impact will reveal itself over time, but England are falling badly behind other major European nations in this area at the moment. Their dismal showing in almost every recent major tournament is evidence of that.

I was only new to the job when I learned we were giving backhanders to that scout from another club. In my naivety, I informed my counterpart at the club involved and cut all ties with the scout. I felt it would be wrong to allow the situation to continue, but it weakened our operation considerably as a result. In fact, I'm sure it cost the club dearly in missed opportunities since then.

In football, doing the right thing is not as easy to identify as you'd think.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

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