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Can The EPPP Solve England’s Home-Grown Premier League Problem?

This feature was written as part of a university project called #StateOfTheGame, focusing on England’s problem at developing youth players ahead of the 2014 World Cup. You can view the full article with graphics and images here.

The number of English players in the Premier League is decreasing rapidly. The opulent claim of producing the most exciting football league in the world came with sacrifices in the form of the national squad and opportunities for our native youngsters.

According to statisticians Opta, English players account for less than a third of minutes played in the Premier League. Just 32.26% of minutes played this season in England’s top flight have been by home-grown players compared to just over 35% in the 2007/2008 season.

This figure is the lowest in Europe and the second lowest in the world, with only Canada’s top domestic league fielding less home-grown players (22.4%).

England’s European rivals in major competitions are giving far more players minutes in their top leagues. The study found that 50% of Bundesliga players are German, 51.1% of Ligue 1 players are French and 59.4% of La Liga players are Spanish.

The solution (or perhaps not)? The Premier League’s new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The intention of the EPPP is to produce more English youngsters at Premier League clubs by easing restrictions on the distances that players can move between clubs. Under the old rules, academies could only sign players within 90 minutes travel of their training facility, meaning larger clubs could only sign academy players within a certain ‘catchment area’. The new system allows any club to sign any academy player with a fixed transfer fees, of which Football League clubs have criticised for being too low.

But Football League clubs aren’t the only ones criticising the new system. Dr Richard Elliott, Director of the Lawrie McMenemy Centre for Football Research at Southampton Solent University, believes a focus on getting the best players in Premier League academies is a erroneous move. He said: “My major concern with the EPPP is that it favours the rich clubs. It’s not always the case that the best players have been produced by the richest clubs. Sometimes it has been the clubs with the most fairly modest incomes that have produced the best players, so I don’t think necessarily the system permits the development of players in the best ways.”

According to England’s latest competitive line-up, Dr Elliott’s opinion proves truthful. England starting eleven against Poland in November 2013 was completely filled by players graduating from English academies and all-but-one of the squad currently play for English sides, (the exception being Celtic’s Fraser Forster).

But what academies do Roy Hodgson’s England team originate from? Due to their dominance of the Premier League era and almost infinitive finances, you’d assume Manchester United have a pretty heavy number of academy graduates in the England set-up, but you’d be wrong. Manchester United had just two academy graduates in Hodgson’s latest competitive squad that beat Poland to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup – Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley – that’s the same amount of players as League One side Sheffield United (Kyle Walker and Phil Jagielka).

Arsenal are typically leading the way in terms of players produced for the national side. Ashley Cole, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere were all included in Hodgson’s squad against Poland.

But the current crop of England stars is fairly spread out in terms of their footballing background. England’s current number one Joe Hart graduated from Shrewsbury Town’s academy in 2003 and went on to make 54 first-team appearances for the League One club.

Chris Smalling played for Maidstone United before making the move up the divisions.

Chris Smalling played for Maidstone United before making the move up the divisions.

Chris Smalling comes from even further down the league pyramid. He made 12 appearances for Isthminian Premier League side Maidstone United before being snapped up by Fulham in 2008 and then joining Manchester United two years later.

England have demonstrated that a number of current and future national squad players aren’t necessarily produced by the top teams. Wilfried Zaha and Nick Powell, two of Manchester United’s recent recruits who have been thrust into the limelight and labelled as England’s next superstars both came from Football League academies. Zaha joined last season’s Premier League champions from Crystal Palace while Powell came from League One side Crewe Alexandra.

So there should be plenty more bright young talents coming through the Football League? Possibly not under the EPPP. But the Football League’s Head of Youth Development David Wetherall claims the trend of players moving up the divisions at all ages has been constant, and has not been negatively effected by the EPPP: “There’s movement as I understand it at a variety of ages and that’s not changed just because of the Elite Player Performance Plan. There has always been a movement between clubs, between academies and between the old centre of excellences when the old system was in place.

“I think from a Football League perspective, there are a lot of players making their debuts every year in the Football League. We have had over 200 each season over the last few years, which is a very substantial number. Obviously some of these players perform to a standard that the very top clubs in the country are then interested in, with examples as Nick Powell and Wilfried Zaha.

“Then there are also players that perform so well in their academy environment that again the clubs in the country who have the finances to do so – and it’s not just Premier League clubs it’s some football league clubs – go out and express an interest in signing players who are not playing in the first-team environment, who are younger. So there is that movement but we shouldn’t just think it is a new thing under the Elite Player Performance Plan.”

Championship club Yeovil Town are the most high-profile club to be negatively effected by the new system. They folded their academy system at the start of the 2012/2013 season, blaming the high cost of implementing the EPPP for their youth downfall.

David Wetherall made 506 career appearances in the Premier League and Football League.

David Wetherall made 506 career appearances in the Premier League and Football League.

Under the new EPPP, clubs are split into four categories, with category one and academies receiving significantly more money from the Premier League than category four academies to support their youth operation.

“I think the scope of their operations is substantially different. The other way of looking at that is that those clubs have to put a lot more of their own money in. I think you’ve got to really compare the finances that are available. That is just one aspect to the operation,” said former Bradford City defender Wetherall.

The new system allows players to move academies at whatever age they may be, which has led to the top clubs moving for Football League youngsters at the most infant of ages. Dr Elliott opposes this tendency and explained: “I think we need opportunities for boys to play football in the way that they want to play football when they come into an academy system. We shouldn’t be scouting them at 3, 4 and 5 and getting them to sign their first papers at 8. I think that’s far too early.

“The vast majority of boys in the system of course are there to make up the numbers and they are being kept on largely to support the development of other players around them. But that doesn’t necessarily work because as any good coach will tell you, to develop a good player they have to be surrounded by players of similar or even better ability.”

Dr Elliott believes secondary school age would be an ideal time to sign youngsters, so they can have time to enjoy the game before taking it seriously as a career: “I think one of the first thigns we do with the young boys is tell them that they cant play football. They can’t play for their schools, they can’t risk getting injured, they cant play for fun as such for the intrinsic desire of playing the game and there are bigger issues with respect to this. Kids don’t go out and play football in the parks and the streets anymore. You don’t see that in the same way as it was when I was growing up when you’d go out and you’d come home from school and you’d be straight out and you’d be playing football all evening until it got dark and you went in for your dinner. You don’t see kids doing that.”

The EPPP turns three years old later this year and still causes debate on it’s effectiveness, appropriateness and necessity throughout the football world, an argument that could ultimately stem for years on end – until England win a World Cup that is.

This feature was written as part of a university project called #StateOfTheGame, focusing on England’s problem at developing youth players ahead of the 2014 World Cup. You can view the full article with graphics and images here.

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About Tom Bennett

I'm a 21-year-old Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University aspiring to be one of Britain's top sports journalists. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for contact and further information.

Discussion

One thought on “Can The EPPP Solve England’s Home-Grown Premier League Problem?

  1. Hi Tom,

    I would suggest that the EPPP is solving a problem that had already been solved, in that when you look at the recent success of English clubs in youth age tournaments, and the quality of under 20 year olds on the fringes of premiership squads, they’re already at a high level. Hopefully, it’ll not have much of an effect, but i worry that instead of bringing through more talented kids, it’ll reduce the number of kids who get access to good coaching as smaller clubs find their own youth setups to be unaffordable in light of the tiny transfer fees they receive.

    The biggest issue (and one that Pochettino alluded to in an interview) is that it’s hard for English kids to get time in the first team in the Premier League, but you can see why from a clubs point of view – the cost of slipping a couple of places in the premiership can be colossal, so whilst they can afford to buy experienced players who can give a consistent level of performance where is the incentive to take a chance on a youth who may only perform in fits and starts? Other leagues around Europe can’t afford the players so have to use their youths as soon as they get near, and hope that they kick on.

    I just found a link which says that the Premier League has the greatest proportion of capped internationals of any league in Europe (if I read the sentence correctly). An Academy kid would therefore need to be nearly full international standard to even get a game! (Article here: http://footballperspectives.org/new-cies-football-observatory-study-highlights-decrease-club-trained-players-european-clubs )

    Ultimately, the only solution has to be in a change to how the home-grown status is worked out, both by increasing the qualifying time so clubs can’t simply raid European academies at 16, and by introducing a quota of home-grown players that need to be included in the match-day squad, not merely in the squad registered for the season.

    It’s a strange time – I look at kids like Nathan Redmond, and John Swift and think the limit for them is sky high, but I don’t see how they’ll get the match-time to develop in to their potential. I hope a better solution comes along soon

    Neil

    Posted by Neil Biggs | January 28, 2014, 11:19 pm

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