Despite England qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Brazil the hot talking point within English football has been the development and progression of footballing academies in the UK. Countries including Spain, Germany and Belgium remain a dominant force in cultivating young footballers who have come through the ranks of high-class football education, whilst this has become a priority in English football within the last few years. Many young footballers go on to glittering careers whilst the majority fall into no-man’s land and end up neglected; some often leaving the football profession due to pressure. The Premier League dream that many kids hold can be an arduous journey and one that can be cut-throat.
The PFA recently highlighted that 40% of scholars go on to earn professional contracts and only 20% of that batch are still playing by the age of 21. This raises questions as to whether academies are doing enough to ensure that footballers are making the grade. This is an issue that certainly isn’t going away and one that remains stuck in controversy.
Established in 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is a system which is designed to take Premier League youth development to the next level and produce home grown players who receive quality coaching at the highest level. The initiative claims that its main principles are to “improve coaching provision” and “implement a system of effective measurement and quality assurance”.
The EPPP system has been no stranger to questioning to controversial innovations. The re-categorisation of the academy system has caused considerable criticism as clubs including Yeovil and Wycombe Wanders scrapping their vital youth systems due to staggering costs and ‘financial limitations of the EPPP’. Many believe that EPPP benefits the biggest clubs first while Football league clubs are left in the lurch as younger players make their way to bigger clubs for a tiny financial sum. These tiny financial sums can make it tricky for some clubs to sustain a flow of home grown talent that can rise to the levels of first team football.
This is certainly a point that can be justified as pointed out by Barry Fry, director of Peterborough: “The Premier League wants everything and they want it for nothing. 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?”
Focus on Education
One of the key focuses of the EPPP system is to “help clubs to 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”. The focus on academia is just as important as their footballing tuition and this provides an adequate education when their playing career ends.
Some youngsters fall out of love with the game or face burnout due to the intensity of the pressure that they face. Others simply aren’t good enough to compete with the top clubs only accepting the very best.
Injury can often lead to a cruel, sudden end to many footballers dream. In the past many professionals including Michael Owen have explained that their injury sewn careers have stemmed from been over-worked as kids. With word class technology and coaches available this isn’t so much of a case nowadays however many can be forced out of the game for a number of reasons.
The most recent high-profile case was Liverpool U-18 captain, Sean Highdale, who represented England at Youth level and was a promising talent for the future. A severe car crash forced him to hang up his boots at the age of 17. He won a personal injury case and claimed significant financial compensation however it couldn’t make up for the death of his friends and a career which he had dreamed of.
These pitfalls show how imperative it is for young players to have a separate back-up plan in place in case a career in football doesn’t quite turn out. It is understandable that academies want to produce the best talent possible however it has to done in a fair process and one that has the player in mind.
There are a number of paths within football that can be encouraged for those who don’t make a playing career. After all, managers include Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas have all created fantastic careers without having played professionally.
It was recently suggested by Sam Allardyce that footballers that don’t make it should be entered into refereeing academies as this could bridge the gap between players and referees. The FA and club academies must pro-actively focus their effort on the other sides of football in which they can carve a career and achieve success.
Some elements of the EPPP have no doubt caused widespread controversy however the focus should be on the larger percentage of young footballers who don’t end up with a playing career and ensuring that they have an alternative future whether it is football or not.