Can Barcelona model solve England's talent drought?

Premier League has announced radical reforms to youth football – but are they good for the game? Glenn Moore investigates

Yesterday the Premier League unveiled plans for the biggest overhaul of youth development in England since Howard Wilkinson launched the academy system in 1997. The proposals, it is claimed, will increase the number and quality of English players in the top flight ultimately improving the national team. Today Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football League, will tell the Parliamentary inquiry into football governance the proposals will make it uneconomic for his clubs to develop players forcing dozens to close their centres of excellence, leave those kids who fail to make the grade isolated from their own communities, and were a "big risk" to the future of the national team. Who is right?



What is the Premier League proposing?

The most dramatic suggestion is for clubs to run their own boarding schools, imitating Barcelona's La Masia complex. Young players, initially aged 14 and upwards, would be housed in or nearby the training ground. The Premier League agrees with theory expounded by Malcolm Gladwell that elite sportsmen need 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" to fulfil potential. This is currently impossible to achieve; even with day-release schemes from conventional schools most players only receive a third of that time. Residential centres – or agreements with nearby schools – would enable players to spend more time practising without compromising either education.

These clubs, assuming they meet other criteria in coaching standards, staffing levels, medical support and facilities, would be given Category 1 status. This is expected to cost £2.5m a season, around three times the current average level of spending on academies. At present no club in the country would achieve this status but several are working towards it.

There are three other categories. Level 2 centres will also be allowed to train boys from the age of four but will have less time with them and thus do not need to meet such strict requirements in terms of their education. Category 3 academies will not be allowed to coach players until they are 11 while category 4 will be the safety net, picking up late developers aged 16 and above.



Why does the Football League object?

Category 1 and 2 academies are required to have at least 17 full-time staff which will make it prohibitive to run for almost all clubs below Championship level (though it is believed League One Southampton hope to achieve Category 1). These clubs will become Category 3. But this means they will not be allowed to train boys until they are 11 while players can be signed at the age of nine. Which means the good ones will all be taken before Category 3 clubs can even make contact.



Anything else they are unhappy with?

At present if a Premier League club signs a boy from a Football League club and cannot agree a fee the decision is made by a tribunal. These tend to assess potential and fees can be high. The Premier League wishes to adopt Fifa's fixed compensation formula. This will have the beneficial effect of driving down prices of English players which are currently so high that clubs buy from abroad. However, it will cut income to the lower league clubs. "For many clubs it will become uneconomic to run the academies. Many will close and that cannot be good for the game," said Clarke.

The Premier League also wishes to revoke the rule which stops clubs from signing children who live more than 90 minutes away. Small clubs fear the Premier League giants will mop up all the good players across the country. The top flight argue this will not happen as clubs are limited to 30 players in each year group. They add that players will only fulfil their potential by access to top quality coaching and exposure to a similarly talented peer group. However, Clarke argues that players will "be sacrificed to the altar of football efficiency" as most of them will not make the grade. He will tell the select committee today they will not only have to suffer the blow of being rejected, they will have "given up their whole life" having spent years away from their friends only to be "dumped back on a council estate knowing nobody and with no career".



Are there any uncontentious proposals?

The plan has much to recommend it. The new structure will raise the standard of players and place a premium on coaches who may now be paid a decent salary. There will be regular auditing of academies to discover which ones have a track record of producing players, ensure staff maintain professional development, and account for the cash going into them. Players will have logbooks detailing training and injuries. There is an insistence on age-specific coaching, small coach-to-pupil ratios and regulation of scouts (to curb poaching).

Shouldn't the Football Association be doing this?

Yes. That is what happens in other countries. Wilkinson's Charter for Quality was an FA initiative but in the intervening years the governing body has suffered successive crises of leadership leaving it weak, compromised and incapable of imposing anything on the Premier League. The FA is now happy to achieve small victories such as the Premier League allowing it to run coach education. The emphasis on age-specific coaching and mandatory financial auditing are also aspects Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, has been pressing for.



What will happen?

A compromise. The Football League will probably acquiesce if the Premier League increases its grant (subsidy), offers a more generous compensation formula, and allows those clubs currently destined to be Category 3 access to under-9s. The proposals should still produce more English footballers capable of holding down a place in a Premier League team.

Comments