David Conn: Youth loses out as PFA and League play numbers game with the future

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The Independent Football

In a sport awash with money, it could be difficult to understand how there can be a problem over a mere £1.25m, to pay for something as fundamental as training young players at Football League clubs. This, however, is football, and although the answer is quite clear - the Professional Footballers' Association, the players' union, has pulled its funding - the reasons for its decision take a tortuous journey into the game's divisive history and politics-infested present.

The League feels angry and let down; the drop in funding, equating to £17,000 to each club, could lead to part-time coaches being laid off and some youth teams being scrapped. The League believes strongly that the PFA has an obligation to pay the £1.25m this year and next, as its part of a £10m package contributed to by the Premier League (£2.5m), the Football Association (£2.5m), Sport England (£2.5m) and the Football Foundation (£1.25m).

Andy Williamson, the League's operations director, reaches back into history to explain the roots of this agreement. In 1992, when the First Division clubs broke away to form the Premiership, they agreed to maintain a £2.5m payment to the League for five years, a scrap of the £305m TV deal the Premiership then pulled in from BSkyB and the BBC.

In 1997, the Premier League agreed to pay the League £5m a year of its enlarged £670m television bonanza, specifically for youth development programmes, matched by Government money. The Football League clubs set up centres of excellence or academies for youngsters from the age of eight and nobody disagrees that this is for the general good of the game - and also for the Premier League clubs, who keep an eye on promising lads coming through.

In 2001, the new package involving the five different bodies, including the PFA's £1.25m, was put in place after what Williamson describes, with admirable understatement, as "a lot of discussion".

The PFA was then enjoying an all-time high income, from a slice of the record TV deals of the Premiership, FA and League, of £17.6m a year. That figure was finally paid after the bitter dispute between the PFA and Premiership during which Gordon Taylor, the PFA's chief executive, balloted the players for strike action. The arguments tore into the role and purpose of a players' union at a time when its most prominent members are multi-millionaires, and were resolved with the PFA - alongside its traditional union work - becoming more of a vehicle for redistributing football's money to worthwhile causes.

Part of the agreement was that out of the £12.9m the PFA received from the Premier League, it would pay directly the Premiership's £2.5m contribution to youth development. The £1.25m was agreed by the PFA in addition to that. Taylor did, however, stress that that contribution was subject to TV revenues being maintained.

"We could not commit beyond 2004 because the TV deals were expiring then," Taylor told me.

The PFA kept up its £1.25m payment until 2004, through the ITV Digital collapse which reduced its income by close to £2m a year. Then, the Premiership's and FA's 2004-07 TV deals also fell, bringing the PFA's income down 11 per cent to £15.5m. With the PFA emphatic about sound financial management - as opposed to the 40 or so basket case clubs it has helped over recent years - it has made cuts and decided the £1.25m would have to go. Youth development was never regarded as a core activity, because the players are young boys, not PFA members. The League and its clubs are outraged, but Taylor, as ever, puts up a persuasive defence of the PFA.

"We already fund £2.5m into Football League youth development on behalf of the Premier League, and a further £2.5m to support the scholarship programme [players aged 16-19]. That is around a third of our income. The Premier League is giving nothing directly. Unlike the FA, which is opposing Uefa's proposals for clubs to play home-grown players, our commitment to youth development cannot be questioned. I am very angry at being portrayed as the villain."

The League says that "fogs" the issue - that the £2.5m is paid on behalf of the Premiership, so in fact the PFA is now giving nothing, even though it does have money available. Taylor said the PFA has other pressing commitments, and invited me to talk to the PFA's finance director, Darren Wilson.

He ran me through the programmes: benevolent and medical funding for ex-players - £1m, which, Wilson said, could be spent "thousands of times over" given the number of men who finish the game with injuries and very little money; education grants to retrain players coming out of the game - £1.3m; insurance for players' permanent disability - £1m; football in the community - £900,000.

The PFA pays £8,500 to every Football League club for players' overnight accommodation, and £5,000 for boots. FA medical initiatives - £300,000; Princes Trust - £500,000; £110,000 to the racism campaign Kick It Out, around £500,000 to the Football Supporters' Federation and anti-racism and community initiatives. Staff costs and administration are £2m, totalling £14m. The PFA is adamant it must not spend all its money, but keep some for a rainy day.

As in any discussion of the PFA, there are mutterings about Taylor's own salary - £677,248 last year - which is extraordinary in a trade union. Taylor impatiently defends it.

"It has nothing to do with this. I'm paid by my employers, my management committee, for the job I do. I have had offers to go elsewhere but stayed at the PFA for over 20 years and my salary reflects that."

Wilson then, unexpectedly, provided the human view of the PFA's worth. He himself was a professional footballer, at Manchester City and Bury, until a hernia operation went disastrously wrong, left him in hospital for months and ended his career at 21. Now 33, he said the PFA funded his successful legal action against the hospital, and supported him through his six-year course to become a chartered accountant. Bury, on the other hand, paid what he was contractually entitled to and said goodbye.

"It pains me when we're criticised. I know from personal experience that the PFA is a brilliant union. We cannot commit to huge amounts for youth development when TV money is dropping or uncertain."

Williamson, a veteran of the nudge and nurdle required to negotiate football politics, told me the League has sent a new, reduced request to the PFA. The youth development programme has run at a modest surplus over the last couple of years, and if they eat into that, the shortfall is only £1.15m over two years, rather than £2.5m.

"The other funders - FA, Foundation, Government, Premier League - have agreed that the PFA need only put in the £1.15m," Williamson said.

The request has gone into Taylor, and he is considering it. Football is a wonderful game, and so simple.