The Last Word: Premier bullies devise youth system bound to end in tears
Children will be uprooted from family, friends and their communities
Sunday 27 May 2012
The intruder, a foot soldier in football's dirty war, was discovered in a thicket of trees as an Under-14 match kicked off. He was marched out of the training ground, and warned that if he returned his car tyres would be slashed.
Just another day at the office for a man inured to indignity. He's a youth scout for a Premier League club, who knows the game is rigged in his favour. He will visit that League One club with impunity when the new season starts in September.
For the first time he will be able to walk through the front door, and poach boys as young as nine. The price list is set. A mere £3,000 for every year spent at another club's academy between the ages of nine and 11. As little as £12,000 for every year a boy is nurtured between the ages of 12 and 16.
The Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan, or EP3 as it is known in the trade, is potentially the most damaging initiative in the 20 years since the Gang of Four divided the old Football League and ruled. What purports to be a far-sighted attempt to produce technically adept players for the England team simply allows top clubs to procure prospects at a fraction of the current cost.
Amorality is excused when an outstanding 14-year-old fetches £1.5 million. Greed is presented as progress, anarchy portrayed as opportunity. The Premier League, who threatened to withdraw £5.4m in so-called Solidarity funding from the Football League if EP3was not adopted, have behaved like back-street bullies.
Smaller clubs are forced to spend sums they cannot afford to satisfy bureaucrats they can develop the type of player who will be sold for a relative pittance to a group of clubs who have accumulated debts of £361m, from a collective income of £2.3bn.
Let's humanise the issue before we measure the fallout. Two teenagers represent different facets of an increasingly strident argument. They face each other at Wembley today, in the League Two play-off final.
It will be Nick Powell's last game for Crewe before he is sold to Manchester United. He is a prototypical EP3 target, an intelligent, thoroughly modern footballer who plays in the hole. His fee, £4m, will guarantee the short-term future of a club who depend on the yield from their youth scheme to offset annual losses of £1m.
Luke Garbutt will line up at left- back for Cheltenham. He is on loan from Everton, who were forced to pay Leeds United an initial £600,000 for him three years ago. Since they only wanted to pay £200,000, the case was seized upon as evidence that the tribunal system was skewed against bigger clubs.
This proved the catalyst for EP3, in which clubs submit to an audit, so complicated lawyers are being drafted in to offer expensive insight. Those wishing to be rated in the top two categories, the equivalent of current academies, must commit £2.35m and £960,000 respectively. They must also employ up to 18 additional coaches, whose jobs will be at risk when the system is reviewed in two years.
It is already beginning to sag under the weight of hypocrisy and bureaucracy. Academy directors are rebelling against apparently arbitrary key performance indicators, governing productivity rates, training facilities and residential programmes. Some, speaking off the record due to a climate of suspicion and retribution, are even questioning the fundamental principle that boys need 14 hours "contact time" with coaches each week.
Children will be uprooted from family, friends and the communities which nurtured them. Most will return as perceived failures. They will be stigmatised, traumatised. Lives, crystallised by the opportunity of moving to a major club, will be shattered.
Ask yourself this: would you want your son treated as a commodity? Take it from someone who has seen the shards of broken dreams – not in a million lifetimes.
* The years have been cruel to the former England player Kevin Beattie. He has been convicted of benefit fraud, for failing to declare he earned £45 a match as a local radio pundit. A game engorged by money looked on, indifferent. How sad, and unsurprising.
Weighty issues for coaches to ponder
Hollie Avil, rather than Jessica Ennis, could have been the face of the London Olympics. Now she is just another brutally abbreviated back story.
There will be no fanfare, no medal for the best triathlete of her generation. Only 22, she has retired after a six-year battle against an eating disorder.
Do not underestimate the courage it took to emerge from a monochrome world of subterfuge and self-loathing. Avil has exposed the guilty secret of elite sport, the tyranny of a competitive nature and a fragile sense of self-worth.
Athletes in so-called "lean" sports, such as track and field, gymnastics, swimming and figure skating, are most vulnerable to body-image issues. An American academic study concluded that 62 per cent of gymnasts had struggled with some form of eating disorder. Bingeing and purging depletes fluid and potassium levels. It weakens bone density and creates potentially lethal heart rhythms.
Avil became a double world champion, but never recovered from being told by a British Triathlon coach that she needed to lose weight. Ennis's coach, Tony Minichiello, this week condemned an unnamed "high-ranking" UK Athletics official for describing the heptathlete as "fat" For the sake of those who suffer in silence, that individual must be named, and shamed.
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