The greater evil – Column
Tuesday, 17th Jul 2018 07:58 by Simon Dorset
While Financial Fair Play concerns continue to dominate discussion over the future of Queens Park Rangers, AKUTR’s columnist Simon Dorset says there’s a bigger problem for the club to grapple with.
If we can briefly set aside whether we accept Financial Fair Play’s stated aim, which apparently is “to improve the overall financial health of European club football”, is genuine or not, it is has to be acknowledged that FFP has forced most clubs to practise some degree of fiscal responsibility. While it is inconceivable that allowing no scope for any ambitious owners to inject capital into their club the side effect of frustrating the aspirations of smaller clubs was unforeseen, the concept of tying expenditure to income is one that most people can relate to.
There are some costs which fall outside of the constraints of FFP, with investment in stadia and training facilities, community projects and youth development the most prominent among them. On the face of it, the latter of these indicates the best, or possibly the only, way for a club like QPR to attempt to bridge the chasm to the higher echelons of the English football. It positively encourages clubs to invest in their youth academies with the aim of bringing through players to either play in their first team or to sell on to boost income. However, the self-appointed guardians of English football, the “elite” of the Premier League, closed off this avenue a long time ago with a hideously one-sided piece of legislation which, for reasons I fail to understand, doesn’t attract the contempt it so richly deserves.
Back in October 2011, the Premier League clubs steamrollered their plans for youth development into acceptance. With the threat of having their solidarity payments withdrawn, the Football League clubs had little option than to vote in favour of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EP3). Thinly disguised as a scheme to aid the development of youth players, it established a hierarchy of football academies in England empowering the category “A” clubs with a carte-blanche to raid the academies of the Football League clubs for their best prospects in return for derisory compensation from a non-negotiable tariff. EP3 also discarded the “90 minute” rule which had previously only allowed a club to sign players under the age of 18 if they lived within 90 minutes of their training ground. At the same time, the old youth league was abolished in favour of a new Professional Development League with clubs competing against other clubs in the same category.
The dire ramifications of this scheme for a club like QPR are starkly illustrated if applied to Raheem Sterling’s transfer to Liverpool in February 2010. Instead of an initial fee of £600,000 plus add-ons and sell on percentage of £20% which realised the best part of £10 million for the club, QPR would have received a flat, one off payment of just £109,000. Dramatically reduced transfer fees offer far more scope for the “elite” clubs to hoover up as much young talent as they can possibly squeeze into their bloated academies. They then flood the Football League with cheap loanees, restricting the development of the incumbent academy players before shamelessly casting these kids aside due to a lack of higher level first team experience and signing a few more expensive foreign imports. This is all done in the name of “improving the quality and quantity of home grown players produced by top English clubs” but only serves to strip lower league clubs of a vital revenue stream.
Among the most outspoken critics of EP3 during its inception were the then Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish: “This is a brazen attempt by the Premier League’s wealthy elite to cherry-pick the best youngsters from Football League clubs so they can comply with Uefa’s new regulations over how many home-grown players should be in their first-team squads” and Barry Fry: “What frightens me is that a lot of clubs will pull out of having a youth system altogether. 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?”
Fry’s fears were borne out by some clubs, such as Wycombe Wanderers, who immediately closed their academies in response. In the preceding years, players such as Matt Phillips, Jordan Ibe, Russell Martin, Roger Johnson, Kadeem Harris and our own Josh Scowen and Matt Ingram had graduated from Wycombe’s academy, but the Supporters’ Trust which was in the process of taking over the club believed that EP3 rendered the traditional academy model unviable and would prohibit any worthwhile return on their annual investment of £300,000 in it. Wycombe innovatively developed a scheme overseen by their community trust to allow them to have a continued presence in youth football. Their Elite and Development Academy complements the training offered by schools and junior clubs to help children fulfil their potential while also promoting the club.
Brentford, another club with a proud record of youth development, followed suit several years later after assessing the effects of EP3. They diplomatically concluded that “in a football environment where the biggest Premier League clubs seek to sign the best young players before they can graduate through an Academy system, the challenge of developing value through that system is extremely difficult.” Brentford withdrew from the EP3 and Professional Development League and decided to concentrate on a much smaller group of players aged between 17 and 21, crucially outside of the scope of EP3, while utilising their Community Sports Trust to ensure that they retained close links to the local community through their Football Development Centres.
While defiantly maintaining a full academy, despite knowing that they would be powerless to prevent the next Raheem Sterling from being wrenched away for a paltry return, QPR have also adopted a sensible strategy of identifying players released from other clubs’ academies with unfulfilled potential and nurturing them. Ebere Eze is a perfect example of this. Signed as a free agent in August 2016 after he was released by Millwall, he enjoyed a successful season in the Under-23s, a very beneficial loan spell under Gareth Ainsworth at Wycombe and is now reportedly attracting the attention of the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea.
A less immediately obvious, but equally valid, example is Josh Bowler. QPR signed the young winger in 2013. He’d already been released by Fulham before he fell victim to the inevitable closure of Aldershot’s academy as they crashed out of the Football League and into administration. Bowler progressed seamlessly through the age groups at QPR before making his first team debut as a substitute in the last match of the 2016/17 season away at Norwich. His subsequent sale that summer to Everton for £1.5 million, with the potential to rise to £4.25 million, was excellent business for a youth player with only 21 minutes of first team football to his name and the add-ons, if ever realised, could provide some very useful income in the years ahead.
As QPR attempt to extract themselves from their FFP mire, it cannot be over stressed how important the Sterling money was. The club’s loss in the first year of the rolling three-year period was, in effect, halved by their share of Sterling’s transfer from Liverpool to Manchester City; had EP3 been in place when he left for Liverpool they would not have received a penny from his move. If more clubs decide to abandon their academies based on those harsh realities, the “elite” will have only succeeded in jeopardising youth development in this country and their greed will have backfired on them.
While QPR have successfully identified and embraced the changes that were essential to keep their academy viable and relevant in the EP3 era, and their commitment to this new philosophy is demonstrated by the continual stream of trialists featuring for the U-23s, this must not be used as an excuse to forgive the insatiable rapaciousness of the Premier League “elite”. Not content with the lion’s share of Sky’s money, EP3 is designed to ensure that they don’t have to share it; just as FFP confirmed the hierarchy of clubs, EP3 is designed to supress any attempt to changing it; while FFP encourages clubs to develop their youth players, EP3 is designed to punish those that do so successfully. While some regard FFP as the scourge of the modern game, I believe that EP3 is the greater evil.
Pictures – Action Images
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