By Katie Whyatt
According to The Telegraph, the Premier League are lobbying for reforms to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy that would see up to 16 under 21 teams (but only from clubs with category-one academies) enter the competition next season. The aim? To introduce academy players to competitive, open-age professional football.
The proposal, first peddled in 2014 after widespread rejection of Greg Dyke’s League Three blueprint, surfaced again last month; in exchange for the shake-up, the top flight would contribute towards the youth development programmes of the 48 League One and Two teams.
On the one hand, you can understand why lower league sides might be tempted. The financial rewards offered have scope, at least on the surface, to be more lucrative than those presently up for grabs. Mark Lawn, in response to City’s 2011/12 Football League Trophy run that saw Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town defeated, explained that clubs only made a profit from the JPT if they reached the semi-final stages or the Wembley showpiece. It is not like the FA Cup or the League Cup, with the prospect of a glamour tie.
Maybe you could go as far to say the JPT viewed with contempt even among some lower-league sides, often tipped as the cup competition fans are least bothered about. Two years ago, the 5-0 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy loss to League Two Hartlepool saw Phil Parkinson make five changes, bringing in fringe players to test the depth beyond his starting XI.
For Bradford City, it is a chance to experiment, to test the water and iron out the creases. To say this attitude is uniform in League One, however, is simply plain wrong.
The resurrection of this proposal is symptomatic of the Premier League’s repeated attempts to look brazenly beyond its own house for solutions to a problem of its own making. This is another self-serving affront to the integrity of the Football League, emphasising the increasing aloofness of the top flight since 1992.
You do wonder, realistically, what kind of gains they anticipate. Increased game time for young players is the obvious intention, but how will that work in practice? What happens when that final – inevitably – becomes Manchester United’s U21s VS Chelsea’s U21s? The benefits can only go so far when battling against academies’ tendencies to stockpile hordes of young players. The benefits of this proposed change can only ever be isolated and fragmented because they lack meaningful context.
There will never be any ‘one size fits all’ model for youth development, but there are examples across the Premier League that demonstrate the current situation is hardly as perilous as the perennial scaremongering suggests – take a bow, Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino has been reimbursed handsomely for his ‘give the young a chance’ mantra, with his Spurs players the driving forces behind England’s 3-2 win over Germany.
Even closer to home, though, you’ll find a club and a young player showing exactly why loan spells might be the best way forwards: Bradford City, and their 19 year old West Ham loanee, Reece Burke.
Reece Burke is possibly the best defender on City’s books at the moment, a bold accolade in itself in the face of stiff competition from James Meredith, Stephen Darby, Nathan Clarke, Rory McArdle and Greg Leigh. He is alone in the back four in being able to burst forwards unsupported centrally, audaciously running free to reshape City’s midfield before despatching his runner. He reads the game perfectly. He is a key cornerstone of a back four that have notched up a club record number of clean sheets this season. And in a few weeks’ time, he could be toasting his first promotion.
For Burke to have adapted to the rigours of League One so seamlessly – moving away from home initially, then slotting right back into life with the Bantams when he returns from international duty – is outstanding. His maturity, both on and off the pitch, belies his tender years. There is no doubt, in the minds of Bradford City fans, that Reece Burke will go on to play at the highest possible level.
Where this loan spell at Bradford City becomes key is in forming the mental resilience that will anchor his on-field talents. These are no dead rubber games, no half-hearted trips to League Two sides boasting three changes. Burke is playing every single week in a side battling for a real promotion, a promotion that will determine the long and short-term financial strategies for this club.
These are real games, real points, real stakes. He is playing alongside real pros, who are fighting for real livelihoods, real families, real mortgages. In front of fans with real expectations and opinions – expectations that skyrocket quickly, often run the risk of outstripping reality, and are aired without a filter. This is real pressure. It matters. Everything he does counts for something.
Ultimately, those around him – the team mates he trains with four times a week, the manager he must perform for every day, the back four he lines up within on a Saturday afternoon – will have the greatest influence on who Burke becomes as a person.
Nathan Clarke said after the 1-0 win over Millwall that Ben Williams was such an asset to the squad because of the way he spoke in the dressing room, and the way he handled the younger players. When selecting his captain, Phil Parkinson praised Stephen Darby’s on-field communication skills, as well as praising his efforts behind the scenes. For Burke to be in close contact with these kind of characters, constantly, gives him more than what he would glean from remaining in a slightly modified under 21s set up.
Here, Reece Burke is one of the men, not one of the boys.
There is strong opposition to loan spells from some quarters of football. Granted, too many can be demoralising, and blur the path to a sustained first team career. But that is an over-generalisation: where loan spells are managed well and tailored to the individual player – Phil Parkinson says he is constantly “touching base” with West Ham – they address the needs of all parties in a more personal way than stripping back the JPT ever could.
Speaking to Simon Parker, West Ham academy manager Terry Westley revealed the intimacy with which the Hammers follow their burgeoning talent: “People watch them, we get reports on the training and what fitness work they are doing, we check their interviews with the press. It’s a complete overhaul of the player.”
The loan route will not suit every footballer, obviously. Sometimes, loan spells will do more harm than good, push a player backwards. Inescapably, there are also flaws with the wider academy system and the way football handles young players. People’s priorities grow blurred along the way. The loan system would work best if clubs pooled a smaller crop of talent and gave a handful the time to develop properly, within a programme unique to the individual.
The Football League is not that dreaded last point of refuge for those embittered centre halves that the rest of the world will have you believe it is. Slighter players who are slower to develop physically can easily slip through the net – our very own James Hanson was nearly one. There are late bloomers who learn their trade in the lower reaches of the football pyramid, before flowering at the top – one of them backheeled the best goalkeeper in the world a few weeks back.
Academies have to make ruthless decisions that you would change only with hindsight, and the Football League then becomes a training ground for these young English players. We gave you Dele Alli, for goodness’ sake. We sculpted Patrick Bamford. Why do we have to constantly prove our relevance to you? How did enough of you look at League Three and go, “Hmm – feasible,” for Greg Dyke to formally propose those plans?
For the Premier League to even seek ownership of the JPT is crass, condescending and contradicts how things consistently work in practice – and all for an unproven solution. For wholesale changes, the top flight must alter its whole mentality to youth football and development. Before knocking on our door, the Premier League must look inside its own for solutions to a self-inflicted problem.