Why should we pay for the Premier League’s mistakes on youth development?

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

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.

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Categories: Opinion

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8 replies

  1. If they do this then fans should just boycott the matches against under 21 sides.

  2. An excellent article, Katie. I agree in principle with each point, however – they inturn can give reason for a constructive debate. To fully address all, would possibly take me a few days. (Playing my devils advocate card, here.)
    Firstly …. Most PL sides have greater finances at their disposal than most Lge 1 & 2 sides united – ‘The greed is good League’ have always had their own way since the PL was launched.
    I fully appreciate their players needing competitive game time. But as you counter – well placed loans can achieve the same benefit…… for all the parties – The loaning club, the borrowing club, and the player.
    It is no news to most that the JPT only really pays in the Final. Yeah …… If PL under 21’s dominate the semis ……… the league 1 & 2 clubs will no longer bother with it. WHY ?? If you believe what has been said in the past, being ‘knocked out’ in the early rounds actually leaves many of those clubs facing a financial loss. Consider the fans, here. If ALL consider their club will not reach the reward of Wembley – then why support it. My estimated sum total for that little lot is MANY clubs will suffer a financial hit – support (attending) will no longer be measured in the low thousands – more like the low hundreds. These games would only serve Lge 1 & 2 clubs as ant extra reserve game, or 2. The sponsors of the Trophy might like to consider all this, when sanctioning the move, or otherwise.
    My initial solution is for all PL sides to forfeit any financial ‘rewards’ – and the ‘total’ rewards are split equally between the highest qualifying two league teams from both North and South.
    Personally …. I am against such proposals. The competition needs promoting in a positive light, not demeaned even further. Besides – the object was to offer this competition for Lge 1 & 2 only. Whatever happened to the PL being independent ? If they’re not – then I want a Hell of an inrease from their TV prize money. We are surviving, as a league – just. We don’t need ‘gate crashers’ who don’t even bring a bottle !

  3. Katie, 6/10 for your article. There is much unsaid, for instance “why are they in this position?””where are these players going after their real world education and what happens when they meet “kickerbilly” who’ll break yer leg!
    Problems stem from Sky money being the attraction for overseas players, displacing home players from squads in the search for an international tv audience. Little or no opportunities for advancement of up coming players mean they reach a plateau that the JPL competition seemingly will (only) extend, but will it? Men v Boys! I mean if you are managing a lower league team, it would be easy to intimidate a pack of boys, oh I forgot the special preference from the refs for the young lads! Unfair, special treatment = non-spectacle and a turn off.
    Then ok if all works out well for the academy boys, then what? Where do they go on to play – the PL first team? Forget that because there is so much tv money/pressure for international stars …. The boys that will make it would be goal scorers, keepers and those who have proved themselves elsewhere (the ones wjo catch the eye) – defenders nah, midfield – nah, wingers – youve guessed it! So they will be transfered or then given a couple of years on loan. So this JPL exercise would be to advance players values?
    We all know that the tv money has skewed the pyramid system and bringing on younger home grown talent has been identified as a resultant problem, and indeed some fear the national team is suffering because of the influx of overseas players. Imo these problems are resulting from the greed of the PL and their blinkered disregard for the FL – parachute money, lack of investment in the supporting competition etc
    I’m not terribly happy with the loan system, yet it does enable us to see talented younger players. Reece Burke has been a revelation but he is remarkable for his consistency, rare in younger players. And then if we do find ourselves in the Championship next year we have a big gap to fill. RB’s education would be enhanced by playing at another club on loan
    Its a difficult problem for the PL but not ours to resolve.
    I like your word demean because there is an arrogance in this suggestion and I wonder if Johnson’Paint just got fed-up with this put down.

    • I understand the foreign player argument but I don’t know if it’s just that – I’ve always personally leaned towards the idea that I’d rather have English players playing with the best talent every week. I think it’s the whole prevalence (maybe understandable, to an extent) of short-term outlooks among top flight clubs. For most of them, the aim each season will just be to stay in the Premier League because of the amount of money on offer – their whole infrastructure changes if they go down. You have the title challengers, then the ones trying to get into Europe – everything is driven by the scale of the financial rewards on offer, and by the success you can attain that season. There’s no real incentive to develop young players and invest the time into getting them to the required level – quotas don’t work. If you couple that with the relentless stockpiling of young players, you’re left with a problematic situation where young players stagnate – and these JPT proposals aren’t sustained enough to alleviate that. The loan system isn’t flawless, but it taps into that idea of taking youth development seriously and hints at a new mindset that, for now, is a far more realistic and valuable solution than this or League Three.

      • Almost nail on head, Katie. So many situations and connotations missing. Yet I for one will take this as a ‘Final gesture’ from the PL – should we gain promotion.
        The almost ‘given’ plus for BCAFC, is that WHU admire our style and man management.
        So much more to debate – yet so little too ?

      • Yes money is the root . . . etc
        Sky money has simply enable Newcastle, Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest to import players from Europe, Africa and Asia for perceived incremental improvement to stay in the PL and for Sky, selling this product around the world, they still make profits.
        Impacts on football generally are of no interest to Sky and PL (with a few genuine exceptions and lip service). The PL clubs have to manage their development squads and the FA have previously dismissed this JPL idea.
        Of course its the bigger clubs that have stacks of players in their development, many falling by the wayside (just like development squads in FL clubs)
        So probably the answer is to let more players go, find new clubs and allow them to play in the FL or Conference to develop further or not, perhaps with sell on clauses. Maybe they should just get real and understand if they have large development squads they all can’t play – wasn’t that an earlier suggestion of playing second teams in the lower leagues?
        Oh Newcastle named deliberately to show it doesn’t always work out!

  4. I have concerns with the loan system and feel it’s over exploited, particularly by us. Whilst it’s great having talent like Reece Burke and Josh Cullen playing for us, it skews the league in favour of clubs who utilise the loan system and neglect their own youth players. Where would we be without Burke, Cullen and Evans? And what opportunities are being given to our youngsters in the meantime?

    Should Williams get injured then will Cracknell get a run in the team? Of course not, we’ll get another loanee. This means we aren’t employing a genuine back up keeper, thus there’s potentially an unemployed journeyman goalie who could’ve been in a job.

    I’m not criticising Parky for his use of the system, but I feel the system is wrong. I would limit teams to playing no more than 2 loanees at a time. If this is hindering the development of youth players at Premier League teams then that’s their problem. Maybe these players could try their luck abroad and fill the void left by those who have moved to the PL in the first place?

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