The Grim Reaper was welcomed in by the Football League this week as clubs voted to accept proposals for a sweeping overhaul of the academy system that could spell the end for many of the 72.
The changes come as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) unveiled in January by Sir Trevor Brooking and passed by Premier League clubs in June. The aim of the EPPP is to revolutionise youth football, bringing England up to a level currently occupied by Spain. Sounds good, right? Think again.
This particular piece of legislation has the potential to rip the heart out of the Football League. It could leave teams that consistently produce quality youngsters, such as Crewe Alexandra and Crystal Palace, with very little to show for their endeavours.
The ruling itself, passed by the brass at Walsall's Banks's Stadium, means that clubs' academies will now be categorised. The top category - branded, with impressive originality, 'Category One' - will cost around £2.5 million and require 18 full-time staff. Essentially all Category One academies will be at Premier League clubs and the richer Championship sides, such as West Ham and Leicester.
The current format states that when a player under the age of 17 moves to a bigger club, a tribunal determines the compensation paid, ensuring the smaller club gets an apparently fair price for the talent they have nurtured.
Under the convoluted new ruling, clubs will receive £3,000 for each year spent nurturing a player between the ages of nine and 11 and between £12,500 and £40,000 - more for the higher-category academies - for each year spent at the club between the ages of 12 and 16. The new system will essentially create a monopoly for bigger sides to poach players as and when they wish at a pittance of their true price. In short, Category One clubs can buy any under-17 footballer they like for well under than £200,000.
The money here is quite simply feeble. For many clubs, the income from a well-nurtured academy can be just as vital as money generated by the first team. The new system reduces trickle-down economics to a barely dripping tap.
To put into perspective the impact that the new ruling could have on Football League clubs, simply look at some of the recent youngsters to have made the switch to Premier League clubs.
Only this week, MK Dons agreed a deal of £1.5m rising to £2m with Chelsea for 14-year-old Oluwaseyi Ojo; under the new ruling, they would be lucky to get £100,000 for the talented youngster. The deals that took players like John Bostock from Palace to Tottenham and Raheem Sterling from QPR to Liverpool to big Premier League sides totalled around £7m, vital money for the selling clubs. Under the new system, the deals would combine to make a measly £200,000 or so.
So why has the Football League accepted a deal that seems likely to whittle away at the foundations of English football until it crumbles into a powdery mess? Quite simply, the Premier League has, in typical "We're bigger than you" style, forced the hand of the 72.
Purely in the interest of 'developing' English youth football, the Premier League threatened to remove the funding they provide to the Football League for youth development. This funding totals somewhere in the region of £5m annually, money that many lower-league teams depend on in order to survive. The 'big' clubs generously agreed to increase the youth development funding if the Football League agreed to the terms of EPPP.
With little other option, and reluctantly encouraged by forlorn Football League chairman Greg Clarke, the EPPP was passed by 46 votes to 22 with three no-shows and one abstention. The 72's short-term needs will be pacified, but what happens when they get £60,000 for a player who would previously have raised a million?
For their part, the Premier League clubs are also keen to stress that it was possible for Football League clubs to obtain the Category One status. But how? Even outside a recession, there aren't many Football League clubs able to dedicate £2.5m and 18 full-time staff to players outside the first team.
They have absolutely no chance when their most promising prospects are being swallowed up for a price equivalent to a bag of balls, a set of cones and a handful of training bibs. Rudimentary maths indicate that to cover that annual £2.5m, academies would have to sell 20 top-rated 17-year-olds every single season.
This could quite simply spell the end for many Football League academies. It used to be said of many smaller clubs that they couldn't afford to ignore a youth system; now it may mean that clubs can't afford to have one. If nurturing players costs significantly more than it saves (or makes), clubs will have to make the hard-nosed business decision to stay alive by killing off their youth programmes.
If (or rather when) that happens, the EPPP becomes counter-productive by significantly reducing the number of players coming through academies. Only those players deemed good enough in their early teens by the big clubs will survive; the others, previously picked up by smaller clubs, will drift out of football altogether.
That would mean, for example, that there'd be no room at the table for Ashley Young: now starring for Manchester United and England, but not good enough for Watford before the age of 18. No Bradley Johnson, recently called up by Fabio Capello for the Montenegro game: he was released by Arsenal at 15 and worked his way back up via the Cambridge United youth teams.
It may be pragmatic for the talent to be funneled into fewer academies, but making the pool significantly shallower can't be good for English football.
If Football League clubs can't afford academies, England risk losing players like Joe Hart (who came through Shrewsbury's youth ranks), Chris Smalling (Millwall), Darren Bent (Ipswich), Gareth Barry (Brighton), Kyle Walker (Sheffield United) and Leighton Baines (Wigan, after being released by Liverpool at 17) - not to mention all the players produced by the excellent academies at Middlesbrough and Southampton, whose jewels would be snatched for far less than the recent going rates.
The days of seeing the local boy make his debut, or getting that shiver down your spine as you see a 17-year-old talent for the first time on a wet and windy night at Gresty Road or Selhurst Park, may well be over. The Reaper is on his way to your club, and it would appear you have little choice but to open the door and welcome him in.
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