I can assure you there is no self-interest in this plug. I know not the author, the publisher and I have no stake in a business that sells books. That I recommend as essential summer reading Michael Calvin’s recently published ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ is because I passionately believe this is a topic that must not only be read about, but debated and dealt with. Time and time again.
Whilst Calvin’s book reveals horror story after debacle about the ethos and structure of English football’s youth development system, the aspect that so regularly troubles me is how we see fit (due to the far-reaching tentacles of the much heralded Elite Player Performance Plan – the 2012 introduced ‘EPPP’ ) to condone a system that puts huge financial price-tags on young players, including 9 year olds. Further, those price tags do and will continually result in youngsters being lost to the sport and those price tags bear absolutely no proportionate reality to the true market valuation of even a young, professional footballer.
Calvin reminds us that of the 1.5 million young boys who play organised youth football in England at any one time, only 180 will go on to play in the Premier League – a success rate of 0.012%. A stark reminder of how the chances of ‘making it’ are slim, perhaps. However, what came across my desk this week when advising the family of a young academy footballer really jumped off the page; a quote which said that “We don’t know if a lad in our national under-16’s is going to have a career in the game. People are saying at 8, 9, 10, 11 that a boy is going to be a pro. Its’ nonsense, you can’t do that.”
Who said that? None other than Gareth Southgate, the England manager. He believes that even a young boy so good that he can play for England under 16, is not someone that we can accurately predict a professional career for.
Yet the domestic game in which he ultimately presides over, has developed a system that either sees it very differently – or is quite prepared to treat young youth players as commodities in a way which offends almost all fundamental principles of freedom of movement, education and – to be frank – the legal capacity to enter in to a contract.
This week I have met with a family whose 14 year old son has spent three years at an Academy of a League Two club. On their own honest assessment, he is not even one of the best players in his year group at that club, let alone a player that Southgate would see at St George’s Park representing England under 16’s. But he is a grafter, excelling at school and he just might be a late developer. He certainly wants to carry on playing football. His family, however, not unreasonably have to earn a living and when the father’s employers forced upon him a relocation to the other side of England, then little Johnny (as we shall call him) has to move with his parents, clearly. Johnny would also like to find a club near to his parent’s new home, but guess what – any club that does wish to sign him has to pay £37,500. With the greatest of respect to Johnny, that is not going to happen. Very few teams in League Two (or One) want to pay £37,500 for an established first team player, let alone a 14 year old.
Southgate is clear that there is no obvious correlation between a youngster playing for England under 16 (who most likely players for one of big Premier League academies) and him turning professional. Yet we are happy to enforce a valuation of £37,500 on a League Two 14 year old, whose career to date consists of a handful of games for an under 14 side and sporadic training sessions in the evenings and school holidays. It beggars belief.
I was asked to contribute in December 2016 to the Telegraph’s investigation in to this matter (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/12/21/youth-players-left-scrapheap-thanks-exorbitant-compensation/) and my focus was on the legalities of the regime. They trouble me, as I made clear. But reading Calvin’s book, considering the statistics, reflecting on Southgate’s sentiments and advising Johnny’s parents has made me feel extremely uneasy this week. What are we doing?
It would be good if somebody could ask Southgate to intervene for, refreshingly, he seems to possess a very realistic and sanguine attitude to the perils of youth development. One suspects he was not involved in the drafting of the EPPP rules on compensation. To continue to ignore the absurdity of the situation is a gamble we can not afford to be taking.