With England just making it to the 2014 World Cup, there are growing concerns about the state of English football. Tom Bennett investigates how our football system compares to our rivals and what the future holds for the national team.
The number of English players in the Premier League is plummeting. Many believe the drive to produce the worlds’ most exciting league has badly affected the England team and the nation’s youngest players.
According to statisticians Opta, English players account for less than a third of minutes played in the Premier League. Just 32.26% of minutes played this season in England’s top flight have been by home-grown players compared to just over 35% in the 2007/2008 season.
This figure is the lowest in Europe and the second lowest in the world. Only Canada’s top domestic league has fielded less home-grown players (22.4%).
England’s European rivals in major competitions are giving far more players minutes in their top leagues. The study found that 50% of Bundesliga players are German, 51.1% of Ligue 1 players are French and 59.4% of La Liga players are Spanish.
The solution (or perhaps not?) – The Premier League’s new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The intention of the EPPP was to produce more English youngsters at Premier League clubs by easing restrictions on the distances that players can move between clubs. Under the old rules, academies could only sign players within 90 minutes travel of their training facility, meaning larger clubs could only sign academy players within a certain ‘catchment area’. The new system allows any club to sign any academy player with a fixed transfer fees, of which Football League clubs have criticised for being too low.
But Football League clubs aren’t the only ones criticising the new system. Dr Richard Elliott, Director of the Lawrie McMenemy Centre for Football Research at Southampton Solent University, believes a focus on getting the best players in Premier League academies is erroneous. He said: “My major concern with the EPPP is that it favours the rich clubs. It’s not always the case that the best players have been produced by the richest clubs. Sometimes it has been the clubs with the most fairly modest incomes that have produced the best players, so I don’t think necessarily the system permits the development of players in the best ways.”
Dr Elliott’s opinion proves truthful against England’s latest starting line-up. England’s starting eleven against Poland in November 2013 included just two players produced by academies from last season’s top-four Premier League clubs, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge.
So where do the rest of Roy Hodgson’s team come from? After 13 Premier League titles, you’d assume Manchester United’s academy graduates dominate the England set-up, but you’d be wrong. Manchester United were responsible for just two members of Hodgson’s latest competitive squad that beat Poland to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup – Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley – that’s the same amount of players as League One side Sheffield United (Kyle Walker and Phil Jagielka).
Arsenal are typically leading the way in terms of players produced for the national side. Ashley Cole, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere were all included in Hodgson’s squad against Poland.
England’s current crop are fairly spread out throughout the league pyramid in terms of their youth background. Joe Hart, England’s number one, graduated from Shrewsbury Town’s academy in 2003 and went on to make 54 first-team appearances for the League One club. Chris Smalling comes from even further down the league pyramid. He made 12 appearances for Isthminian Premier League side Maidstone United before being snapped up by Fulham in 2008 and then joining Manchester United two years later.
The future of England’s squad seems to hinge on a recurring theme of Football League youngsters being transferred up to the top tier. Wilfried Zaha and Nick Powell, two of Manchester United’s recent recruits labelled as England’s next superstars both sprouted from Football League academies. Zaha joined last season’s Premier League champions from Crystal Palace while Powell came from League One side Crewe Alexandra.
So this trend will long continue? Possibly not under the EPPP. But the Football League’s Head of Youth Development David Wetherall claims this movement has been constant and not been negatively effected by the EPPP: “There’s movement as I understand it at a variety of ages and that’s not changed just because of the Elite Player Performance Plan. There has always been a movement between clubs, between academies and between the old centre of excellences when the old system was in place.
“I think from a Football League perspective, there are a lot of players making their debuts every year in the Football League. We have had over 200 each season over the last few years, which is a very substantial number. Obviously some of these players perform to a standard that the very top clubs in the country are then interested in, with examples as Nick Powell and Wilfried Zaha.
“Then there are also players that perform so well in their academy environment that again the clubs in the country who have the finances to do so – and it’s not just Premier League clubs it’s some football league clubs – go out and express an interest in signing players who are not playing in the first-team environment, who are younger. So there is that movement but we shouldn’t just think it is a new thing under the Elite Player Performance Plan.”
Championship club Yeovil Town are the most high-profile club to be negatively effected by the new system. They folded their academy system at the start of the 2012/2013 season, blaming the high cost of implementing the EPPP for their youth downfall.
Under the EPPP, clubs are split into four categories, with category one and academies receiving significantly more money from the Premier League than category four academies to support their youth operation.
“I think the scope of their operations is substantially different. The other way of looking at that is that those clubs have to put a lot more of their own money in. I think you’ve got to really compare the finances that are available. That is just one aspect to the operation,” said former Bradford City defender Wetherall.
The new system allows players to move to a Premier League clubs at any age, which has led to the richer clubs signing youngsters at as young as 5-years-old. Dr Elliott opposes this tendency and explained: “I think we need opportunities for boys to play football in the way that they want to play football when they come into an academy system. We shouldn’t be scouting them at 3, 4 and 5 and getting them to sign their first papers at 8. I think that’s far too early.
“The vast majority of boys in the system of course are there to make up the numbers and they are being kept on largely to support the development of other players around them. But that doesn’t necessarily work because as any good coach will tell you, to develop a good player they have to be surrounded by players of similar or even better ability.”
Dr Elliott believes secondary school age would be an ideal time to sign youngsters, so they can have time to enjoy the game before taking it seriously as a career: “I think one of the first thigns we do with the young boys is tell them that they cant play football. They can’t play for their schools, they can’t risk getting injured, they cant play for fun as such for the intrinsic desire of playing the game and there are bigger issues with respect to this. Kids don’t go out and play football in the parks and the streets anymore. You don’t see that in the same way as it was when I was growing up when you’d go out and you’d come home from school and you’d be straight out and you’d be playing football all evening until it got dark and you went in for your dinner. You don’t see kids doing that.”
The EPPP turns three-years-old later this year and still causes debate on it’s effectiveness, appropriateness and necessity, an argument that could ultimately stem for years on end – until England win a World Cup.[/one_third] [one_third] [/one_third] [one_third_last] [/one_third_last] [one_third]