Why Brentford’s decision is worrying for the future of many academies, but an understandable choice for many Football League clubs
To have decided to close their Academy weeks after sorting out their groups and signing new players for next season seemed very heartless and thoughtless. Perhaps the decision had been made months ago and it was merely a case of letting the season come to an end, acting like business as usual and then hitting the sucker-punch at the end. A pretty devastating one for all the young players within Brentford’s Academy programme who dreams must have felt tarnished in the 90 minute meeting which was held to announce the immediate closure of the Academy. Why had this decision being made, so drastically too, and what does it say about the state of Academies outside the Premier League?
It was an economical and perhaps one could argue analytical decision (this is of course the route Brentford have taken under owner Matthew Benham and the newly appointed co-director's of football Rasmus Ankersen and Phil Giles. Up till now it hasn’t precisely corresponded to success on the pitch, the club seemed in a much better position under the management of Mark Warburton, but this is the route they have chosen to take.
The decision to close the Academy was based on simple economics. As the statement from the club read “The club must strive to find ways to do things differently to our rivals, in order to compete and progress as a Championship football club. We cannot outspend the vast majority of our competitors therefore we will never shy away from taking the kind of decision that can give us a competitive edge."
At a cost of £1.5m a year to be a Category 2 Academy the club felt this was too much expenditure for the ‘hope’ of ‘producing’ a player for the 1st team, or more importantly it seems these days, a player who can be sold for upwards of £5m to a Premier League club.
The Academy world has become very business centric in the past decade with clubs knowing they can make a lot of money if they 'produce' the next Rooney. Finances has become seemingly more important than player development. The irony of course is that investing in player development with great coaching will produce quality players who will ultimately make the club money. However this is too long term a vision for clubs where the ‘decision makers’ often plan week by week rather than ten years down the line, basing opinions and decisions on 1st team performances and results or how they’re feeling at that time. I wish this wasn’t the case but it is in many places.
So when Brentford showcase their ‘new’ under 9’s for the 16/17 season these players are part of a decade long ‘plan’ to aid their development and ultimately help Brentford ‘produce their own’. The problem however is that it isn’t that easy. There are many variables, roadblocks and struggles along the way for young players, 10 years is a long time and philosophies, coaches and culture can change dramatically in this time. Players can change; physically and mentally, become distracted, injured or lose interest. A young players career trajectory may be affected by a coach they have at U12, parents getting divorced or problems at school. It’s not a guaranteed science player development and Brentford have assessed their options and decided it’s a risk too great for the financial outlay required.
The world of analytics is about statistical data and percentages, and the percentage outcome of an Academy player becoming a professional footballer in the Premier League is 0.01% out of 10,000 players. The idea of players ‘making it’ as a player in the Premier League can make the whole process seem pointless.
Of course others may embrace the challenge and work tirelessly to produce players who can become professionals. Sometimes the club itself has a deep seated interest, belief and love for producing young players and pride themselves on it (hint: these tend to be the better producers of players).
Brentford felt it was money better spent elsewhere. A shame for the 100+ players within their Academy yet truth is if the club is not fully behind the Academy, it may be a blessing for the players long term and allow them to find clubs who will help them develop. Of course the coaches and staff to lose their jobs is also a terrible outcome to this decision.
And it is about decisions and taking educated risks. The decision to embrace an ‘elite development’ group of 17-21’s, reflecting the EPPP Cat 4 model yet removing themselves from burden and rules of the EPPP is an interesting approach. It shows that they do value youth development (at the higher end), but would prefer other clubs and coaches to develop the players between 9-16 years and then look at taking them on later – perhaps after players at Cat 1 and 2 clubs have not been offered scholarships.
The EPPP was formed for this model to start happening. The Cat 4 model ‘works’ in relation to EPPP and hopefully increased the percentage of players who progress. Effectively the hope was that a lot of clubs would decide that having a 9-16's programme was effectively worthless and only a burden financially, moving to Cat 4 would cost less but would still give the clubs the opportunity to have a youth team and produce pro's.
The writers of the EPPP clearly felt that introducing these changes would increase the pressure on Football Leagues financially and almost force their hand into deciding to move to Cat 4. This change would mean less Academies with players in their 9-16’s programme which therefore means less players in the system, thus increasing the quality while reducing the quantity. Effectively leaving perhaps 40, instead of the 70+ Academies which were in place when the EPPP was set-up to develop a stronger and higher quality level of 9-16 player. And when a certain number of players don’t receive scholarships at their respective Academies, they fall into the Cat 4 Youth Teams. Therefore seeking to lose less players out the system and keep more within. Makes sense really.
A need for 9-16's when foreign players are better?
This issue is especially relevant when you consider how clubs, from Cat 1 to 3 opt to bring in players from ‘outside’ their own system. Often it is recruiting nationally in terms of finding any players who have not been offered scholarships at a Cat 1 or 2 club as mentioned above. But perhaps the most perplexing and troubling issue with English Academies is when it gets U17 level and the Academies now have a chance to bring in foreign players. The Academies jump at the chance, leaving many of those they’ve had since U9 released and unwanted.
It begs the question of why these foreign players are deemed better than what you’ve got. Because if that is the case, then surely the club should be held responsible for it’s inability to produce players worthy of scholarships? Huddersfield Town have felt this is an issue worth addressing and in recent weeks they’ve made the decision to sack their Academy manager and two phase lead coaches (Foundation 9-11 and Youth Development 12-16). Mark Lillis, the now previous Academy manager of Huddersfield was relieved of his duties because simply the Academy were not producing players good enough for their youth team and 1st team.
Dean Hoyle, chairman and owner of the club made the decision following a review of the youth system. His quotes are very interesting. He says and I've decided to put it all in here because it makes for interesting and relevant reading.
“I want our fans to know these changes have been made with one aim - to improve the quality of young footballer that the academy is producing and get them playing regularly in our first team. I have stated before that nobody at Huddersfield Town is happy with treading water in the Championship and the intention is that the academy will play a large part in helping the club make steps forward on the field.
The academy plays a big part in our football strategy and the truth is that it has not been delivering Championship-quality footballers on a regular basis. The young players making a genuine impact at first-team level – the likes of Philip Billing, Flo Bojaj and, before that, Tommy Smith and Harry Bunn – have been recruited from outside at 16 and above. That extends to the players who have gained such good results at Under 18 and Under 21 level in recent seasons. A number of those players, such as Ronan Coughlan, Danny Kane and Tadhg Ryan, were recruited in their late teens.
The level of production from the academy must be – and will be – better.
He finished by saying “I’m very proud to see our younger age groups winning leagues and performing well in cups – it also helps us with recruitment – but ultimately the academy exists to produce players for the first team.”
Very interesting. Unlike Brentford, Huddersfield made the decision to change their staff rather than close the Academy, and Hoyle’s words of supporting youth and wanting youth to be a part of the club is admirable and pleasing to hear. But you can see why Brentford closed based on what Hoyle said.
There is a trend emerging where foreign players recruited from abroad are delivering more and becoming professionals at English clubs from their respective youth teams. So if these foreign players are better, the question is why?
There are many English clubs who recruit strongly in Ireland, seeking to find a ‘hidden’ talent. And they are being found. Of course these players aren’t 'hidden', they are playing for their national sides at U14, U15 and U16 stage, going to tournaments and showcasing what they can do. So why are they better? Is the gap between these lads that much greater?
There is the argument that if a club decides to bring a player from abroad, if an Academy Manager has scouted and recruited this player with fervour, then they produce a self-fulfilling prophecy that this player will ‘make it’. Remember they have the decision of who to offer a pro contract to. This bias (unintentional or not) will play a part in their decision making. So one could argue that if you can’t recruit or bring across foreign players until 18 years old, Academy Managers will therefore be forced to embrace their own more, perhaps giving them more of a chance and therefore increasing the players chances of success.
Having just 1 or 2 pro contracts available each doesn’t help either, it often promotes choosing the ‘strongest’ and neglecting against a ‘risk’ option, perhaps a smaller, late developer type player which sometimes is the one who actually makes it long term. Those words opportunity and luck come up once again.
The importance of grit and character
But let us look at the issue which is happening, why the Irish and other foreign players are (or are deemed) better than the English players who they compare to at 16? It points towards the ‘type’ of players within the English Academy setting, as well as the Academy system itself. What I have noticed in the Academies is that there are far too many ‘nice’, often middle class lads who are good, technical players, who ‘look’ the part, but who seem to lack the fight and determination required to cut it in a youth team environment. This is how it is perceived anyway.
Sometimes these lads are physically not as strong or as fast as players from ethnic-minority backgrounds, yet it is not just physical but mental and psychological factors which seem to effect these players. Irish lads are white so there’s not a race issue, it's more about cultural factor at play. Players from inner cities do tend to be more driven, aggressive and relentless in their desire to become a professional. I love that in a player. It’s what players like Alexis Sanchez have criticised English players for lacking, that fight and ultimate desire to succeed. Some players are good/nice footballers yet they lack the real bite and drive which is needed.
Others of course have too much aggression and lack the intelligence to become a top player. But my point is that the Irish lads I’ve experienced want it more and are more focused in what they want. Perhaps it comes from not being in the ‘cozy’ world of Academies at a young age, where everything from the facilities, kit and even the type of football played (up and at ‘em football or the nice Academy way) is a big factor in the development of a certain player. Irish lads on the most part have not been given a whole lot and they’ve experienced hardships and developed ‘grit’ along the way. I worry that many English players lack the ‘grit’ required. And coaches, Academy Managers and 1st team managers see it.
This character profiling is what they often rely on to judge a player. Does he have the character to play as a pro? Can he deal with the everyday pressures/challenges/banter which pro’s deal with? A ‘nice’ player often struggles. And this is perhaps an issue with the culture of Academies. Are they simply too ‘nice’? Are they actually helping to develop the right type of player, the player who possesses the intensity, drive and hunger to succeed and develop? It certainly develops nice footballers, with nice technical skills and technique, but this is just one part of being a footballer.
If Academies like Huddersfield are struggling to produce the right type of players for their youth team and ultimately senior side, then perhaps they need a radcial overhaul of recruitment and talent ID at 9-16, as well as alter their coaching programme, methods and philosophy to be a little more rugged and less nice. It may take away the aesthetic value in the football being played, but it might just produce some more footballers for the pro game.
The best developers are the most joined up
I will counter the above however now and offer this argument. Perhaps the issue is that when players get to youth team football the ideas and development which they’ve experienced between 9-16 seems to be somewhat abruptly dismissed and ‘real’ football is introduced. No wonder many of the technical players struggle and why the smaller players are dismissed. Does this have to do with the ceiling of influence which ‘modern’ coaches struggle to break through? Are there still Academies where those at the top, those 'in charge' value ‘old school’ football, methods and ideas above the modern ‘tippy-tappy’ football, which I hear many say they don’t enjoy seeing.
It seems ludicrous to think that these Academies have almost a clear divide at some point within their Academy where the ‘modern’ coaching methods, values and style is replaced for a more ‘old school’ direct type of football. Is this why the Irish lads appear better? Because the style is more akin to their development than the lads who’ve been through the Academy system?
It’s evident that the best developers of players provide a consistent philosophy and style throughout their pathway, all the way to the 1st team. This allows for continuity, understanding between coaches and a sense of everyone being on board with the approach and philosophy of the club. Perhaps instead of complaining about the EPPP, instead of feeling the finances is a burden and ultimately bemoaning about the lack of talent coming through, clubs should assess and consider if they are joined up well enough from U9-1st team to truly succeed as an Academy. The best developers often are those whose philosophy and beliefs are clear throughout.
Without a joined up approach we will continue to see the frustrations of development at Academies, the loss of jobs within the Academies, the extreme measures (yet which will become more common) of closing Academies for perceived failures of development and the move to Category 4 type Academies which simply seek to recruit ad not develop a youth team. At least with these levels you can accept the need to look around for talent to ‘build’ your youth team, yet if you have a 9-16’s programme it baffles me to think that a club cannot build their youth team from within.
If foreign players are deemed better than what we are producing then we still have a problem with our recruitment and coaching methods and ideas and that clubs need a much more joined up approach to truly succeed. Ultimately for Academies to truly succeed it may be necessary for clubs to be radical in their appointment of ‘younger’ coaches and move away from having older, ex-pro type men in charge whose ideas don’t seem to equate to the present game, yet alone the future.
We are at a point with Academies where yes there are too many and have been some time now, but it’s not just about Category level, there are some Cat 3’s which are working very well and some Cat 1’s which aren’t. The key is making sure the ones who are working receive the support and backing which will allow them to keep on producing talent for the future.
Unfortunately I see more Football League clubs going the route of Brentford, moving away from the EPPP and setting up their own development schools/teams to nurture players through the system. I get the feeling the writers of the EPPP expected and wanted this to happen, having a more streamlined and smaller system with a higher number of quality players within it. Ultimately you are either a club who values the development and progression of youth or not, if you're not then I would suggest to those clubs to close their Academies, because it's unfair on the kids within the system and unfair on the coaches who strive to make a difference.
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