Academies suffer as football grows richer
The Premier League is watched all over the world, admired by adoring supporters and a target for ambitious foreign players.
With its global appeal and fan base, the scouting networks of Premier League clubs are now engaged in worldwide search to sign the best footballers for their clubs.
But are their academies suffering as a result? The list of players regularly turning out for top-flight teams who are academy graduates is a very short one.
As the London and South regional officer for League Football Education, Gavin Willacy knows only too well the impact that this global pull is having on academies.
His organisation is a partnership between the Football League and the Professional Footballers Association which oversees educational programmes for young players at clubs up and down the country.
So Willacy has seen how hard increasingly hard it has become for academy hopefuls to make the transition to first-team squads.
“We’re all very critical of academies bearing in mind that 20 years ago that youngsters trying to get into Premier League teams were up against some of the best players from a few European countries.
“Now to get in to a Premier League team, you’ve got to be among the best players in the world.
“At some clubs, there’s an ethos that ‘we’ need to bring young players through. At others, that is not there at all”
“We’re spending more money than nearly every other league in the world so the challenge is absolutely massive, far harder than it ever used to be for a player to become an established Premier League player.”
Globalisation doesn’t just stop with the talented pools of players. Managers from all over the world are courted to become the next ‘top boss’ in English football’s elite level.
But what effect does that have on a club’s vision for its academy?
Willacy said: “What’s the incentive for a manager to play a young local player, unless he’s encouraged by the whole club? At some, there’s an ethos that ‘we’ need to bring young players through. At others, that is not there at all.
“It’s not about the size of the club either. Take Chelsea, going back a hell of a long way, there is no history of bringing young players through, it’s not in the culture of the club.
“At Manchester United, it’s a massive part of what they are and what they do. They need to have Mancunians in the team. When Danny Welbeck was sold, everyone slaughtered [team boss Louis] Van Gaal because there was no Mancs left.
“Then suddenly he started picking a load of young players. I think he knew it would buy him some time in getting some sympathy, for want of a better word, from the fans if he put young locals in there.”
So high are the stakes, and so great the rewards for Premier League membership these days that many managers view it as almost impossible to risk integrating young players into the first-team fold. The danger is promoting youth from within might means curtains for their Premier league careers.
From next season, a new £5bn TV deal for UK rights alone kicks in, meaning the incentive for fighting tooth and nail to stay in the top flight has never been greater.
“Unfortunately, aspiring young academy players at elite-level clubs may have to look lower down the leagues to get a game”
Will that money filter its way down to academy level and be invested in nurturing young talent, or is the value of maintaining Premier League status too great for clubs to think long term?
As Willacy says: “If you have only seen someone at U-21s and they have been very impressive, but you’ve also got somebody that has played 400 league games in the squad, who do you trust the most when your jobs on the line and relegation is a possibility?
“If there was no relegation you have to assume young players would get more opportunities, but I don’t think that would solve anything.”
Born in 1992, the Premier League is again on the cusp of further establishing itself as the leading marketing and money-making machine in football’s global market.
Unfortunately, aspiring young academy players at elite-level clubs may have to look lower down the leagues to get a game.
Photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons