SHEFFIELD, England -- It is two years this month since the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was accepted by the member clubs of the Football League. Aiming to make the academy system in England more professional and to ensure the most talented young players receive the best coaching possible, one goal is to have 50 percent of players in the Premier League qualified to play for England by 2017.
With the ratio of England-qualified players in Premier League starting XIs dropping to an all-time low of 34.1 percent at the beginning of this season, achieving that within the next four years will be no easy task. EPPP was not accepted with open arms by Football League chairmen in 2011, with only 46 of the 72 member clubs voting in favour.
Many clubs accused the Premier League of devising a system that enables the elite to collect the most promising talent at a very young age for a nominal fee. Category One clubs (of which 17 of the 20 are in the Premier League) can now take any player they want from any other club for a set compensation fee, as low as 3,000 pounds for those aged 9 and under from a Category Two club. Until EPPP came in, a player could only sign for a club within 90 minutes' drive of their house. But now the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal can cherry pick the cream of the talent from anywhere.
Clubs have been working hard to ensure they achieve their target category, and in turn protect their long-term interests. One such club is Championship side Sheffield Wednesday, who appointed Dean Ramsdale as academy manager in September 2012 and tasked him with the job of making the club's academy fit to qualify for Category Two. However, he has already seen a Category One Premier League club come in and take away one of his brightest young talents.
"We've lost our first player through EPPP. That's one down side of it for us," Ramsdale told ESPN. "As academy manager your assets are your players, and there is now an open door policy on scouts from other clubs. Rather than have one or two on any given Saturday we've probably got a dozen or more.
"Category One clubs have got more resources, and more scouts, so they are doing what I would do and sending scouts to other category clubs. I imagine their recruitment network is changing, and it means we have lost our best under-9 player to a Premier League club for just 3,000 pounds because they know that's all they are going to have to pay. You do everything you can to keep them, but players' heads do get turned, and parents' heads get turned, too.
"I guess that has always happened, but what I have noticed is that in the last two or three years, since the introduction of EPPP, the big clubs are looking at all your better young players because they can get a 9-year-old at 3,000 pounds, or say a ten-year-old at 6,000 pounds. You are losing your players predominantly at the younger age group, and you are just trying to keep hold of them as you are judged on what players you bring through your system.
"I think they want a tiered system where all the cream rises to the top and they want to cherry pick all the best players and then hopefully the national team improve from there." Wednesday manager Dave Jones specifically recruited Ramsdale, who had already worked on EPPP with Preston, 12 months ago.
"Prior to myself arriving, the club did a pre-audit, and the results that came back from that weren't great," Ramsdale explained. "The auditors [Foot PASS] are a company from Belgium which does the same job [for the academy system] in the Belgian league and the [German] Bundesliga.
"Going for Category Two you've got to have an awful lot of staff: head of coaching, a full sports science team, two full-time members of staff on your under-18s, a full-time foundation phase coach, analysis, club doctors.
"But the staffing is only part of it, as there are 11 key performance indicators that the auditors look at, with leadership and management only one area. Still, if you get the staff right, then you have a great platform to go and make things better."
Some Football League clubs have chosen not to invest in their academy in line with EPPP, believing it to be too costly with uncertain returns on first-team graduates and the limit on compensation for young talent.
"There are a lot of benefits, albeit linked to the amount of money you have to put in," Ramsdale said. "Category Two is around 1 million pounds compared to 300,000 pounds for Category Three -- so it's a fantastic difference. When you think of the money a club has to put in pound-for-pound there's a lot of thinking to be done. But we've got better coaches in place now and an opportunity to attract better players.
"One benefit is the games programme you are actually in. It means you are pitted against other Category Two clubs, there are more tournaments and competitions that you are invited to. You've also got more value on your players if anyone wants to come and buy them off you from a Category One club."
Ramsdale also concedes that EPPP has certainly made a club think more professionally about the way they organise their academy.
"There's more governance of your academy now than what there was before," he continued. "You had the Football League, which would come in and do the monitoring before, but now everyone is focused on the thoroughness of the new audits as there was no stone left unturned, no hiding place.
"In my experience of 20-odd years of professional and youth football, maybe some things weren't done correctly in the past, you wouldn't have the right number of coaches and you certainly wouldn't have a technical programme. 'What's a technical programme?' Nobody knew, the coaches would turn up and just coach. You've got to have a technical programme for your under-21s, under-18s, under-16s and your foundation players.
"Our under-18 coaches now do 14-plus hours a week, and that is solely just time spent out on the grass. So, for instance, time in the gym and time on psychology workshops, analyst work, strength/conditioning programmes are outside that. "Before you might have done 12 hours and that would have encompassed everything. Now it's certainly more structured and professional for the time the lads have to spend out on the training ground.
"EPPP has certainly raised the profile within football clubs of your academy -- thinking of monthly technical meetings which now involve all coaches at the club.
Sheffield Wednesday will also receive up to an additional 1.3 million pounds if the player has made 100 Premier League appearances, plus 5 percent of all future domestic transfer fees.
"We get funding of around 500,000 pounds and the club puts that in too and more. In the past would our club have put 500,000 pounds in? I would doubt it. But they do now and by us gaining the Category Two status we are guaranteed that for four years -- last year and the next three. We've got a business plan going forward that we know we can work to.
"When clubs have committed that amount of money the spotlight is on you, and I think sometimes in the past -- where clubs will have had an academy or a Centre of Excellence -- some clubs will have paid lip-service to it, not really bothered about what really goes on and occasionally it throws a player out at the top.
"I picked an email up yesterday from the parents of a boy who our scouts saw and the first question his parents asked was: 'What category are you?' And that's becoming more prevalent now. Parents are savvy, parents are aware that the category will predetermine what sort of facilities there are, what coaches are available and commitment is there from the football club. By saying we are Category Two but we want to go Category One, then that sets the standard as well."
But with Premier League clubs now flooding their academies with foreign players further up the age groups, will players taken to major clubs at such a young age really get the chance to make the grade?
"You've always got that 'what if?' when they get to 16 and 18," he said. "The likelihood is that clubs are looking worldwide now for talent so will only keep the very best that they've got; we've got to be sat here with the landing net when the big clubs cast out players from whatever age group.
"The players we saw at a Category One club recently, there were very few English players on that pitch, and that was at under-14 level. It's just how it is, and very frustrating at times when you are trying to work within the legislation and the rules but you know full well other clubs have got bigger budgets and use worldwide programmes to bring players in. "What we have to make sure is that those players who do not make it at the Category One clubs can have an opportunity here at Sheffield Wednesday.
"We have spent a lot of time, effort and resources into networking with the Category One clubs and making them aware of our position, having a presence at their training ground. I spend as much time looking at players from other clubs as I do at my own for that reason. We go out to tournaments, for instance in Ireland and France, and make sure you are seen when a club decides they don't want to keep a player."
But Wednesday are not content with being in the lower category and want to be in the position where they can be the club sending scouts out to clubs in large numbers.
"Our facilities, although they are adequate, they are not by any stretch of the imagination fantastic," Ramsdale explained. "So we've got a lot of work to do. But I've put a strategic five-year plan into the football club, we have a technical board meeting every month which the manager and all the first-team staff attend, [vice chairman] Paul Adridge and all my senior academy team.
"The plan says where we need to be in incremental steps, but you are always going to be governed by finances. If you get into the 'Promised Land' of the Premier League then finances become more readily available to go out and maybe relocate to a bigger training ground or a separate training ground for the academy. There is always going to an opportunity to go Category One, but you need to make sure you have the right people, facilities and finances."
Wednesday have embraced EPPP, despite the understandable concerns over Premier League clubs' ability to swoop in and take such young footballers from their cradle. Only time will tell if the vast sums of investment required will bear fruit with talented players coming through the academy into the first team.
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Sheffield Wednesday's Player Development rating at the first audit was just 25 percent, but was raised to 63 percent to achieve Category Two. Vision and Strategy rose from 33 percent to 63 percent at final Foot PASS audit.