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Oct 8, 2013

EPPP: More questions than answers

You have heard of it. You might, if you like long and grandiose titles, call it the Elite Player Performance Plan. If you share football’s tin ear for acronyms, you might prefer EPPP. You know it is to do with youth development, and you know it is not exactly universally popular.

You may, like Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish, believe it is “a brazen attempt by the Premier League’s wealthy elite to cherry-pick the best youngsters.” You may share the view of his West Bromwich Albion counterpart, Jeremy Peace, that it is simply a way of encouraging middle- and lower-ranking clubs to spend millions of pounds a year “to be someone else’s academy.”

Or you may take the contrary position, occupied by the former Liverpool and Barcelona youth guru Pep Segura, that such a response is “selfish.” Indeed: “If you have a really gifted student and put him in a really bad school, his results suffer,” goes the Spaniard’s logic. “If a smaller club feels they have a great player in their youth system, he may not develop as he could, and in many cases, that talent is lost to the game completely.”

The Premier League’s big beasts, by and large, would agree with the latter view; there are plenty, from the middle of the top flight downwards, who would subscribe to the former. It is now a little over a year since EPPP came into action. The tension between the two camps is as strong as ever.

First, then, to explain it all. The basic tenet of EPPP is that elite young players develop best when they are clustered together. Barcelona, perhaps, is the best example of this: For all the theorising that La Masia is some bastion of Catalan nationalism, Andres Iniesta grew up in Albacete, Pepe Reina was born in Madrid, Pedro came as a 17-year-old from Tenerife (and of course Lionel Messi is Argentine, but never mind that). Yet despite that, Barcelona could gather them all together and allow them to grow as a unit.

In England, until last August, that was not technically possible. Youth development here was governed by the 90-minute rule, meaning that clubs could only recruit players from within an hour-and-a-half’s drive of their training ground. The logic was that such a measure protected smaller clubs from seeing all of the talent in their local area hoovered up by Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and the rest.

It should be no surprise, of course, that the game’s superpowers saw that as a curb on their ambitions. Sir Alex Ferguson, for one, saw it as a limitation on a young player’s rights. The Premier League evidently agreed and the abolition of the 90-minute rule became one of the founding principles of EPPP.

There were others. It also sought to formalise transfer fees between academies -- introducing set fees dependent on how long a club had trained a player, with bonuses based on how many appearances they go on to make at senior level -- and to rank each club’s youth system according to its facilities, its capacity and its reach.

The idea, according to the Premier League, was to give the best young players the best chance to train in the best environment, with more access to the best coaches. It was a seismic shift -- described by The Independent’s Sam Wallace as being “as close to a Year Zero” as you get -- but the long-term effect, the Premier League believes, will be more homegrown players in senior sides, and eventually the England team.

There are those who insist this is a cover, an excuse for the country’s biggest clubs, already greedily accumulating the majority of football’s wealth, to deprive the game’s lesser lights of the one basic right all teams have: to dream.

Parish, before EPPP was introduced, spoke of his pride at seeing three graduates of Palace’s academy help the club, then in the Championship, beat Manchester United in what was then the Carling Cup.

That would never happen again, he said, under the new system, because United -- or whoever -- would have long since stolen Wilfried Zaha, Sean Scannell and Nathaniel Clyne from Palace’s clutches. Worse still, the codified system of transfer payments would mean they would not even have had to compensate Palace adequately to get them.

“Take Luke Garbutt,” said Shaun Harvey, former chief executive of Leeds United and another outspoken opponent of EPPP. “He left us for Everton for a fee [set by a tribunal, as was always the case under the old system] of £600,000, with a further £750,000 on appearances and a 20 percent sell-on fee. Under the new system we would have received £134,000, not £600,000, with further payments based on appearances.”

This is the issue with EPPP. You can spin its effects whichever way you want. To Segura, the cost of signing young players from rival clubs is one reason that English youth development has stalled; talent is scattered around, it is not in an atmosphere of excellence, and thus it can fail to grow. An outstanding young player at Oldham is not pushed as hard as he would be if he were at United. He may still make it in the game, but is he all he can be? Possibly not.

But that, in turn, deprives the smaller clubs of the chance to nurture talent, either to grace their first teams or to sell on for a lucrative fee -- which, in many cases, can be crucial for their continued existence. And -- as if that were not obstacle enough -- it leads to a logjam of young players at the bigger clubs.

Dario Gradi, possibly the best-qualified man in Britain to assess youth development, recalls David Platt -- one of a host of players he brought through in 30 years at Crewe Alexandra -- calling him to ask about a young player at the League Two club who was being watched by Manchester City, where Platt was assistant manager.

“Do you want me to come and speak to [the player in question] and tell him not to come?” asked Platt, counter-intuitively. “There is no point him going to City. We have hundreds of young players here and don’t know what to do with them.”

It is a complex issue. The Premier League’s logic is valid, but so is its counterpoint. And that, when it comes down to it, is the nub of the issue: There is no magic formula. Yes, the Spanish model, as proposed by EPPP, worked in Spain. It produced that wonderful Barcelona team, the core of which went on to lift the World Cup in 2010.

But that is vastly different to the French system -- Clairefontaine, the centres de formation -- which was all the rage as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and the rest bestrode the world at the turn of the century. And that, in turn, is not the same as the bilateral German approach, where clubs and national side work together, which is a la mode now.

That is before we even start to consider the world’s most prolific producers of talent, Brazil and Argentina, where the idea of a holistic system, of rules and regulations and coaching certificates at all levels and perfect manicured pitches, is a ridiculous pipe dream. Juan Pablo Angel, a Colombian, told me this summer that even there, in Bogota and Medellin and Cali they “do not have to try and encourage talent with state-of-the-art academies; it just grows.”

It does not just grow in England. That much is clear. It does have to be stimulated. Is EPPP the best way to do that? Possibly not. Is it flawless? Lord, no. But then, what went before wasn’t working desperately well, either. Maybe there are no perfect answers. Maybe there are only questions.

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