By Colin Sisson
Please excuse my 'Jerry Maguire' moment . . .
The following article was originally written in July 2020 and has been updated following further developments regarding Notts’ academy status.
For those not understanding the relevance of the title, there’s a scene where Jerry Maguire, successful US sports agent, has an epiphany and wants to change the multi-million dollar industry into a more efficient, morally-minded one. He spends all night furiously typing his blueprint for the future before placing still-warm copies in staff pigeonholes. He receives rapturous applause for his sentiment, before being fired by lunchtime.
I have no such role. But have been in the football system as both a prospective player and peripheral staff member, so have at least some insight into the words I’m feverishly bashing into my phone in the early hours of a ridiculously hot day. Sadly for Jerry, he was born too early for blogsites.
Notts County’s recent update on the club’s reaction to the Coronavirus crisis had contained within it a small but significant statement regarding a potential restructuring of the Academy. As the world only begins to count the cost of this pandemic it is perhaps unsurprising to find the club looking for ways to manage unexpected costs.
This becomes even more prevalent should Notts remain in the Vanarama at the end of this tumultuous season, with FA funding reducing at a time when the FA themselves begin to tighten their belts, only last week an announcement was made that grants for ground development from Step 1 down would be frozen.
But just like those of us coming to terms with new ways of working from home or reinventing the way we operate in a workspace, the Coronavirus epidemic can lead to innovation too. And Notts’ youth development model might just benefit from that.
On the surface of this issue, it seems that everything is ticking along quite nicely below first team level at Meadow Lane. Jack Bearne left Notts for Liverpool in 2017 and more recently the club have developed the likes of Dongda He and Kion Etete, both full of promise and now join Bearne in competing at U23 level for Premier League clubs.
But it doesn’t tell the full story.
Financially, both Etete and He left Notts for fees well-below market value for potential Premier League players courtesy of EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) – a system that allows clubs with high-grade academies to take from lower ranked ones for set fees and guaranteed future payments tied to appearances etc.
Compare this to the Jermaine Pennant deal of yesteryear, with a reported £2m fee and friendly game at Meadow Lane. It almost brings in to question the point of developing players at all if they are to be snatched away so cheaply? It’s a question clubs like Huddersfield and Brentford have asked themselves too.
Aside from the financial factor, there’s the sporting one. Etete and He left Notts with a shared total of six professional matches between them and only a handful more friendly appearances. Having these players snatched away before fans can fully enjoy them in the way we got to with other big talents like Derry, Yeates, Draper and Michael Johnson (to name but a few) leaves a bitter taste. Should Notts somehow develop a ‘golden generation’ of prospects, the on-field benefits should be obvious and enjoyed by the Notts faithful. You only need to watch ‘The Class of 92’ to see just how transformative a few excellent youth prospects can be (and you really should watch it). But would we ever get to see them take the field in this current climate?
What I’m about to suggest is not easy to write. But I think we need to close our academy in its current form and narrow our focus to become Category 4.
I’m not oblivious to the horrific implications this decision would have: unemployed staff, distraught parents and their children, some damage to the club’s reputation as a fantastic breeding ground for young talent.
You don’t have to agree. But let me walk you through what could ultimately be a beneficial reimagining of the club’s youth structure that has a more realistic pathway to first team football. And that, surely, is the target.
The first evidence I would give is that it is very hard to identify talent at a young age. Don’t just take my word for it. In the TV adaptation of Michael Calvin’s ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ Eric Harrison, famed for his role in reorganising the youth system with Sir Alex Ferguson at United, admits that he’d struggle to spot, for certain, a player at the younger age groups. The wild fluctuations in body shape, growth, maturity and interest mean that running younger and younger age group sides (as some Category 1 clubs are doing in a ‘race to the bottom’) is likely to prove fruitless.
Further evidence in the logic of disbanding younger academy sides comes from Bayern Munich. Bayern have recently taken the decision to close their u8-u10 academy because their evidence also shows how hard it is to spot talent below 11 years old, but also their evidence suggests that those with the greatest chance of meeting their supremely high standards benefit from playing other sports first, or as well as football.
Ignoring the unlikeliness of Notts spotting a precocious young talent, the chances of keeping that player are getting smaller. EPPP means that a player can be taken away for a fraction of the cost it took to identify, equip, train and support him. (initial fees of £3,000 if under 11, £12,500 if 12-16). And when you consider the number of clubs with bigger academies and bigger budgets within the travel radius allowed for our city’s young players, we are surrounded by a substantial threat.
We are not alone in fearing this. Brentford and Huddersfield were often seeing their young prospects poached by bigger clubs on their region, a significant observation being there were ‘more Manchester City scouts in Huddersfield than Huddersfield ones’, and so both took drastic measures. Les Ferdinand, Director of Football at QPR, voiced his frustrations on seeing young prospects poached on a recent ‘Training Ground Guru’ podcast. These are not small clubs and even they are facing big dilemmas.
While Huddersfield opted to retain a smaller Category 4 academy, keeping costs low with a narrower focus but operating within the FA system, Brentford removed their academy structure entirely and built their own, impressive model and use friendly fixtures to offer a competitive diet for their recruits from across Europe.
I’d like Notts to use the fact that we are surrounded by big, heavily-invested academies to our advantage rather than live in fear of them.
Each year, decisions are made at u16 and u18 levels across all clubs to keep or release young talent, some of whom have benefited from expensive academy coaching from as young as 8 (further proving evidence of the folly of trying to identify so young). That could be as much as ten years of intensive coaching, expertise and investment just allowed to leave – for nothing.
Notts currently participate in this process too, deciding to release all but one (Tiernan Brooks) of their second-year scholars and offer pro terms. That, as an output for a costly youth development setup, is not good enough.
I propose we focus purely on the u17 and above age categories, picking up released players from better-funded academies in our region and providing them with another prospective pathway to professional football after one might’ve been ripped up at their original club. Yet they’d arrive at Notts with an expensive footballing education and the determination to prove someone wrong – whilst being only one or two steps away from first team football.
This may feel a foreign philosophy, given Notts’ pedigree in developing talent. But it is not without its own success stories. Tommy Johnson joined Notts in 1987 as an apprentice and made the first of 118 appearances in 1989 and is loved no less for not having been at the club as a child, whilst generating 1.3million in transfer fee due to his status as a pro player:
Tommy Johnson and Mark Draper – two alternate development theories
The added benefit of a narrower focus on fewer age groups should also mean that the club achieves greater knowledge and expertise at these phases of development. Scouting and data can be sharper, with the likes of Forest, Leicester, Derby, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Wolves, Birmingham, Villa, WBA all releasing ten players a season at u16 and u18 levels. I should not, to give you a real and frightening example, be flagging repeatedly to the club a player, available from a big, local academy, and watch him move elsewhere despite his interest to explore Notts as an option. Oh and he scored against Notts on trial for the opposition.
The final benefit is the much-coveted training ground. I’m desperate for Notts to have their own development base. But at Category 4, the requirements become easier to manage and fund. Four pitches (two development side, an u23 or reserves and a first team pitch, seem a logical step for a club our size – compared to the shopping centre-sized monstrosities that Category 1 requires.
The infrastructure of the academy remained a hot topic in 2021. After another season where Notts failed to achieve promotion back to the EFL, the debate on the Academy’s future became more intense as, without EFL funding, the owners would have to fund it themselves or take the sort of drastic measures I suggest in this blog. The decision came in May:
While many, understandably, celebrated the news that Notts would try and maintain the same approach and infrastructure as we had done as a league club, there was one detail that I found troubling. The decision to work outside of EPPP, despite its limitations and frustrations as mentioned earlier, meant Notts were susceptible to raids from academies working within the EPPP framework. And received NO fee for any player leaving us.
The timing couldn’t have been worse, in my opinion, as within days of this decision Forest announced their elevation to Category 1. Already a substantial threat in taking Notts’ better players for no fee, Forest now had the capacity to add greater numbers of players to their squads. And they aren’t the only ones….
I wondered how many clubs had successfully managed to work outside of EPPP beyond the likes of Brentford and the results were sober reading. Here is an article by Training Ground Guru on Tranmere’s attempts to work outside of EPPP, costing them an estimated £200,000 and forcing them to close their academy setup:
And it seems I wasn’t alone in thinking this way…