Brutal Youth: Are ‘our own’ performing?

Alex Cooke finds Swindon have performed surprisingly well in turning out young talent, at least in this season, and compared to the rest of League One

Good articles create debate and I enjoyed reading Adam Tanner’s recent piece on the need for youth development at Swindon Town. I recommend you read it later, if you haven’t already.

But it made me wonder how Town’s record of bringing through young players compares with other clubs. If we are truly dreadful at blooding academy graduates, how do others do?

Then I read Michael Calvin’s excellent book The Nowhere Men. Calvin notes that there are around 10,000 players currently in the English academy system and that a mere one percent of those will go on to make a living from the professional game. But that is just the start of their journey and the attrition rate stays high even for those who earn that first professional contract. For, according to Calvin, among those who do make the grade at 18, two-thirds have left the pro game by the time they are 21. And it is from these pool that the likes of James Brophy, Ellis Iandolo and Ben Gladwin have been plucked.

But those are nationwide figures. How does it look at the club level? Or more specifically in League One? Who, this season, has seen a result from their academy? If the chart doesn’t appear click to open it in a new window.

How It Works

Using data from transfermarkt.co.uk, I’ve included every League One start made by former academy players for each team, up to the week of publication. If you click the other buttons on the table you can see the youth products currently listed in each squad (again from transfermarkt) and the finally the category of the club’s academy.

The data used does not include substitute appearances or cups as this would distort the results with fringe players. Players who have returned to their original club, either on loan or permanently have been included.

Looking At The Data

Compared to a lot of League One teams, Swindon’s use of ‘home grown’ players isn’t bad. Many others are in single figures, some have less than that. Obviously Swindon’s score is heavily weighted by the Thompson brothers, but that hardly marks us out. Oldham, Wigan, Shrewsbury and Barnsley all get their totals from just two regular players. Similarly both Sheffield United and Walsall mirror Swindon in having borrowed or bought back former youth players to bolster their own totals.

What is also noticeable is how the Category 2 academies are more productive – and they would need to be at nearly three times the cost of Category 3! However, two of those teams who have churned out a good number of pros, Crewe and Colchester, have also been relegated this season. Contrast that with Burton and Wigan who have hardly used any home-grown players and lead the table.

So have Crewe and Colchester’s successful academies and reliance on youngsters come at the expense of their League One status, or is a result of their struggle? It may be a chicken and egg argument but it seems a high price to pay.

It is worth noting that while Barnsley appear to have a Category 2 academy which isn’t producing a steady stream of talent for their first team. However, they did recently sell John Stones to Everton for a tidy sum so perhaps their result are distorted. Also of interest are Port Vale, a team whose low figure could be connected to having the oldest squad in the division. Perhaps their’s is a case of blocking the famed ‘player pathways’ with too many seasoned pros?

Finally, looking at the histories of so many players one thing stood out:many clubs pick up huge numbers of their players from their nearest Category 1 or Category 2 academies;  the midlands sides have swathes of Villa players, those around Greater Manchester have numerous Man City or United youths and anyone north of Watford seems to pick up an awful lot of Crewe’s players. Clearly Swindon don’t have an Category 1 side even remotely nearby…

A Note On The Academy System and EPPP

Since The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was introduced in 2011, each professional club’s academy is assigned a category, number 1 to 4, based on a number of factors, such as quality of facilities, coaches and amount of investment. The following requirements and restrictions define the four classifications:

Category 1: £2,325,000 of annual investment, no minimum age
Category 2: £969,000 of annual investment, minimum age of 9
Category 3: £315,000 of annual investment, minimum age of 11
Category 4: No annual investment required, minimum age of 16

Unsurprisingly Town have a Category 3 academy, just as most of League One do. A few in the division have opted for Category 2 – Crewe being the most famous of those – along with a couple of teams perhaps more used to life in the Championship: Millwall and Sheffield United. Fleetwood Town are the only Category 4 team in League One but they are looking to be re-rated as a Category 3 academy on the completion of their new training ground.

Category 1 academies are also able to sign players from anywhere nationwide, regardless of distance or journey times, ending what was often called the ’90 minute’ rule.

EPPP also controls how players are traded between academies, with a fixed, and published, formula replacing the old tribuals.The formula is based on the years spent at an academy, the grading of your academy and the appearance for your new club (to the first 100).

Age 12 to 16: £40,000 per year for players registered at a Category 1 club
Age 12 to 16: £25,000 per year for players registered at a Category 2 club
Age 12 to 16: £12,500 per year for players registered at a Category 3 club
Age 9 to 11: £3,000 per year for players registered at a club:

Premier League: £100,000-£150,000 for every 10 appearances
Championship: £25,000 for every 10 appearances
League One: £10,000 for every 10 appearances
League Two: £5,000 for every 10 appearances

However,  while the new EPPP payment system has depressed up-front fees, the new staggered payment system means that a team can benefit for years from the sale of a barely remembered 16-year-old who never troubled the first team. Which is must be what Lee Power is hoping for with Derby-bound pair Jayden Bogle and Jayden Mitchell-Lawson, although it has been said that their deal was better than the standard compensation. Which is allowed ,often if player have signed pre-contract agreements or multiple clubs wish to sign them.

The Longer Term?

This is clearly just a snap shot of a one season across one division, and so must come with plenty of caveats. One stalwart, one injury or one sale can distort the figures dramatically.

Another is that by their nature youth systems take time to work. You can’t judge a youth coach or a system they produce in their first few years, it is those who come after. Similarly you can’t really judge a first-team manager by the youth teamers he brings into the team – they probably belonged to the boss before. Unless that manager is Dario Gradi or Alex Ferguson.

However, I have started to look at longer-term data for other Category 3 clubs and it seems on first impressions that the results here aren’t atypical. Most teams only blood a few youngsters per season and they take their time giving a select few the odd appearance, mostly through reserve ‘keepers or third-choice strikers. The majority then move on after a season. To extend the information is time-consuming work though, and any serious study would require a much more accessible data set.

Conclusions

Youth development, and its value, is a complex subject and this information is just a part of an on-going debate. Clearly home-grown players have a huge emotional value to clubs, and their fans, just as Adam wrote. In fact, on an anecdotal level it was noticeable how many of the ‘local lads’ are actually captaining their teams. But is that a reflection of their ability or just an indication of time served?

But how do ‘our own’ compare to those released from Category 1 or 2 sides? At Swindon there is a clear ‘player pathway’ from youth football to the first-team –  the problem so widely identified in English football – but which is better for the club? We have the youngest squad in League One but which offers us the better players?

But those are subject for another piece, and hopefully this one will also stimulate a few further questions or posts on a fascinating subject. So add your ideas, questions or answers below and create more debate.

7 comments

  • Frank La Touche

    Much appreciate the hard work & research which has gone into this article, it makes me realise how little I know…! As you say – it is a fascinating topic.. I hadn’t picked up about the Jaydens anywhere… any research on the amount of cash still being brought in by young starlets sold to ‘bigger’ clubs over recent years? Many thanks for numerous hours spent producing the above article.

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    • Thanks, Frank. I do it to keep me off the streets but I’m sure there is a more efficient way to do it, with the right database.

      In terms of EPPP fees they should be fairly easy to work out – with time- unless they were done outside the structure. But a minimum price is possibly to calculate with a bit of detail…

      The deal for the Derby pair was announced months ago but i believe they weren’t due at Pride Park (nearly wrote the Baseball Ground!) until this summer.

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  • Quality piece, Alex – really thought provoking.

    Whereas I’d always assumed that our pretty isolated location was a good thing, in so far as it offers a bigger catchment area, you’re right – it’s probably counterproductive.

    And yes, Crewe and Colchester seem to have overstepped the mark. Both had been narrowly dodging relegation for a few years, but have perhaps been a bit too principled for their own good.

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    • The location thing is an double edged sword. I was listening today to a youth scout in Brum complaining about the number of clubs which also cover their patch and how isolation would make life easier…

      However, I guess the lower population density makes the south west less ideal for scouting youth football as their just isn’t the talent.

      I was think more about going up the ages when first-year pros get released and don’t have to relocate in say Greater London or Manchester. But that is a whole new angle to it…

      Perhaps that should be my next thing – map where our youth is being scouted from.

      Thanks for the comment, and the kind words!

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    • It took an infograph for me to notice how population density around Swindon is actually very, very low to see how few kids we can recruit from locally.

      Historically it seems that big cities generate players, not rural scenes and perhaps we suffer from that too.

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  • Fantastic work Alex. It would be interesting to know how the minimum £315,000 per annum capital investment in Town’s Cat 3 Academy compares to the club’s spending in this area prior to the introduction of the system in 2011. Did the introduction in the financial thresholds reduce the spending, which was perhaps between the Cat 2 and 3 levels or the other way around?

    Also, in terms of that investment level to maintain the Cat 3 status, is this seen by clubs as to be self-financing or does it represent an annual loss as a means to secure a longer term investment? In terms of Power, I’d say the former as the high turnover of youth team players departing for the past two seasons is approx. 3-5 players – this is equivalent to the value of 4.2 players sold through a Cat 3 system who have been at the club from age 11-17. Selling those players to maintain the Cat 3 status defeats the point of the youth system as it is unlikely to feed the first team and give the real value (once the player is on pro terms and has made an impact and then sold on).

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    • Great comments and interesting question. I suspect that the sales of youth players gives a quicker return on investment than perhaps hitting full pro careers – and here is the kicker – it is largely unavoidable.

      You an only keep players if they are under contract and if these children know they are wanted elsewhere they can, like a pro run down their contracts. Suspect that is what happened with the Derby pair – we got more than EPPP minimum as they were contracted but could have got a lot less under it.

      Also worth remembering that other things can happen to youth players before they mature. Many of the best talents are lost to drink/girls/family or domestic problems. What if divorce means dad isn’t around to take you to training? What if a job loss means a family move? Good players don’t always make it. Only good players with strong personalities and strong backing at home, make it. Remember that Calvin stat from earlier? Massive drop out rates.

      Oh. Think the previously funding would have been much lower. Certainly the formal qualifications of the coaches was lower – and that would be a cost, even if the previous guys could have been every bit as good in reality. With no minimium standard facilities would have been worse too – and we know that Di Canio kept them as far from the first-team stuff as possible. Just imagine how bad the facilities would have been if no one was telling you how much to spend and checking them – this is Swindon after all!

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