A bright future for academies

Since the announcement in December of the new Governing Body Endorsement rules which will shape how work permits are obtained for foreign players, much ink has been devoted to how clubs might best find value in the transfer market in this new world. That has almost entirely focussed on international recruitment. Meanwhile, it is reasonably accepted that the value of English players will increase – or at least not fall as significantly as would otherwise have been the case given the financial impact of Covid-19 on the industry. So which players and clubs stand to benefit, and how?

Clubs in the Premier League will still be able to sign many of the first team players they would have done anyway. Given the thresholds set out in the new regulations, that will not be the case with regard to EU players coming into the EFL which is where we can expect to see a greater number of playing opportunities for young English players. Whether those opportunities will still be of the same quality, from a development perspective, is a different conversation altogether.

The chart below shows the makeup of players across the EFL prior to the end of the Brexit transition period. As the number of foreign players inevitably decreases over time, the spaces they leave will be filled by a greater number of academy graduates making the transition to senior professional football and by players who are senior pros continuing their careers for longer than may otherwise have been the case.

 

So how will the pathways for players evolve, as the new regulations impact the decisions made by clubs? One clear and immediate impact will be that clubs who would have recruited players aged 16 – 17 from Europe will now rarely be able to do so, and are therefore likely to offer a greater number of scholarships to players already in their system. This will have a knock on effect for clubs in the EFL, who would often have offered scholarships to a large proportion of players released by those clubs. The same is likely to apply to offers of professional contracts – both first and subsequent.

Put another way, a significant reduction in the number of EU players can be expected to have the dual effects of increasing the number of English players in the game and of prolonging the league careers of some of those players. The graph below illustrates how the number of EU players in the EFL peaks at the same ages (24 – 28) as the number of UK players starts to decrease; unless the age profile of the league changes, a greater number of players’ careers will continue into what would generally be considered their peak years.

 

If the scope for the number of English players to play first team football increases, which of those players are likely to deliver a financial return for the clubs which have developed them? It will rarely be those who have careers in League One and League Two, because of the levels of fee those clubs pay. It is much more likely to be those who play in the Championship (or even Premier League) who would not otherwise have done so – or would have played at that level but will now play more regularly and / or for a stronger team.

We could reasonably assume that those players will be of a similar standard and follow similar development pathways to young English players currently in the Championship or League One.

Of the c. 75 players born since the turn of the century to have been on a Championship teamsheet since 2018/19, half played their U18 football for a Category 1 academy. This could be considered high on the basis that: (a) the majority of Category 1 academies are Premier League clubs, so many of these appearances are limited to players loaned or sold as young professionals; and (b) considerably fewer than half of academies are Category 1.

However, that academies at Category 2 and below are contributing half of the emerging Championship player pool can be a source of great encouragement (this proportion rises from half to two-thirds when including League One and League Two).  It clearly reinforces the ability of these academies to provide value – in sporting and financial terms – to their clubs.

If a significant proportion of what EFL clubs have paid, in recent years, to foreign clubs in transfer fees (2017/18: £92m; 2018/19: £51m; source: Deloitte) is redirected to English clubs, it can further improve the financial return on investments in youth development – and given the current financial climate, that could be a lifeline for some.

Left Field Football Consulting works with clubs and academies to develop strategies, improve performance plans and implement tools for evaluating the sporting and financial return of investments in youth development.

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