You might have seen that earlier this week, news of the revamped structure for youth football in England was finally announced.
Chief amongst the changes is the introduction of the Professional Development League; a three-tiered Under-21 competition ranked on academy grading designed at improving the quality of football between the ages of 18 and 21.
Little more needs to be said about the failings of the old reserve system at this point. Most youth followers are aware that the ever-thinning fixture list, the underwhelming atmosphere and lack of direction contributed to a wasteland for the next generation of footballers in the English game.
So step forward the PDL. The top level, for Category One and select Category Two outfits, will garner most attention and be the immediate ‘replacement’ for the Premier Reserve League.
The competition structure mirrors that of the Under-16 and Under-18 leagues, with 23 teams divided into three groups irrespective of geography. They play home and away until Christmas before being split based on points accumulated, and then spend the second half of the season attempting to secure one of five playoff berths to determine the national champion.
On the face of it, the changes look good. The level of competition should step up, with only the very best academies included, and the redefinition from ‘Reserve’ to ‘Under-21’ should, in the short term at least, take teams in a new direction. Over-age players are permitted but not encouraged and have only been allowed so as to provide a facility for teams to nurse first-team players back to match fitness.
Most reserve teams in the past few years have been Under-21 anyway, but the odd club would have a large first-team squad overspill and when they featured in the second-string team, it would result in a vast difference in physical ability and experience, and contribute to a downtrodden and half-hearted feel with very few ever interested in competing fully.
Some managers have noted that they may eschew the loan system in favour of retaining a stronger and more competitive Under-21 squad in order to improve the quality of their team, and in turn the league. With the idea of B Teams within the football league structure never really likely to take off, a strong 18-21 league is the next best approach and if everyone commits to keeping the majority of their players at the club (where it suits the player, of course), they may be on to a winner.
So we now have a streamlined approach in terms of quality of team, and a specified directive for the league to operate with. The EPPP regulations themselves make this abundantly clear:
“The objective of the Games Programme in this phase is to provide players with the opportunity to practise and rehearse for the professional game. To achieve this, players need to be faced with an environment where they can learn how to win. The environment should, where possible, replicate the professional game. Players should be exposed to hostile environments from time to time, for they need to learn how to deal with stress and the challenge of competition when fear of failure can be debilitating to performance. For Academy players who harbour ambitions of playing in the Premier League, this phase needs to provide them with the hardest playground in the world.”
A key part of this section – “The environment should, where possible, replicate the professional game. Players should be exposed to hostile environments from time to time…” – infers that Under-21 matches should be played in front of a crowd, at professional stadia.
The FA’s new rules and regulations on the competition support this notion:
“155. At least two matches in the Professional Development League shall be played at the Club’s ground registered pursuant to Rule I.5, and other matches may be played at an alternative ground subject to the approval of the Board or the Football League (as appropriate). Such alternative grounds may include a pitch at the Club’s Academy provided that it is floodlit, has a fenced off pitch and provides a spectator area.”
The administrators of the league have recognised that too many teams have spent the past two seasons hosting their reserve/Under-21 fixtures at their training ground, which proved logistically favourable but less conducive to positive development.
Many clubs will play their entire home schedule at professional stadia in 2012-13; Chelsea will use Griffin Park and Stamford Bridge, West Ham will use Rush Green Stadium and Upton Park, and Blackburn split their fixtures between Leigh Sports Village and Ewood Park.
Understandably, some games will be played at training grounds, especially during periods of heavy fixture congestion at shared stadia or in times of inclement weather, but they are intended to be the exceptions rather than the rule.
Which begs the question; why are some clubs not playing ball? Liverpool’s entire first-half schedule is to be played at their academy in Kirkby, which is a training ground accommodating a smattering of fans. The same can be said for Fulham and Middlesbrough (with the exception of one fixture apiece), who go a stage further and indicate that their fixtures are to be played behind closed doors.
This is a desperately disappointing and short-sighted approach which flies in the face of what the Under-21 league is attempting to do. If clubs are going to be allowed to flout the rules and effectively maintain the status quo from the old reserve league, the possible benefits will be lost.
The changes many have called for are finally upon us. A new era of youth development is here and whether it succeeds or not is down as much as to the individuals and clubs involved as it is those governing the game. A collective effort to make progress and strive for an improvement in competition is what everyone should be aiming towards.
Let’s hope they all end up on the same page.