In part four of our State of the Game Series, Joshua Faulkner looks at how West Brom have been the victims of the Elite Player Performance Programme…
The future: ‘a period of time following the moment of speaking or writing, a time that is regarded as still to come’. In football the future ostensibly relies on youth prospects: who will be the next Maradona, Pele or George Best? As such, youth development becomes of particular interest for many football fans. The initial meteoric rise of Saido Berainho from promising youth prospect to West Bromwich Albion’s survival saviour fuelled an interest in the club’s youth development and often praised academy. However, it has also revealed the rather contradictory nature of youth development in English football due to the Elite Player Performance Programme, an issue that can voiced in a rather Marxist tone reflecting on corporate capitalism: “the rich simply get richer”.
So what is the EPPP? The Elite Player Performance Programme was a Premier League initiative introduced in 2011 in response to the perceived lack of top player being developed in England. It harboured similar ideological views shared by the DFB for a system of quality assurance, implemented to ensure an increase in elite home-grown talent. The EPPP focussed strongly on education, coaching and facilities. The above was executed through the adoption of a category structure from Category 1 to 4 with Category 1 status being considered the most elite and thus eligible for more funding from both the Premier League and FA.
West Brom’s academy has for years been praised and congratulated by individuals, teams and coaches for it’s thorough, well thought-out and practiced vision and philosophy: to produce elite talent. Since gaining Academy status several players have come through its ranks: Chris Wood, Sam Manton, Romain Sawyers and George Thorne, to name a few, all of whom have seen relative success in playing vital roles in the past year for their respective clubs. Since gaining Category 1 status under the EPPP in 2011 (alongside the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool) however, it is now starting to produce the truly elite talent, after years of developing the facilities, unearthing some of the best and most committed coaches and sharing a continued desire for absolute excellence with players like Izzy Brown and Jerome Sinclair a small sample of the academy’s treasures. However, despite the recognition and fulfilment of EPPP criteria, Albion find themselves at the bottom of the barrel despite all the hard work and effort in producing rather than purchasing elite talent thanks largely and rather ironically to the EPPP, an issue that is highlighted by the cases of particular players and clubs.
The two aforementioned talents, Izzy Brown and Jerome Sinclair have since departed under rather acrimonious circumstances. Brown is a prodigious talent: a powerful box-to-box midfielder that draws early comparisons to Yaya Toure and Paul Pogba. Brown was gradually introduced into the first team setup after continuing to excel during U21 fixtures at the tender age of 16. It was during these games where Brown would glide and turn past young men with astute precision and poise before launching a thirty-yard sidewinder missile into the back of the net against a powerless goalkeeper. After making a substitute appearance against Wigan in May 2013, Brown won Academy Player of the Year and spent increasing amount of time with the first team. However, by summer Chelsea had come knocking with a small fee. Although Brown was under no obligation to sign for Albion, Albion were suddenly poached of one the country’s brightest prospects despite being a fellow Category 1 Academy.
The tales of Albion being left for dead continue with Jerome Sinclair. A striker in similar mould to Raheem Sterling was poached by Liverpool in the summer of 2011 at the age of 14 when Sinclair’s potential was abundant. As of January 2015, it has been reported that he has been training with the Liverpool first team and continues to terrorise youth fixtures with his guile and zest for goal. Unlike Brown, where Mourinho has taken sole responsibility if he doesn’t become a senior England international, it is harder to highlight how talented Sinclair is but, with ever present pace, technique and composure in front of goal in U21 fixtures, it won’t be long until he is covered by tabloids in a similar manner to Berainho and Harry Kane. More recently however other prodigal talents, particularly Jonathan Leko and Wales U16 captain Tyler Roberts, who both feature and star regularly for Albion U21s despite being 16, are being scouted extensively at every opportunity by England’s leading clubs. As Mark Harrison, Academy Manager stated earlier this year, Albion are ‘being scouted by all of the big clubs more than anybody.’
While West Brom fans are right to be displeased at Chelsea’s behaviour in taking their diamond, they technically have done little to nothing wrong other than play by the rules of EPPP and attract a boyhood fan. It is therefore the reoccurring issue of EPPP; a plan that continues to feed the interests of the leading clubs of the English game. If, for example, and as highly speculative and hypothetical it is, Albion were able to keep hold of Brown and Sinclair and regularly field a side of both players and Berainho, would Albion be fighting for survival or Europa League participation? I understand several, if not thousands of variables contribute to team success but having prodigious talent as a foundation plays a vital role. Who’s saying Albion couldn’t replicate similar success to Southampton with the attacking three-pronged behemoth of Brown, Berainho and Sinclair in the next few years? These players aren’t just numbers in a system. These are players that can and will shortly make a lasting impression in the international setup. And yet Albion have frustratingly been void of this hard-earned privilege.
Although the above explicitly highlights the contradictory nature of EPPP and the Premier League’s so called desire to aid the development of countries next generation, EPPP has, to some marginal extent, worked. However, it is again the same traditionally larger clubs that seem to benefit significantly more. Liverpool (who are becomingly increasingly involved in ‘poaching’ the very best of English talent under the business model adopted by the Fenway Sports Group) signed Jordan Ibe in 2012 from then League Two Wycombe Wanderers who could only afford a Centre of Excellence, whilst they also spirited a talented Sheyi Ojo from MK Dons that same year alongside the aforementioned Sinclair, both of whom have excelled recently for Liverpool and Wigan and have benefitted from the greater coaching and facilities available at Melwood than their previous clubs. Meanwhile,Tottenham and Arsenal have signed Dele Alli from MK Dons and Jay Beckford from Leyton Orient. The point unfortunately remains the same: elite player development and the character of English football cannot be served simultaneously under the current rules and programmes: one has to suffice, the other must be subdued. It appears the slim hopes of smaller clubs replicating a similar feat to Alex Ferguson with his fledglings seem to dash away into the footballing abyss.