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An Introduction to UK Academy Football

Youth academies. Anyone who’s played Football Manager will know how important they are in guiding your wonderkids towards a first team place. Improving the facilities, bringing in the greatest minds in terms of coaching and analysis, all of it has an influence when attempting to reduce the impact of the transition from youth football to the professional level. 

We’re all aware of some of the most well known youth academies in world football; La Masia, Ajax Youth Academy, the Academy at West Ham, The Manchester United Academy, Academia Sporting, GNK Dinamo Zagreb Academy, even the Alexandra Soccer Centre of Crewe Alexandra had a glowing reputation for a number of years. What we don’t necessarily know however, are the minutiae of why they are (or were) successful. 

To assume it’s purely a lottery based on the players coming through the ranks at any given time is unfair. Manchester United’s infamous Class of ‘92 is a prime example. Many people point to this group as evidence that luck played a huge part in that intake, considering the relative standard coming out of the United academy since then, certainly in the form of volume of ‘quality’ academy players.

A major contributing factor at that time would have been that Manchester United possessed one of, if not, the elite Category 1 academies. West Ham have similarly had the same accusations thrown at them. Since the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole, West Ham have arguably failed to produce a player at that level.

During the following years, many clubs have seen the impact that investment off the field can have. If you’re not moving forwards, but your competitors are, you’re moving backwards. And both Manchester United and West Ham can be accused of this.

As one of a series of articles around the subject, I sat down and spoke to Dan Payne, Head of Academy Performance Analysis for Sheffield Wednesday, who gave me a crash course around how academies in the UK are structured, and why places like the Etihad Campus are so far ahead of the competition.

Elite Player Performance Plan

Let’s start at the beginning. Academy level football in the UK is guided entirely by the Elite Player Performance Plan, which was rolled out by the Premier League, and accepted by the 72 members of the Football League. Its aim was to improve both the quality and quantity of home grown talent playing professional football in England. Introduced in 2012, it’s focus is player-led development and provides support through four key functions.

The Games Programme

This is the overall banner of the development leagues and cups such as the Premier League 2, Premier League Cup and Under 18 Premier League, in addition to providing festivals for the age groups from Foundation (under-9s to under-11s), Youth Development (under-12s to under-16s) and Professional Development (under-17s to under-23s). Its goal is to develop game understanding, and give opportunities to extend and consolidate the player’s learning of the game.

Education

Ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, the Premier League provides an education programme that oversees and monitors clubs’ full-time, hybrid and part-time training models to ensure that the academic progression of players is maintained. Its key elements are the Learning Management System, an online support tool that enables clubs to record key data around the academy players progression, Education Support Managers, who monitor and support the delivery and quality of the Apprenticeship programme, and finally, Safeguarding. At the Premier League level, each club has in place a dedicated full-time Head of Safeguarding and an Academy Safeguarding Officer.

Coaching

With the aim of developing a world-leading coaching fraternity, development programs have been implemented such as the Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme (ECAS), which includes a mandatory BAME and female intake, and the Coach Competency Framework (CCF), which ensures that all coaches have a development plan in place to develop and improve any areas that may be identified.

In addition to the above, there is also a parallel programme of ring fenced funding to create a Head of Coaching role for each of the 92 clubs in the Football League, regardless of their categorisation and financial situation.

Elite Player Performance

The purpose of this function is to provide innovative and effective ways to enhance the progression of homegrown players. There are a range of programmes designed to aid and inform player recruitment, development and transition through Foundation, Youth Development and Professional Development phases.

Clubs can track all information that is relevant to the Academy through the League’s Performance Management Application (PMA) and Injury Surveillance tools. The League has also launched the Bio-Banding programme, with a series of tournaments organised each season with the aim of matching players based on their biological age instead of the usual chronological age groups, which historically made it tougher on those born in the latter part of the British school year to make the grade.

Academy Categorisation

The academies themselves sit in 1 of 4 categories, which are determined by the Elite Player Performance Plan. Categories 1, 2 and 3 register players from the under-9s age group, right through to the professional under-23s. 

The classification for these is determined by the facilities available, the number and quality of the pitches, analysis provisions, the gym, and staffing. Multiple things can affect the categorisation, although some have a higher bearing than others. Usually facilities have the greatest impact, closely followed by staffing.

The prime example of a Category 1 academy right now is Manchester City. The Etihad Campus is currently above and beyond any other club’s provisions in the UK, and was based on the world class Milanello facility of AC Milan. Manchester City spent in the region of £200 million on improving the infrastructure, which now includes 16 football pitches, three gyms, ultrasound and cryotherapy rooms, six swimming pools, a Media centre and the Manchester Institute of Health and Performance, amongst others, all on one site and within walking distance of the stadium.

They also have more contracted and full-time staff than any other club. Even within the Category 1 academies, and clubs at the very top of the pyramid, the difference can be monumental. The Etihad Campus has somewhere in the region of 200 full time staff. Tottenham Hotspur on the other hand only have approximately 100. 

The largest leap in Categorisations is from Category 1 to Category 2. As mentioned, Tottenham Hotspur, a Category 1 academy, has around 100 staff members, but clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (Dan’s current and previous clubs respectively) have around 20 members of staff, and from those, on a full time basis you’ll probably only see 10 of them daily. Compared to Spurs, it’s a huge gap; compared to Manchester City, it’s a chasm.

Category 2 youth development coaches are usually contracted on a part-time basis, while analysts and sports scientists are part-time at best. More often than not, the norm is for the role to be fulfilled by students being trained by the full time Heads of Departments.

Again, City likely trounce the competition with 2 analysts at each age group, right the way down to the Foundation phase, including analysts for under-9s, under-10s, under-11s etc, which is where they get the huge increase in overall headcount. This helps cement their position of being classified as the elite Category 1 club. 

Category 3 academies, such as a club like League One’s Rochdale, will generally have even lower staffing levels. They will have an Academy Manager, an under-23s coach, and potentially a part time under-18s coach. The performance analyst will more than likely be assigned solely to the first team, looking at the youth levels for under-23s right down to the under-9s on his day off. 

So categorisation all boils down to the finance and facilities available to each club. Category 1 academies are the elite, whilst category 3 academies are at the bare minimum end of the spectrum. But as mentioned, clubs within each category can vary wildly within their own classifications.

Category 4 Academies

Based on the descriptions for Categories 1, 2 and 3, you might expect Category 4 academies to look like the Stamford Bridge pitch, circa 2003, complete with 6 inches of sand and not a blade of grass to be seen, but Category 4 classifications work entirely differently. These academies aren’t necessarily worse in terms of facilities, it’s just a different model and focus.

Category 4 academies tend to focus on the ‘Pro’ player groups, 17 years old and upwards. A recent example of this is Championship side Huddersfield Town. When they were promoted to the Premier League they were Category 2, similar to Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton Athletic, Leeds United and Burnley.

Whereas Leeds (likely to be Category 1 very soon) and Burnley (will be Category 1 next season) have decided to invest in their academies, ex-Huddersfield Chairman Dean Hoyle vastly scaled back his club’s setup, instead choosing to focus on providing a pathway to the first team from only the Under-18 and Under-23 squads. This saw an exodus of younger talent leave Yorkshire and head to clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton for trials.

Huddersfield’s current Academy Manager Leigh Bromby has overseen players such as Ryan Schofield, Lewis O’Brien and Jaden Brown all making their way from the academy into the senior squad since then, whilst the young players who left have yet to feature for their new sides.

This might lend credence to the argument that for Huddersfield, the new setup has proven successful. However, we have yet to see the long term effects of this on the first team, as these players (with the exception of Brown who was signed from Tottenham) were already at the club, prior to the scaling back.

It’s worth noting that not all Category 4 academies are created equally. Some of the clubs with this classification may not have the resources to focus on multiple professional age groups, while many simply have nothing but an under-19s side. Whether this decision is dictated by the clubs stature – both Huddersfield and Hereford are Category 4 academies, but have wildly different financial situations – or based on the principles as a club for developing players for the first team, there is no right or wrong model. 

In Dan’s opinion though, it could be said that the quality of home grown players available to (and the success in the league of) the clubs with Category 4 first teams is apparent for the majority of the cases.

Which category is the most successful?

In terms of player development, there is no set model, or statistics readily available to accurately assess which academy model is the most successful. Sheffield Wednesday goalkeepers Cameron Dawson and Joe Wildsmith both only joined the academy at under-13 and under-14 age groups instead of joining from under-9 level and working their way through, yet both are now senior players, with Dawson the first-choice goalkeeper. 

At Charlton, Ademola Lookman joined the club as a 16-year-old from Sunday League Waterloo youth club. Signed for the under-18s initially, he very quickly progressed through the under-23s and into the first team within three months: non-league to Championship football in 90 days, completely bypassing the development age groups of an academy.

If you review the Premier League clubs, all are either Category 1, or due to be Category 1 shortly. Bournemouth, for example, are currently Category 3 due to the basic facilities available to them after a relatively quick progression up the football pyramid.

In 2008, the club was forced into administration, and they were very nearly blocked from competing in League Two. A consortium bought the side in 2009 and have recently invested heavily in both the playing staff, but also crucially, the training and academy facilities. In addition to this they are also looking to expand the stadium, or potentially build a new ground. With this comes the aim of attaining Category 1 classification.

In a similar vein, Burnley have had a reasonably quick transition to the Premier League. Once they consolidated their Premier League status, they used that income to take the academy from Category 3 to Category 2 in 2017. After investing above and beyond the Category 2 requirements, and firmly establishing themselves in the Premier League, Burnley have taken the decision to pursue Category 1 status, which they’re expected to achieve this year.

Of all the clubs that have progressed up the pyramid in recent times, however, Brighton stand above the rest. In a 20-year period, Brighton have gone from the verge of administration to the Premier League. Previously, the facilities were horrendous due to a lack of financial backing, no input, and no real infrastructure in place to develop players for the first team.

They didn’t even own a stadium, instead playing at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, and the local Withdean Stadium after the previous board sold the Goldstone Ground to develop residential property without securing a new home for the club. 

The arrival of Tony Bloom in May 2009 was the equivalent of Brighton being handed a royal flush. The local businessman, professional gambler, and lifelong fan invested heavily in the facilities at Lancing, which now rank in the top 3-5 in the country. In addition to this, further investment in the Falmer Stadium (built in 2008) has shown that Bloom is fully committed for the long term. The club progressed from Category 3 to Category 1 very quickly, the investment in staffing and facilities potentially means they may not have even transitioned through Category 2 status. 

Tony Bloom invested in Brighton’s future, with the thinking that if you put the infrastructure in place you’ll get to the Premier League. That gamble obviously worked. The club was consistently around the top of the Championship for a couple of seasons before finally reaching the promised land.

Not all chairman are willing to take the risk of heavy up-front cost however. Many invest directly into the first team, with the assumption that if they buy their way to the top level, they’ll retain that status until they can invest in the infrastructure, playing catch up along the way.

It is worth noting that in the current Financial Fair Play climate that is a huge risk. In most cases, this approach has seen clubs struggle to attract first team players of sufficient quality to retain their place in the division, before being resigned to a relegation dogfight and eventual return to the Championship.

If you’re a player on the verge of a move to the Premier League, about to sign a contract that will see you spend five or six days a week at a training facility, one that’s light-years behind your competitors, just like the previous Burnley set up, would you not be looking at a similar team in the same league, such as Brighton, if all other things were equal? Burnley’s pre-investment academy was probably ranked in the bottom 50 in the country, compared to Brighton’s top 3-5.

Overall, he believes it’s an interesting and varied environment to be involved with as an industry. All clubs run their academies differently, even to the roles and responsibilities expected for each member of staff. Some will have coaches, some will have managers, some will have people expected to do both in addition to carrying out the day to day duties as first team coaches and managers. And from speaking to Dan, it’s clear that this is more than a full time job; it’s a lifestyle, a love of the game that causes you to spend every waking hour immersed in your role, regardless of the terms written on your contract.

James Foster, Huddersfield, UK. IT worker by day, Editor at Heart of Football by night. Lover of Manchester United, Football Manager and the football stories you never hear. Fed up of the monotony of regurgitated content about how amazing Messi is and how Pep is the world’s greatest manager, I wanted to know WHY he’s the greatest manager. But most of all, I wanted to write about it myself.

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