Academies and COVID–19

As the devastating impact of COVID–19 becomes ever more apparent, Jacob Morris considers what may happen to clubs and their academies.

Image: Manchester City / Getty Images

Back in May, the Financial Times predicted that the loss of revenue streams as a result of the COVID–19 pandemic would mean less money would be spent on player transfers. The potentially beneficial impact of the pandemic on academy football was clear: tighter budgets could lead to increased focus on promoting homegrown players through the ranks.

It’s fair to say that the impact of COVID–19 has been anything but predictable, and this forecast for academy football ignored a number of challenges that football clubs will face as they look to manage the economic slump. Furthermore, these challenges won’t impact all clubs equally – clubs that are geographically more remote and financially less powerful will suffer more.

Just a few months ago, Manchester United Vice Chairman Ed Woodward sought to check fans’ expectations, suggesting that “speculation around transfers of players for hundreds of millions of pounds this summer seems to ignore the realities that face the sport.” Since then, United have bought Donny van de Beek for a reported £40 million, and continue to pursue Jadon Sancho who is thought to be priced at £120 million.

For the clubs at the very top, it appears that little will change from a football perspective, academies will continue to run in their current form and transfers will continue to be made. However, academy football further down the pyramid faces a potentially grim future. A reduction of academy budgets is likely to jeopardise the careers of footballs emerging stars.

Academy football is an essential and defining steppingstone in the pursuit of a professional contract. With the devastating economic punch from COVID–19, wide-ranging cuts to vital budgets are threatening lower league organisations. Without the right funding, it won’t be long before the pathway to professional football for the next Raheem Sterling or Jadon Sancho is fraught with additional obstacles.

Sterling and Sancho spent their formative footballing years at Queens Park Rangers and Watford respectively, where they were provided with the platform to go on and become world beaters. Football is an escape for young kids in inner-city areas, as Sancho told himself. “All around me, there were people who did bad things, but I just wanted to play football”. For Sancho and Sterling, the sport would turn out to be not just an escape, but a means to build a better, more stable future for family and friends.

What will a smaller academy budget mean for the next Sancho or Sterling? The first issue is the financing of academy facilities and its coaching staff. It’s likely that some clubs may be forced into some form of a pay-to-play system, whereby families will be asked to contribute to expenses. The pay-to-play structure is rife in US soccer, and it has proven to dissuade disadvantaged children and their families, as Nick Evans – Academy Director at San Antonio FC – told Scouted Football in an exclusive interview (see below).

San Antonio FC: The blueprint for USL development

Earlier this year, parents of academy players at Inverness Caledonian Thistle were asked to contribute £10 per week in order for it to continue delivering the same level of coaching and facilities to the youth team players. While they received support from 90% of parents, if this kind of policy is mirrored across the United Kingdom then young footballing talent will be lost, with many families unable to afford such cost to keep their children at an academy.

The current England team proudly features black players who came from little but achieved a lot. Players like Marcus Rashford, Sterling and Sancho all came from poor socio-economic backgrounds. Rashford’s reliance on free school meals as a child is well publicised, while Sterling and Sancho grew up in boroughs of London which both had poverty rates of over 30% in 2013/14. The ability of academies to offer coaching, mentoring and facilities of uncompromising quality has provided the environment for these players to develop into England internationals.

In a British sporting culture that favours the wealthy and privately educated, football exists as one of a few sports where individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds have good opportunities to pursue a professional career. The quality of academy systems in Britain has a lot to do with that.

The representation of black players is a point of pride, despite the sports inability to effectively improve opportunities for black coaches and staff. Back in 2017, a talkSPORT special report found that the proportion of British BAME football players had doubled since the start of the Premier League. However, the proportion of black coaches is nowhere near that of the players. Sterling has championed this issue for years, advocating that in the football hierarchy “there’s not a lot of faces we [black players] can relate to". In a time when progress is so important, we are at a critical juncture in order to prevent a generation of black footballers being lost to financial challenges. Uncertainty tends to breed conservatism. We need recognition of these issues and definitive policy at all levels to resist them.

COVID–19 has entrenched regional and class disparities further. With clubs fighting to maintain academy categorisation, the possibility remains that players in some areas of the country could have less access to Category One academies – the elite level of England's youth development system – as is evident since the start of the Premier League.

Prior to the start of the 2020/21 season, then-Swansea City chairman Trevor Birch confirmed that the club would maintain its Category One status. Just months later, as the financial realities of the pandemic became clear, Swansea were forced to downgrade their academy status to Category Two, a decision that will save the club £3 million annually. While those sums may offer the club a respite, the decision to downgrade will have repercussions down the line. Swansea City have generated significant revenue through the sale of academy graduates: Daniel James was sold to Manchester United in June of 2019 for an initial fee of £15 million, a figure which pays for five years of Category One academy expenses.

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Ben Davies and Joe Allen were sold for significant fees also, as will Joe Rodon and Ben Cabango within the next year or so. The club’s ability to attract and keep talented young players will diminish as a result of the demotion; in turn, so will their revenue from player sales. However, the impact isn’t limited to Swansea City – with no Welsh club currently operating a Category One academy, young Welsh footballers will be at a disadvantage in their development.

Since its birth in 1992, the Premier League has only had two clubs win the championship outside of Manchester and London. Writing for LabourHub in 2018, Dr Edward Sugden noted the demise of teams from the “traditional industrial bases” such as Leeds, Sunderland, and the midlands. Although Leeds United have seen recent success, they are a long way from their last first division title in 1992. With prize money and sponsorship packages more lucrative than ever, there is a direct correlation between first-team success and the quality of the youth team set up. To ensure that talent doesn’t go undiscovered, it’s crucially important that clubs from all corners of the UK can provide high quality education and facilities. With titles continually oscillating between Manchester and London, regional disparities in academy quality are intensifying, with clubs like Sunderland fighting against the odds to maintain their Category One academy classification.

It’s not just academies with categorisation that will determine the future of young footballers. Academies of smaller clubs – those that operate within the Football League – who play their part in scouting and developing local talent will be forced to assess whether they can continue to run.

In July, The Mirror reported that Salford City FC were considering cutting funding to their academy. Their concerns lay in developing players that would eventually go to Category One and Category Two academies anyway. It was a decision that echoed the one taken by Brentford years prior; they cited a long list of players who left their academy for bigger London clubs as their reason for mothballing their youth development programme. Evidently, there are serious financial conversations going on at lower league clubs about the feasibility of their academies. However, these academies often provide the first rung of the ladder towards a career in football – without them, the route to the top becomes much more difficult for players who perhaps may slip through the cracks of the elite level.

The ability of bigger clubs to cherry pick players from the lower leagues roots inequality in an industry where the millions spent at the top of the game don’t trickle down. To afford young British players the same opportunities, regardless of where they live, a fairer compensation model for player transfers must be found. Smaller clubs need the opportunity to develop local players and, when they do, they need to be compensated adequately for player sales so they can bolster their academy talent.

COVID–19 might have some benefits for academy players who are on the cusp of a first-team place; we will see younger players being promoted over big money signings. At clubs where there is less external funding, which includes the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal, we may well see a greater emphasis placed on bringing young players through. However, that is a drop in the ocean compared to the repercussions that will ravage the lower level. The impact of COVID–19 lower down the ladder will be severe in almost every conceivable sense. It's vital that the elite – the Premier League, and the powers that be – protect the pyramid that is the irreplaceable local platform of their worldwide product.

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