Last season, Wigan Athletic beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, finishing in 15th place in the formidable Premier League. The reserve team ended 6th out of 8 in the competitive northern division of the Premier Reserve League. The youth team lost more than it won in the Football League Youth Alliance, with clubs like Rochdale and Bury topping them. Over the summer, we have seen a welcome shake-up of the youth scheme with Matt Jackson given the job of making sure the infrastructure is in place to better develop players. We now have an academy, rather than a centre of excellence. But has this shake-up come too late? Are we still being left behind our immediate competitors?
The Premier Reserve League – which started in 1999 — was disbanded at the end of last season. The FA has replaced it with the Professional Development League. We now have “development teams” playing in the new league at under 21, under 18 and under 16 levels.
Will this new infrastructure provide a better outlet for developing young players than the old reserve league? The reserve team concept appears to have been dying a slow death over the years. In reality most Premier League clubs have been fielding mostly young players in their reserve teams. There never seemed to be enough fixtures and matches were being played at training grounds, lacking in atmosphere.
Moreover, the English game has not been producing enough youngsters capable of making the grade at Premier League level. Last season — according to transfermarkt.co.uk — 64% of Premier League players were foreigners, compared with 37% in La Liga, 49% in Serie A and 52% in the Bundesliga. A recent online article in the Daily Mail tells us that in the matches played last weekend, only around 30% of who started who would qualify to play for England. Interestingly enough Norwich were the leaders in English players with 6, whereas Wigan Athletic were the lowest with zero. Although you could argue that Latics’ do have several “homegrown” players such as the Scots, Irish and Emmerson Boyce.
Facing this dearth of young English players, the FA has introduced its Elite Player Performance Plan. This has required club’s academies to be ranked on a 1-4 scale, 1 being the highest. Almost all Premier League clubs have their development teams in Division 1 of the new league, since their academies were placed in category 1. The exceptions are Wigan Athletic, Queens Park Rangers and Swansea. The Latics and QPR academies were given category 2 status, meaning the club’s development squads will play in Division 2 of the new leagues, together with clubs from the Football League. Moreover, according to an interesting article by Alfie Long clubs with academies rated in categories 2-4 run the risk of having their top youngsters poached by category 1 clubs, with minimal compensation.
Only time will tell if the new infrastructure will better produce homegrown players. In Wigan Athletic’s case, the initiative to upgrade the youth system has come a little late, but should be viewed as a step forward. Better for our youth teams to be playing the likes of Leeds and Leicester than those of clubs in Leagues 1 or 2.
There remains an option for senior squad players to get match time with the under 21 team. A goalkeeper and up to three outfield players may be included as “over-age”. In this way, it is pretty close to what we have had in the past. The difference is that, for the near future at least, our under 21 team will be playing against teams from Championship clubs. A backwards step.
The sooner the club’s academy moves into the category 1 rating the better.