Everybody, we are sometimes told, loves a bargain, and this morning an agreement was reached between the Premier League and the Football League which will likely mean that England’s biggest clubs will have an unlimited supply of one of the most valuale assets in the game: young players. The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) was an agreement which hinted at the Football League being led by clubs that are run by eunuchs, but their defenders will claim that the forty-six clubs that voted for a revised youth academy – which will mean that a selling club is paid just £3,000 per year for every year of a player’s development between the ages of nine and eleven, while the annual fee for a player from the age of twelve to sixteen will range between £12,500 and £40,000 – because the Premier League effectively held a gun to its head by witholding the £5m that it is due to pay the clubs of the Football League to help cover the cost of funding youth development until it voted in favour of the decision.
On top of this, the geographical boundaries which prevent clubs from signing players from a radius greater than ninety minutes’ journey from their own ground will also be removed. In other words, the new rules will allow a “free” market in which clubs take players on from anywhere, with the amount of money that they have to pay smaller clubs for them in compensation being slashed. This will obviously have an effect on smaller clubs who treat the development of young players as being central to their financial income stream. The very best young players will most likely gravitate towards the biggest clubs, and with the amount of compensation money to be paid having been reduced, it is not difficult to imagine that the biggest clubs will simply circle like vultures at smaller clubs, picking up players for a song. The dominance of the Premier League over all else will be entrenched to such a point that it isn’t difficult to imagine some – if not many – smaller clubs taking the heart-breaking decision that it will not be worth their running youth academies if they are to be, at best, merely serving the whims of the Premier League.
It isn’t only smaller clubs that will be affected by this. For every one player that does succeed at a bigger club, there are scores of players that will not make their grade, and being able to identify the very best players for the future at the age of fifteen or sixteen is a notoriously imperfect science. With little financial reason to not gamble on hoovering up as many players as they can elsewhere, it seems likely that a lot of players when it is discovered that those concerned will not make the grade at the highest level. Some of those players will find their level lower down the football food chain, but how many, after years of having convinced themselves that they are good enough to play for, say, Manchester United or Chelsea, will simply drift away from the game altogether once their usefulness has been exhausted.
Those that will wave their banners for this scheme are, perhaps predictably, using the increasing of standards for the England national team as their defence for this decision, but the cynics amongst us will see a parallel with history, here. When the Premier League was formed in 1992, the argument put forward was very similar. Two decades on, it is impossible to argue that the Premier League has been benefit to the England team, and that with club sides in the professional game more hostile than ever to international football (as evinced by their at best lukewarm enthusiasm for the FA’s 2018 World Cup bid and their anxiety to hack and slash away at the international calendar), the idea that they are concerned with the well-being of the England team feels laughable, to say the least.
This, however, is the great lie of the Premier League. Just as carving up football to keep the television money themselves in 1992 was hidden behind a PR campaign about the good of the national team, so it is with this proposal, and, just as the FA were utterly supine in allowing that to happen, so the clubs of the Football League have hoist themselves by their own petard in agreeing this, and it will become that much less likely that we can continue to have any sympathy whatsoever for clubs that didn’t stand up to the Premier League and say enough is enough should they plead poverty in the future. Meanwhile, the hostility of seen today towards this decision has felt particularly vicious, as if we are approaching the tipping point for the popularity of the Premier League amongst some, if not many, people.
It is starting to feel as if the scales are falling from many eyes, as if the realisation that the Premier League doesn’t care for anything but its own avarice is starting to become horribly, bitterly apparent. It has been possible in the past to dismiss those that have sought to attack the Premier League from every angle as leaning towards being conspiracy theorists. This vote, on top of the recent comments of Liverpool’s Ian Ayre on the subject of the sale of television rights and those of David Bevan of the League Managers Association that there are now several club owners that would like to end promotion and relegation into the Premier League, add to a growing feeling that this isn’t our game any more. Under normal circumstances, we could try and argue that this has all been a public relations disaster for the Premier League, but it feels as if they genuinely don’t care about this, that they feel as if shedding a few supporters from England will be more than offset by the financial advantages of adopting an imperialist attitude in the future.
One of football’s greatest strengths in recent years has been its degree of unity. With the European Super League looking at least as likely as not, the threat of casting clubs below the Premier League asunder and the possibility of rewriting the rules on the sale of television rights to suit the wealthiest, it feels as if the final days of football as a single, unified sport are now upon us. And perhaps the most depressing aspect of it all is that there will probably be no significant protest, that some will drift away from the game altogether and that the wishes of the plutocrats will, sooner or later, come to pass. And we will all come to miss those days when they have gone. This evening, it feels as if the days of suggesting that we should stand and fight to save our game from these people are a long way away. Twenty years ago, the Premier League was waved through with too little protest from supporters. Today, it is probably time to wonder aloud whether we are going to be a part of the problem, or whether we are going to a part of the solution.
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