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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 February 2007, 09:20 GMT
Crewe boss voices academy fears
By Matt Slater

Dean Ashton
Crewe's faith in youth talent reaped rewards when Ashton moved on
Crewe's production line of talent could come under threat because of a cash crisis outside football's top flight.

Crewe chairman John Bowler told BBC Sport that many clubs outside the Premiership were struggling financially and youth set-ups may be sacrificed.

"We are finding it harder and harder to carry on such an extensive youth development scheme," said Bowler, whose club have produced a string of stars.

"We are doing it but that could come under challenge."

Bowler, who has been chairman of the Cheshire side for almost 20 years, said rising costs and falling revenues were having a real impact in the Football League.

And whilst stressing Crewe's commitment to youth development, he warned that academies and centres of excellence (smaller, cheaper academies) would be the first things many clubs cut back on.

606: DEBATE
MS
Simon Clifford, the former teacher who founded the successful Brazilian Soccer Schools franchise, agreed with Bowler and said "it was only a matter of time before some clubs give up on youth development".

The Premier League has never been richer thanks to huge media rights contracts, which total 2.7bn over the next three years, but little of that is filtering down to the Football League.

The entire youth development structure in English football, which has been under a microscope since Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez claimed it "wasn't working" in December, is currently under review.

Benitez, however, was simply the most recent high-profile figure to claim academies were not producing enough youngsters, particularly English youngsters, of Premiership quality.

The review, which is being chaired by rugby league youth development expert Richard Lewis, has been underway since last summer and involves all three interested parties: the Football Association, the Football League and the Premier League.

The Football League and Premiership have to explore ways we can work together so we (in the Football League) can earn their financial support

John Bowler
Crewe Alexandra
Among the main sticking points is the amount of financial support the FA and Premier League will provide to the Football League clubs' academies and centres of excellence.

The current financial arrangement - a central pot of 10m that is distributed to the 68 Football League clubs that have academies or centres of excellence - is in its last year and the government and the Professional Footballers Association have already withdrawn their support.

Bowler is concerned about the rigour and pace of this review.

"Everybody has to get together and identify what this infrastructure should be and what are the collective ambitions of this country," he said.

"Do they want a strong Football League supporting the industry they are operating in? Do they want a strong national side? And do we want to be a developer of young players?

Theo Walcott
Jennings oversaw Walcott's rise from Saints prospect to 12m teen
"If we do, the Football League and Premiership have to explore ways we can work together so we (in the Football League) can earn their financial support.

"I don't think these discussions go on with the kind of urgency or sense of importance they ought to have. The FA is completely wrapped up in the Burns report (a series of reforms that will reorganise the governing body)."

But Huw Jennings, the Premier League's youth development manager, told BBC Sport that the richer clubs do accept the need to help fund Football League academies.

"The amount we give (currently 4.2m) is rightly being reviewed right now," said Jennings.

"The difficulty we have is the notion that everybody is entitled to the same figure. We shouldn't underestimate the varying levels of compliance with the programme.

"Inevitably, some clubs invest more and dedicate more, while some pay lip service to it. We want to promote quality."

Crewe's youth set-up would seem to meet that requirement as it has produced players like Dean Ashton, Rob Jones and Danny Murphy. The club has also nurtured young players like Neil Lennon, David Platt and Robbie Savage, whose careers have stalled elsewhere.

But an operation such as Crewe's can cost as much as 1m a year - the average cost of a Premiership academy is almost 2m a year - which is a huge expense for a small League One club, particularly when the maximum grant for Football League clubs is 138,000.

What's stopping us from really progressing is finance

Graham Hawkins
Football League
Graham Hawkins, the Football League's head of player development, is convinced the academy system, which was introduced in 1998, is working and believes the review should go no further than "a few tweaks".

"We're only in the ninth year so we're just getting the first crop through (youngsters can join at eight)," said Hawkins, who managed Wolves during the early 1980s.

"What's stopping us from really progressing is finance. Prices have gone up to the point where the grant (which was set in 1998) should be more like 200,000 now.

"But the system is working. We are producing better players, and the facilities and coaches are getting better and better.

"The problem is the poorer clubs want them too but that 138,000 soon gets gobbled up when you've got 16 part-time coaches to pay.

"If the Premier League and FA could match what the Football League clubs themselves were spending (almost 23m) on youth development it would be great - that would help double some clubs' budgets."

The clubs will recognise that the investment they have put in will bear fruit - I am very optimistic about the future

Huw Jennings
Premier League
Hawkins should be heartened, though, to hear that Jennings, who spent eight years at the Southampton academy that produced Gareth Bale, Wayne Bridge and Theo Walcott, is convinced the system will emerge stronger from the review.

"It's a truism to say there aren't enough players coming from the academies into first teams and I don't think anybody would deny that," said Jennings.

"But I want to qualify that by saying some exceptionally good players have come through - look at West Ham, Middlesbrough or Manchester City. That is a credit to the system not in spite of it.

"What we will see over the next decade is consolidation. The clubs will recognise that the investment they have put in will bear fruit. I am very optimistic about the future."

In the meantime, everybody interested in English football will be hoping the likes of Crewe maintain their commitment to youth development, the future of football in the land that invented the game could depend on it.



SEE ALSO
Football factory or money pit?
08 Feb 07 |  Football
Stability 'key' to youth success
08 Feb 07 |  Football
The quiet man of Crewe
25 Feb 07 |  Crewe Alexandra
The academy graduate
05 Feb 07 |  Get Involved
Next generation of Crewe talent
26 Oct 06 |  Crewe Alexandra


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