This is the first in a series of “case studies” examining how a particular club, country or other organization runs youth soccer. It’ll be limited a bit because I, like too many people who’ve come through the American education system, don’t have a lot of foreign language skills.
So, of course, we’ll start with England. Common language. Relatively easy to find information. Somewhat. Actually, I’m happy to crowd-source here. This is based on deep dives online and a couple of conversations, but if you can point me toward other information, I’ll update this post.
I’m trying to get beyond what’s supposedly obvious. We all “know” professional European clubs have academies, and the smaller ones make money selling players to the larger ones. And there’s no “pay to play.” Right?
Here we go …
That’s the Elite Player Performance Plan, which changed everything in 2012. It’s a joint project of the FA, the Premier League, the Football League and the ever-popular “other stakeholders.” The major leagues stem from this plan, as do the three defined “phases”: Foundation (U9-U11), Youth Development (U12-U16) and Professional Development (U17-U23). It also defines the four academy categories — a Category 1 academy needs a full-time “Coach Developer” and sport scientist, while a Category 2 academy can make its Coach Developer part-time, to give just two of many examples.
Want more rules?
Training compensation is also spelled out in vivid detail, and please note the following: “in all the above cases, the Training Club held a valid licence to operate an Academy in accordance with these Rules (or to operate a Football Academy or Centre of Excellence in accordance with the Rules pertaining to youth development which these Rules replaced)” (ENPP 275.6). So if I’m reading this correctly (and my reading matches what I’ve heard elsewhere), clubs only get training compensation if they operate an Academy.
What’s an Academy? From my reading, it’s a club with a license to operate in one of the four categories mentioned below.
Which means, if the same standard applied (however inexactly) to the USA, Crossfire Premier might have trouble getting money on the Yedlin sale.
See the ENPP documents in 100 pages of glory from one of the links here.
THE TOP LEVEL
All pro clubs have academies that compete in special leagues.
Start at the very top — England has 24 clubs that meet the Category 1 criteria, and they get two privileges:
- Wider recruiting. All clubs are limited to players who live within an hour of the club at U9 through U11, and they’re not limited at all from U17 onward. From U12 to U16, clubs are limited to players who live within 90 minutes — except if they’re Category One. These clubs have no geographic limit on full-time academy players.
- These clubs are in “Premier League 2,” a two-tiered (yes, with promotion/relegation) league for mostly U23 players. The Premier League site has a good page on the league format that includes the current two tiers: 15 Premier League clubs and nine Championship clubs. Also, their U18 clubs play in the U18 Premier League, which is divided regionally instead of by pro/rel.
Premier League clubs are also responsible for the education (school, not soccer) of all full-time scholarship players aged 16-19.
Category 2 clubs — most of the rest of the EPL and Championship along with a couple of League One and League Two clubs — play in the U23 Professional Development League and the U18 Professional Development League. One major exception: Huddersfield is moving to Category 4, which means it’s shutting down everything below U17. Also, Bournemouth as of a couple of years ago was the only Category 3 club in the EPL.
Category 3 has most of the rest of the clubs in England’s traditional top-four League tiers, plus a couple of fifth-tier (National League) clubs and even one from the sixth (York). Category 4, as mentioned above, is only U17 up. But both Category 3 and Category 4 play in the Youth Alliance.
I found three League clubs — Wycombe (returning?), Crawley and Brentford — that have closed their academies and, as far as I could tell, not re-opened them. It’s hard to say, though, because some clubs seem to close and re-open academies frequently. See Torquay, currently a fifth-tier club. Clubs with no full-fledged academy may have “football education academies” for people age 16-19 looking to go to university in the UK or USA. Yeovil, now in League Two, closed its academy for a couple of years.
I only found two Category 4 clubs — Newport County and Dagenham & Redbridge. The latter moved to Category 4 after being relegated from League Two. The country certainly has more than two, but others don’t seem to advertise it — “Hey! We’re Category 4!”
There’s also a “games programme” for U9 through U11 teams from Category 1 and Category 2 academies, then a separate one for Category 3 academies. Those leagues will not have published league tables, and travel should be (but isn’t always) less than one hour. Futsal is a big deal in winter. (ENPP 123-125)
In this “Foundation” phase, players may still play for school teams.
At the early “Youth Development” phase (U12 through U14), they still don’t produce league tables. Travel time is roughly limited to two hours.
At U15/U16, the games programmes are split into Category 1 and Category 2, and they still don’t produce league tables.
Another note on these age groups: The maximum number of players in each academy drops through the years: 30 in each year from U9 through U14, 20 in U15 or U16, then 15 per year. So a club could cut players and still have a U18 group developed entirely within the club. (Given the scope of recruiting, that probably doesn’t happen often.)
THE NEXT LEVEL
There’s also a National League U19 league for clubs that are non-League — in other words, not in the Football League but rather the National League.
Let’s try that again: There’s a National League U19 competition for clubs in the fifth and sixth tiers. Some clubs have multiple teams; some have none. I also counted 10-15 first- through fourth-tier clubs that entered a team either directly or through an affiliated program (“West Ham United Foundation,” etc.). The competition also has more than 20 teams from seventh-tier clubs (Northern Premier, Isthmian and Southern top tiers), more than 20 from the eighth tier, eight clubs from the ninth tier (Wessex, Hellenic, Spartan South Midlands, etc.), one from some sort of youth academy (FootballCV Reds) and one college team (Manchester Metropolitan University).
The latter shows the goal at this level. A handful of players will get a shot in a pro academy as a young adult. Others are aiming for education, perhaps with a scholarship in the USA.
One sample program here: Dartford FC, currently in the sixth-tier National League South. They’ve partnered with a school that’s literally next door to their home ground, Leigh Academy. They also have a pre-academy that reaches down to U7, with some players still playing for local club teams and others signed exclusively for the pre-academy teams. The site mentions prices — £30-50 per month plus playing kit costs for 1 1/2 to 3 training hours per week.
THE NEXT NEXT LEVEL
The Junior Premier League has an ambitious goal to be a bridge between the grassroots game and the pro game. Its clubs are a mix of pro academy affiliates and independent youth organizations.
It’s not quite the Wild West as it is in the USA. Leagues can apply to be recognized as an FA Charter Standard League. One interesting criterion: An FA Charter Standard League must be “linked” to another league — youth-to-adult, mini-to-youth, adult-to-vet, adult-to-adult (promotion/relegation).
These clubs are diverse. You have Essex Road Giants, which was founded in 2013 to “get young children into football and off the streets” and planned a four-day trip to see all 20 Premier League stadia. Then Crown and Manor FC sounds a bit like Boys & Girls Clubs — “a safe haven for boys and young men” offering football, table tennis and other activities, where football players are required to go to at least one educational activity per week and parents better behave if they go to games. A more Americanized entry is Soccerscool FC, where you can get a franchise or take a “free taster class” before talking about prices. They use the “play-practice coaching method,” attempting to have the freedom and creativity of street football (soccer?) while developing technical skills.
Can you be in an academy and play in one of these leagues? Camden and Regent’s Park Youth League says if you’re with a Premier League or Football League academy, you can’t play, but if you’re with an academy in Steps 1-6 of the league system (fifth tier on down), you can.
Also note from that league: The age group cutoff is August 31, NOT birth year. That’s also true in the FA Youth Cup (see section 15j). So that argument that U.S. Soccer had to change its age groups to birth year because the “rest of the world” does it that way? Yeah, not so much.
“Just Play!” is a national effort to do what more local U.S. clubs should do — reserve some field space, send out a coach just to organize things (and maybe identify some talented players), and just let players play in a low-stress environment.
The site is a searchable directory of these pickup sessions and local clubs. So it’s marvelously open-ended. I did a couple of different searches and came up with some youth clubs in Highbury and an organized weekly kickabout in Torquay.
A couple of costs are already mentioned above. Here’s a sample of a few others that contribute to what a youth player is paying:
- Pitch rental: For a “3G” pitch, rental is often anywhere from £50-180 per hour. If you have multiple small-sided games going on, you can split that cost. Those fees — plus league fees and referee fees — are unavoidable.
- A grassroots team with a parent coach might max out at £15-25 per month, so you could play most of the year without breaking the £200 mark.
- Some grassroots teams might charge a little more than £25 and/or have a sponsor, enabling them to pay a small amount for a coach.
- The top end of JPL clubs might charge up to £60 per month.
- Semipro (National League, not Football League) clubs may have their own ground, saving on one expense. But they may not pay all the coaching costs, so families may still be paying.
- Independent training centers may charge around £40 per month.
All of this is obviously much lower than the cost of a typical U.S. travel soccer experience. The main mitigating factors appear to be (A) geography and (B) low pay for coaches.
Next case study: How can I do this more efficiently?