The pathway from academy to first team: why are PL clubs not giving more of their own a chance?

Today news broke that Reece Oxford will, subject to agreeing terms, be moving to Augsburg from West Ham for a paltry sum of £3 million. I say paltry because Oxford made his Premier League debut as a 16 year old in a 2-0 win and from memory, looked pretty impressive in the process. Many Hammers fans would have expected him to kick on as he made 7 appearances that season but he hasn’t, and he now moves to an average (with respect) Bundesliga club having never been able to establish himself in the Hammers first team. This got me thinking: how many others have ended up like him; having a breakthrough at an early age but then failing to hold down a regular spot in the first team of the club that they came through the academy at?

Many Premier League clubs have pumped vast sums of money, time and staffing into their academies but have very little to show for it in terms of players that have become first-team fixtures. The most famous example of this is Manchester City’s eye-popping £150 million purpose-built academy complex built in 2014. Yet even in City’s case, the only player who has really developed into a first-team fixture is Phil Foden (I had the pleasure of seeing him play live recently and he could be worth the £150 million outlay in a few years!). But City are the rule rather than the exception, so why are clubs not capitalising on this investment?

To begin to answer this, it’s important to state the obvious. Firstly of course not every player in every academy will make the first team, play in the Premier League, or even play professionally for that matter. I don’t have statistics but I’d hazard a guess and say that probably less than 5-10% of PL academy players end up signing a significant professional contract. Reece Oxford is not in a unique position and we’ve seen other high-profile players have to leave to really pave their way in the game; the most obvious example being of Jayden Sancho leaving Manchester City and now tearing it up at Borussia Dortmund. Callum Hudson-Odoi was the subject of a bid of £35 million in January, so how was it that Bayern Munich saw his potential but at Chelsea he wasn’t in the first-team picture? Since then he’s broken through to feature regularly for Chelsea and England but the cynical view is that the Bayern interest, impending transfer ban and his limited contract length forced Chelsea’s hand.

Risk-adversity

Lets face it: clubs and more importantly managers, in the Premier League have to operate in the here and now. For the majority of teams outside of the top 6 there is a distinct possibility that each season could end up in relegation. As such, they do not feel they can take a chance on their promising academy players and will often opt for experience over potential. Most managers may also feel that the physical demands of the Premier League may be too much for an academy player who isn’t fully developed physically.

Managing egos (and price tags!)

Any manager who replaces a multi-million pound big name with an academy graduate is really putting their heads above the parapet, both with the fans and with the dressing room. If this move coincides with poor results, it is an easy stick for the fans to beat the manager with. Similarly, most big players on big contracts fully expect to be playing every week and are not going to take the decision lying-down. These players are also likely to be influential in the dressing room and could have a detrimental effect on team morale.

The standard of academy/under 18 football

Many Premier League managers have been very vocal in their disapproval of the current ‘competitive’ standard of the reserve leagues and under 18 leagues. Pep Guardiola in particular is not a fan of the current set-up, arguing that clubs should have reserve teams in the championship, as in Spain because the current standard is his view, so poor. They would likely take the view that they can’t really gauge the potential ability and mentality of a player based on the standards of the games they’re currently playing in. It’s a bit different running out in front of a full Old Trafford or Emirates with the worlds cameras trained on you than playing in front of hundreds on a weekday night.

It’s easier to buy a player than develop them

By definition, academy players are not the finished article. However with the huge amounts of money washing around in the Premier League it’s much easier for a club to buy a ‘ready-made’ player who can provide tangible results than it is to invest time and patience into s player who in the long-term might be a better option.

Hope for the future?

It would appear as thought the odds are firmly stacked against academy graduates fulfilling their dreams of playing for their clubs in the Premier League (and they are), but there are reasons to be more positive now than ever before and the tide appears to be turning….

Recent success stories

Over the past few seasons there have been a string of high-profile academy graduates not only featuring for their sides, but also proving to be some of the best players in the league. Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Phil Foden, Declan Rice and Harry Winks to name just a few. These players achievements are likely to have made a dent in the risk-adverse psyche’s of a few managers.

Brexit

Whatever deal (or no deal) comes to fruition, one thing is almost certain: and end to free movement of people from the EU. At the moment clubs in the EEA can transfer players between the ages of 16-18 and this would be put into doubt. In this scenario, it will put more emphasis on clubs to develop their own talent as the ability to freely go out and buy the next 16 year old wonder kid from Europe will no longer exist. Good news for British youngsters indeed.

Squad rules

Clubs are mindful that they can only register squads of 25, which particularly for the bigger clubs is reasonably small. As a minimum, each club has to have 8 ‘home-grown’ players in their squad and academy players would fulfill that role nicely. Although this isn’t a recent development it’s plausible that these requirements are actually increased in the future, playing into academy players’ hands.

Fan appreciation

He’s one of our own, he’s one of our oooowwwnnnn” is music to a managers ears who will happily take the credit for bringing through an academy player who is performing well regularly in the top-flight. Fans are generally much more forgiving of mistakes from a player who has cost nothing and has come through the academy. This goodwill will then extend to the manager for taking the chance on a player.

To finish; good luck to Reece Oxford, I hope he makes it in the Bundesliga and establishes himself as one of Europe’s brightest prospects again. Although there are still too many examples such as his, there are reasons to be hopeful that being a player in a Premier League team’s academy might be more fruitful than it has in the past.

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