Ged Roddy: A decade of EPPP - and what the future could hold

Ged Roddy was Director of Youth at the Premier League

Ged Roddy was Director of Youth at the Premier League

BLOEMFONTEIN and a moment in time.

This was the game of the ghost goal, the 4-1 defeat to Germany; 27th June 2010. It was a moment of existential crisis for English football - or at least that was the way the media presented it.

For me in my role at the Premier League, it was probably a blessing in disguise, because from that moment onwards there was, for the first time, a feeling of the need to make change.

There was a recognition that the Football League, Premier League and Football Association would have to come together, working with their clubs, to create some sort of shift in a system that had had no change in over 14 years.

So, in May 2011, this document was produced - the Elite Player Performance Plan - and distributed around the game. It wasn’t plain sailing. There were some massive challenges to convince people of the benefits of the proposals and the debates were robust.

Ged Roddy is currently the Technical Director at Charlton Athletic. In 2009, he became the Premier League's first Director of Youth and launched the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2011. This transformed youth development in England.

To look at the document itself would take all day, because it’s a detailed technical manual, but you can condense it down into two slides. The first is the vision for the system - to produce more and better homegrown players. And beyond that, it was to try and affect the staff working in the Academy system, centred around the players, and to build a new and different environment.

To do that, we identified, as a community of coaches, managers and executives, six critical success factors (shown below). I'll go through each of those in turn:

1. More and better homegrown players

When I started this process and went on the road around the clubs, particularly to the Premier League, more often than not I would hear this comment - ‘There is no English talent, so we have to shop abroad.’

Probably the biggest challenge of the whole project was to change people’s mindset and convince them that English players had the talent and were capable. Any of the other changes we wanted to initiate could not be made unless we achieved that first step. That took time and it was a long process.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of the project was that we moved the executives who sat around the Board tables at the Premier League and Football League to a position where they would say, ‘Yes we have the talent now, but we don’t have the pathway.’

Gareth Southgate has had a profound impact on our game, not just as the England manager but from the outset of this project, when he was the FA's Head of Elite Development. Gareth acted as a catalyst for bringing people together.

I always felt we could produce better players with the investment and systems that were being put in place but I always worried about the ‘more’. Gareth and (former FA Technical Director) Dan Ashworth were always very keen to hold out feet to the fire in terms of the more, as critical friends.

For the first time, certainly while I was working at the Premier League, I felt there was a real alignment between the England DNA project and what we were doing at the Premier League.

Those dynamic leaders at the FA acted as a challenge and a check but also as key friends in the system. I am encouraged that we are starting to see more players coming through the system.

The quality and quantity of players at Gareth’s disposal is probably better than ever and you can see from the results we’ve had at youth and now senior level that things seem to be moving in the right direction.

2. Contact time and the games programme. 

In some respects, this was perhaps the easiest success factor to deal with, yet in many ways it was also the hardest. At the outset, it was clear there was very limited contact time that players were gaining access to.

When I compared our system to what was happening in Europe and around the world it was clear our young players were getting less time. There was a big debate about how much was enough and thankfully it’s now moved on to a debate about quality and how we utilise that increased time to work with players in the system, with discussions about coach-to-player ratios and Individual Development Plans.

Growing the games programme as an innovative environment for the young players to develop was, I felt, one of the great successes of EPPP and continues to be something that other systems are hugely envious of.

Clearly, there are some challenges and debate always raged about what we should do in the Professional Development Phase, post-18. Those debates still go on. What should we do with the U23s league? Where does competition sit? Where does development sit? Those debates are healthy and have to continue.

At the time, there were fears that the new games programme, new increased contact time, would lead to burnout and potential injury. I don’t think those fears materialised in the chronic way that we worried about, but other things have come to the fore: mental health, player care and obviously safeguarding. They remain at the forefront.

This article is taken from Ged Roddy's presentation at the recent Youth Development Webinar. You can buy the webinar on-demand. Includes:

  • Nick Cox: Youth Development the Man Utd Way
  • Michael Hamilton: The Self-Management Model at AFC Wimbledon
  • Per Mertesacker: Creating Strong Young Gunners
  • Gregg Broughton: How to Measure the Success of an Academy
  • Ged Roddy MBE: A Decade of EPPP
  • Digital version of the Academy Productivity Rankings Brochure

You can purchase HERE

The Academy experience remains a challenge. Nick Cox (Manchester United's Academy Director) quoted the approach to joy as a by-product of what you’re trying to achieve and that remains a challenge for us as we build more and more intense environments.

3. Coaching

One of the biggest impacts of EPPP has been in the arena of coaching. Our plan was to try and create a leading youth coaching fraternity.

Whether that has been achieved will be for others to judge, but there was a very clear focus on developing and modernising the coach education system, and this was where the FA played a significant role and continue to do so, in building an education system for expanded coaching workforce now in place.

There was also a challenge to make that workforce more diverse. I believe it is becoming more diverse but there is certainly more work to be done.

There was a very clear target to reduce player-to-coach ratios and I believe the introduction of Heads of Coaching was a unique resource. I don’t see anywhere else in the world that has a comparable resource and this group of Heads of Coaching and the FA Coach Educators are something the game should be looking to utilise, because they are very valuable.

Right now, I believe we have the largest group of full-time professional youth coaches anywhere in the world. That is something we should celebrate. Inside this coaching group coming through our Academy system we have a massive talent pool.

But there are some challenges. Perceptions at senior level still need to be changed. There is still not the recognition of the quality and excellence of the new generation of coaches coming through.

We need to further improve and expand the opportunities for coach education and one of the biggest gains we can achieve is in the club-driven CPD that Heads of Coaching can implement.

My fervent belief is that the next leap forward will be the establishment of homegrown coaches in senior roles in our game. When you look at the German system, the first wave of beneficiaries of their changes were great young players coming through their system and there was a lag before their coaches came through, almost 10 years.

Now you look at those German coaches and you see them at the very top of the game. My hope is that in the next 10 years our English coaches will have the same opportunities and pathway to the top.

4. Measurement

What audit did for the system was allow us to hard-wire in a three-year cycle where the clubs were tested and re-tested. In many quarters it was hated, but in many respects it was a necessary evil. It meant EPPP could evolve over time.

Looking back to where we were 10 years ago to where we are now, I think there have been significant changes:

  • The rise of data and the wider use of analytics. We established the PMA as a sort of repository for data and 10 years on that is a resource that is rich in data but is maybe largely untapped.
  • Recruitment and the use of data within that is much more prevalent, as is the development of match and training analysis.
  • Over the last 10 years there has been a renewed focus on how we deal with the relative age effect and how we utilise the opportunities around biobanding. Those discussions are ongoing.

5. Investment and infrastructure

The development of our Academy infrastructure has been eye-watering, with unprecedented levels of investment since the outset of EPPP.

In the first four years of the project, £350m was spent. Now the figure stands at more than a billion. The facilities that have been produced were greatly enhanced by the creation of the Professional Game Youth Fund - a 4% levy on transfer taxes that is still in place - and the recent Fan Led Review of Football Governance talked about utilising this methodology to try and extend access to good causes.

I think the Category One environment is world-leading in terms of the built infrastructure. I haven’t seen a network like it anywhere else in the world.

Manchester City have also shown how the development of a secondary stadium can enhance the Academy and women’s team and act as a groundshare with grassroots clubs too, potentially.

But it’s not all plain sailing. When you look down the system, Category Three Academies spend almost 80% of their funding on facility hire. This is money that is not being invested as a legacy for those clubs.

There is a real opportunity to invest in the built environment. The Football Foundation would be a fantastic place to develop this kind of initiative and the facilities could be held in trust, so that whatever ownership came in, the Academy facilities would be retained for the use and benefit of youth development.

6. Education

Education was always central to how the system was going to be developed. When we started to measure inside the system, we found was that boys who came in were progressing above the national average in terms of their academic progression between the ages of nine and 11, but that by the time they reached 16 they were below the national average.

So we were taking them on a journey from above average to mediocrity and that was a problem. It was something I believe has been addressed in many places now.

I still believe there are opportunities for post-16 education and certainly in tertiary or University education at U23 level we lag behind some other countries. It was really great to hear Per Mertesacker (Arsenal's Academy Manager) talking about Bukayo Saka and his four A stars and three As at GCSE level and that is not untypical of the academic profile of many of the boys coming through the system.

The future: Risks and opportunities

This 10-year point in time gives us an opportunity to celebrate some of the great achievements that have been made through youth development in our country. It is also a time to reflect on some of the opportunities that exist and some of the risks we could face.

I think there are gaps within our system and we have an opportunity and also a duty to try and bridge them. As the Academy system at the top level has become this shining example of best practise in many cases, there is a danger that the grassroots of the game, and the core of the professional game at Category Three and even Two, could be left behind and there’s a danger that the environment splits.

When I joined the Premier League in 2009, one of the first things I did, after visiting clubs across England, was to spend quite a bit of time in Germany. By 2010, the revamped German Academy system was already 10 years old. Going and looking at it was a revelation.

When they built their system, the DFB opened 250 regional development centres around the country. When we began the process of introducing EPPP we talked to the FA about developing county-based Development Centres, to catch those players sitting outside of the Academy system, dropping out of it or even the late developers.

It never happened and I still don’t know why. It sits there for me as a missed opportunity and I would hope that in this next phase of development we build a breathing system, which means players are able to move in and out. Regional Development Centres would enable that to happen.

Money has given us a great opportunity to invest in our system, but it also attracts other issues and challenges. Agents working within the game can be a force for good, but if they are unregulated and allowed to run amok they can be a danger to the integrity of the system.

We tried - and probably failed - to regulate this area through EPPP. All of the associations and organisations within the game have struggled to create a system that works and is viable when it comes to agents.

Regulation of this area of the game is required though, particularly when agents are straying into working with minors. There needs to be quality assurance in this domain, just as there is around coaching, physiotherapy, sport science. We need to create a very clear set of norms for behaviour.

As somebody working in a club, it’s very difficult to stand in front of a player and make judgements about agents which are completely independent, so I think there is an opportunity to develop parent education from an independent source, whether that be the FA, the leagues, the PFA, or even an independent body. Developing some new resources to help parents would be a real way forward.

Brexit is having an impact and some unintended consequences. What it has done in pure performance terms is make it more difficult to bring in some of those overseas players. In the long term, if we lose the opportunity to bring the very best players into our system, I think that will draw down and reduce the overall quality of the products inside the system.

I was always in favour of the movement of players, I still am, because I always believed that the homegrown British/ English players would benefit from rubbing shoulders with and competing against the best in the world. I think that has largely proved to be the case.

One of the unintended consequences of the stricter regulations for the movement of players is that the market for homegrown players has pretty much gone through the roof. Where certainly the Category One clubs could previously look to Europe and other parts of the world to recruit, they are increasingly having to look in England and that has pushed prices up and certainly made it more difficult for Category Two and Three clubs to retain their talent.

This is one area that the independent regulator, if one is put in place, should put at the top of his or her to-do list, in terms of communicating with government.

Compensation to clubs for players was introduced through EPPP as a structured matrix of costs and expenses. When we introduced compensation, typically a Premier League club would receive about £35m at the beginning of the season for its right to compete in the league. My understanding now is that the figure is closer to £135m.

So there has been an exponential increase in the wealth of the clubs at the top of the system, yet compensation hasn’t moved and is now completely inadequate. I think the game should look at maybe retrospectively index-linking the compensation system to TV deals or, if not, re-introduce some element of jeopardy.

The game is like a graphic equaliser (that probably dates me) and you are constantly having to re-tune things. I feel that compensation has got out of tune over the period of the last 10 years.

The world is not asleep. There are development projects and ambitions for nations all over the world. The idea that we in England have cornered the market for youth development would be a mistake. Over the last 12 months, through Fifa, we have analysed 205 nations through a global ecosystem analysis.

The 2020 Global Competitive Balance Report indicates some of the trends and ideas that are developing across the global game. I started by talking about an existential crisis in English football. Well, those conversations have been repeated in different places.

I recently read an article referring to (Chelsea Head of Youth Development)Neil Bath's Mission 2030. This is a guy who is constantly looking forward, he is relentless in the way he is looking for the next edge and opportunity, and is the embodiment of the type of youth developers that grabbed hold of EPPP and drove it and turned it into the environment we live and work in today.

Six challenges for the future game

There are six challenges I would like to place on record for the future game:

  • 1. Let’s improve coach education, which is an ongoing process.
  • 2. Let’s make sure we build a pipeline for our coaches. We have outstanding, talented coaches. Say it and repeat it. And when our executives are repeating it back to us then we will start to see young English coaches getting the top jobs in our game.
  • 3. We have a responsibility to join up the gaps. Yes, we have a network of unbelievable facilities and environments at Category One, but look at Category Three, grassroots, the lack of regional centres and remember the opportunity that is there for the women’s game. Draw those things together and they could be part of the next wave of development for EPPP or whatever it becomes known as next.
  • 4. We need to lead and not follow the next technical and tactical innovations in the game. We have been privileged and spoilt by the arrival of the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, they have helped to shape our game, but we have to step up and start to drive some of those initiatives ourselves as well.
  • 5. Will we ever sort the issue of agents and the movement of players? I don’t know, but I'd like to think we can.
  • 6. Let’s not wait for the next crisis. If things are good right now, let’s surf the wave while we can, let’s not wait for another Bloemfontein to galvanise ourselves. Let’s stick together and keep the momentum moving.

And these are the challenges I'd lay down for the developers:

  • 1. Stay curious.
  • 2. If you can, smooth out those development cycles.
  • 3. Be relentless and innovative, but also recognise that player development is a long-term process. We have to take a mindset of rushing slowly.
  • 4. Be ready to drive change, or change will drive you. We can’t be complacent.
  • 5. Remember the joy! We all got into this game because of the joy and love of it. Even in the difficult moments, smile. The players you are working with are watching you and they respond to you. We are privileged to work in this environment.

Thank you and have a happy and healthy Christmas.

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