HUDDERSFIELD caused a stir by restructuring their academy this week.
Town have dropped from a Category Two set-up to Category Four under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
In English, that means they are ditching all their teams up to and including Under-16 level, keeping only their Under-18 and Under-23 sides.
Chairman Dean Hoyle just did not see enough bang for his buck from the old system, given only midfielder Phil Billing – brought in from Denmark at 16 – has progressed to the first team.
The controversial move has not been welcomed by all, with Swindon boss David Flitcroft – a staunch believer in the merits of an academy system – telling me it was a “travesty” this week.
Yet I would not be surprised if more clubs who routinely struggle to produce one of their own follow in the Terriers’ footsteps.
Town themselves are heading down a similar path already worn by forward-thinking Brentford, who closed their academy 14 months ago.
They replaced it with a solitary B team made up of 17-20 year olds, though there is no upper cap on age, who are largely made up of players cut loose from other academies, like left-back Ilias Chatzitheodoridis who was released by Arsenal at 18.
The new system turned on its head the depressingly familiar outcome of putting time and cash into developing a kid only to see them pilfered for next to nothing, with the Bees now profiting from snaring potential diamonds deemed too rough by the bigger boys.
Robert Rowan, the club’s Head of Football Operations, told SunSport: “We were spending £2million a year on something that simply wasn’t producing enough players for the first team.
“If you went on Dragon’s Den and pitched a business plan that was going to spend over £2m a year and said ‘Give me ten years and hopefully we’ll produce one or two players who will give you most likely less than that £20m’, they would say it was a pretty bizarre model.”
Brentford’s B team organise their own fixtures rather than having to conform to an academy or U-21 division.
This means that they can play as many as they like and once a month they set up three games in a week to give the players practical experience of the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, hurly-burly of the Championship.
They can play whoever they want too, and with the added bonus of being so near to London Heathrow Airport, the B team have already faced the likes of Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Valencia.
Though Rowan believes a recent fixture against a Luton XI of senior players was the most beneficial as it put his boys against men.
Some of these fixtures are dubbed ‘showcase matches’ and are hosted at Griffin Park, where impressive crowds, who appreciate their club’s outside-the-box approach, of up to 1,700 have attended.
With just one side beyond the first team to focus on and fewer regulations to adhere to, there is less need for a big staff which cuts down on costs.
More focus can be given to improving each player with only 40 being on the club’s books. The manager will know all of their names. Quality over quantity is the idea.
Already two have progressed to the first-team squad in Justin Shaibu – signed for £20,000 from Danish side HB Koge – and Chris Mepham.
“Graduaters”, they are called.
Seven players have made their first-team debuts, while Rowan claims there have been over 550 occasions where a B-team player has trained with the seniors. Trust a Brentford employee to know his stats!
Rowan said it would be “difficult” to calculate an exact figure of how much the new set-up cost but that it would be “definitely less than half” than what they were previously spending.
He added: “When Steve Jobs went back to Apple, one of the first things he did was reduced their products from 20 to four.
“The mantra was he wanted to make those four the best four in the world, rather than make 20 average. So it’s a bit like that.
“The lower amount of people you have, the easier it is for you to control key principles around that, whether that be style of play, culture, the content of what you’re training, you can collaborate more effectively. It’s been interesting.”
Rowan’s background is an unusual one having never been a player.
The Scot got into the game by sending unsolicited scouting reports to Celtic, suitably impressing them enough to earn a job there.
He has worked his way through the admin and scouting side ever since, joining Brentford in a scouting role during the 2014-15 season before taking his current role the following summer.
The 27-year-old is enthusiastic about what his club is doing but insists its future is only dependent on its success and that it will be reviewed after three years.
He also feels academy systems are the right model for some clubs, such as behemoths like Chelsea with their whopping resources as well as smaller sides like AFC Wimbledon, whose “only way of making money” is through developing their own players.
Rowan added: “I have no idea if other clubs will follow suit.
“But I would like to believe that if one team does something differently then the rest of them might look at it differently and think, you know what, that’s quite interesting.
“We have had a few calls from clubs who are interested to know what we’re doing or when they’ve played us, they’ve thought we’ve done well.
“There’s definitely an interest in what we’re doing.”
It seems the ‘one-size fits all’ myth of how to set up your football club’s infrastructure is coming to an end.