Elite player performance and football clubs doing what they should do

The Elite Player Performance plan which was voted for by the Football League has been called football’s moment when the turkeys voted for Christmas and it seems that all is lost for lower league football as a result.

The Elite Performance plan guarantee’s a club who develops a young player a certain amount should that player leave the club. That figure is lower than most believe it should be, but is in keeping with the growing pressure on football authorities to ensure that the trade in young players is not supported. The figures are on a sliding scale but on the whole they seem designed to ensure that young players are not viewed as assets or commodities.

Which is no surprise. It is nearly two decades since Jean-Marc Bosman started the ball rolling on the idea that football clubs should not be considered the owners of players. The the post-Bosman ruling world clubs retain the services of a player for the length of his contract, and EPPP seems to start to move that towards young players.

That it might not be advantageous, that it might damage clubs, is bad for Bradford City and many of our peers but the move towards EPPP has been coming for over a decade and while the ramifications of it are being played out one can imagine that the smart club is one who is planning for the newly shaped world.

And what is that world? Is there a benefit for a team like Bradford City in developing young players or does EPPP ensure that bringing through the kids is an activity for the Premier League?

Let us take the example of Terry Dixon. A sixteen year old superstar who has had a development blighted by injury while at West Ham United Dixon was being paid multiple thousands of pounds a week at the Hammers, enough to pay for three or four of the Bradford City squad at the time.

Post-injury Dixon arrives at Valley Parade looking to rebuild his career (and by all accounts is doing a great job of that) being paid a fraction of what he was on in London. No way City could have afforded to pay Dixon the 16 year old to develop, every way that City can pay him now to rehabilitate and see if he can press into the first team.

The impact of EPPP would seem to be reflected in Terry Dixon’s example, albeit less extreme. Players who come out of the academies of the Premier League can be caught and turned around. City are not the only club who have realised this but realise it they have. Every year hundreds of players are evicted from the top of football. Filtering and good selection could find players with the right attitude who have been discarded. There is a plethora of refined materials being made available, and the smart clubs are taking those and shaping them into players.

Does EPPP mean that football clubs at Bradford City’s level should stop youth football development and recruitment as Hereford United have done? Most certainly not but – and perhaps this has not been considered at Edgar Street – EPPP should signal a return to football clubs doing what they were established for.

Rather than being about developing footballers football clubs need to be about developing football teams.

It sounds like it should be a given but it is far from it. There is an obsession in the football media and in football in concentrating on the individual rather than the team. Crewe Alexandra are known for a production line of talent but rarely for the achievements of that talent. What division where they in when Danny Murphy played for them? David Platt? Robbie Savage? No one really recalls but they are all known as former Crewe players.

The great success of Dario Gradi at Gresty Road was not in creating players – although he deserves credit for that – but rather building them into teams. The Crewe that were in the second tier were not their because they had produced good players it was because they had a produced a good team.

The aim of football clubs at all levels should be the same. To develop a group of players who perform well in unison. A team that is more the sum of its parts rather than – as has happened at City under Peter Taylor and in Stuart McCall’s second season – one which is less than those parts. That comes from developing players in a way which empathises their collective rather than individual talents.

As such there is a requirement to link the youth team to the first team to ensure a transport of that collectivity up through the club. The world has been talking about David Beckham for the best part of two decades but Beckham was never better than he was when he was a part of the team of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville et al that he had developed alongside.

City are trying to make this transition using the Development Squad that attempts to create a collective unison around a group of players who previously would have just been the old kids or the young professionals. There are other ways to achieve the same – the FA Premier League Youth set up would be another – but they amount to the same idea.

Football clubs which produce football teams, as opposed to football players, and the best at it will be those who benefit the most.

Outsiders are welcome

“Come and visit Bar 71 lads”, said the Swindon Town steward who had appeared from nowhere after we had queued up at the County Ground away ticket office for tickets to Saturday’s game. “It’s for away supporters only, and we’ve put Bradford City photos up to make you feel at home. There’s even one charting how far you’ve travelled today, which I researched myself.”

So we did visit Bar 71, located directly underneath the away section of the County Ground. And though the posters looked a bit naff (see photo below) and the beer hardly cheap, it was nevertheless a pleasant experience with plenty of room and big screen coverage of the Chelsea v Arsenal game. And though we were the only people there for half an hour, by the time Robin van Persie was completing his hat trick, Bar 71 was packed out with City fans. And suddenly in from the pitch outside burst a jokingly annoyed Lennie the City Gent, wondering why no one was sat in the stand watching his routines. “Never mind the beer,” he ordered “get out there.”

"Welcome to Swindon, here's a picture of Craig Fagan to make you feel at home."

"Welcome to Swindon, here's a picture of Craig Fagan to make you feel at home."

There has been much comment made of Swindon’s decision to charge us £25 to watch a League Two match and rightly so. Times are tough and all that – football, at this level especially, should be an affordable activity not a luxury expense. A week earlier I’d attended the Blackburn Rovers v Tottenham Premier League fixture and paid just £17 for the privilege. When you consider the petrol expense of travelling 200+ miles to Wiltshire, Saturday was a costly day out.

Yet after getting past the monetary concerns, it was also a hugely enjoyable experience. Bar 71 might be little more than a glorified Working Mens Club, but it was a nice touch by Swindon to lay on facilities for away supporters. Financially profitable for them, of course; somewhere nearby, there will have been a local pub or two missing out on revenue we would have otherwise provided them. But the Robins were also making an effort to ensure our matchday experience was a good one, rather than rely on others to do so.

It may have cost £25 a ticket, but if we’re in the same division next season I personally will favour a trip to the County Ground over some League Two away games (like, for example, Port Vale – £20.50 ticket, not allowed in their supporters bar).

And that’s a point that few football clubs – Bradford City included – appear to be aware of. Away support is an important financial consideration, and there is much they can do to make sure a visit to your stadium is an attractive proposition beyond providing away fans with a decent view of the match.

Perhaps Brighton deserve the status of pioneers in this respect. As part of the development of their brand new Amex Stadium, they built an away stand where they can make bespoke changes to the facilities. Visiting supporters to Brighton this season have arrived into an away concourse in the colours of their team, with posters of their present and past heroes on the wall. Inside the ground, the away seats are cushioned. Martin Perry, Brighton Chief Executive, explained the reasoning to the BBC during the summer: “Why not be welcoming to your visiting club? Why not make it a fantastic experience for them? Because actually what happens is, they look for the Brighton fixture and they say “I’m going to that one” and we get a full house.”

Swindon’s Bar 71 was a low rent equivalent. Bespoke posters on the wall, a chance to socialise before the match and then a 5-second walk to the away turnstiles once everyone in your group had supped up. Certainly profitable for Swindon in terms of the bar and food takings; but potentially even more rewarding for the club when it comes to the number of fans who attend their club’s fixture at the County Ground the following season.

Not that it’s solely a football club’s responsibility to ensure away fans have an enjoyable experience. My favourite away trip of the season so far was Oxford in August. A few hundred yards from the stadium was a pub which put on outdoor seating, a special beer tent and a DJ playing indie classics. We were warmly welcomed to join the large group of home supporters, and we spent a good hour chatting to a number of friendly Oxford fans. A great experience which they do for every game, apparently; and because of it we’ll be travelling to Oxford the next time that City play them.

At Morecambe, Bradford City supporter Dan Thornton – who’s caravan park is based opposite the Globe Arena – has for the last two seasons put on special events before Morecambe-Bradford matches for City fans only. Although the racist stand up comedian was not to my taste and so I won’t be going again, other City fans were not bothered by it and will go in the same high numbers next time.

Whoever instigates them, the efforts of Brighton, Swindon, Oxford and Dan add something extra to the day which makes them more rewarding. When the most important factor – the match itself – is beyond our control and more often than not disappointing, it’s nice to return home from a day out with something positive to look back on from it.

Which brings us to the obvious question of what – if anything – Bradford City and us supporters are doing for visitors to our own city? As much as we can complain about Swindon’s £25 entry, the fact we charge away fans £20 to see their team at Valley Parade makes our moral high ground position rather dubious. The facilities in the Midland Road stand are okay but nothing special, while there is no Bar 71 equivalent (or a realistic location to open one) to offer visitors.

Sadly, there are no decent pubs in the immediate vicinity of Valley Parade and – without doing some research first – few away fans would have a clue where to find one. The excellent Haigy’s is hidden away, and the City Centre pubs aren’t especially football-focused. The Sparrow Cafe on North Parade, for the moment, remains a hidden gem that only a handful of City fans are aware of (well worth seeking out if you’ve not been, mine’s a pint of Bernard Unfiltered if you’re buying). That and a good curry after the match aside, it’s hard to know what would make a trip to Bradford especially more attractive for an opposition supporter.

Does it matter? When opposition away followings at Valley Parade are sometimes dipping below 100 and rarely top 500 I think it does. Consider that – to a Southern-based opposition fan – a trip to Bradford is similar in distance and effort to Accrington, Morecambe and Rotherham, which would you favour if money and a social life meant you had to pick and choose?

In early 2012 City will face away trips to London borough clubs Barnet, Wimbledon and Dagenham – a fair equivalent to the above for us. Some fans will go to all three of these; me I will probably go to two of them. Wimbledon I’ve not been too before so that will be included, and my other choice would probably be Barnet on the basis I had much more fun travelling down to North London last season compared to going to Dagenham the year before.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we shouldn’t give a toss what away fans think of Bradford and the fact they will rock up on Manningham Lane at 1pm looking for a pint and can find only sex shops. But when experiencing the difference in visiting a club who were genuinely welcoming to me and who had clearly made an effort to ensure I enjoyed my time, I feel sad and wonder if we lose out financially from the fact ‘Bradford City away’ is unlikely to be any opposition fans’ highlight of the season.