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Will homegrown talent take the club to the Premier League?

Brad Leyca feels that the importance of an Academy as a means to an end towards promotion is ultimately relative - its real worth is as a revenue maker.

David Marples

Before the start of the 2015/2016 season, much was made of the looming difficulties facing Forest in the future, many stemming from the ongoing transfer embargo levied by the FA and their relative lack of depth in the first team. While the majority of Forest’s fans viewed this new chapter with a collective feeling of apprehension or, perhaps more abundantly, embarrassment, another faction of Forest supporters felt this most recent misstep could finally propel the club to get their proverbial house in order and begin building their squad through the Academy.

Much has been made over the past three years or so about the virtues of an Academy for lower tier clubs seeking promotion to the big time or for clubs fighting a long term battle in staying solvent. Some clubs, like Coventry City and Crewe Alexandria, seem to have a penchant for discovering and/or developing homegrown talent, breaking them into the first team, and selling them for relatively extravagant sums to stay competitive and keep the cycle going again. The promise of first team football regardless of the level can be an attractive draw, even if the club serves as nothing more than a shop window for a bigger move.

The storyline of young Academy players helping bolster young Premier League upstarts received further attention in theorizing how relatively ‘smaller’ clubs, Burnley, Blackpool and Bournemouth serving as the chief examples, gained promotion to the top flight. As the theory goes, these clubs gained promotion by having a shoestring budget that forced them to learn how to become resourceful with free transfers and loans while being powered by an insightful and charismatic manager who knew how to get the most out of a team left for dead in the third division as recently as three years ago (in the case of Bournemouth). Critical in that calculation, the theory goes, was the role of the Academy.

Just how true is that statement, though? How essential is an Academy burgeoning with young talent towards gaining promotion out of the Championship? Depending on who you listen to, it can be considered the most vital ingredient. A review of the last five years of clubs who gained promotion to the Premier League provides an interesting snapshot. When looking at the three clubs who gained promotion each year between the 2010/11 to 2014/2015 season and doing a count of Academy or homegrown players who played in ten or more League games that season we’re offered a somewhat conflicting view:

YEAR


PROMOTION WINNERS (HOMEGROWN PLAYERS FEATURING IN 10+ GMS)


FEATURED ACADEMY PLAYERS/SQUAD MEMBERS


2014/2015

Watford (1), Bournemouth (1), Norwich City (0)

Tommie Hoban (WAT); Brett Pittman (BOU)

2013/2014

Leicester (3), Burnley (0), QPR (0)

Andy King, Jeff Schlupp, Liam Moore (LEI)

2012/2013

Cardiff City (0), Hull City (0), Crystal Palace (2)

Jonny Williams, Wilfred Zaha (CRY)

2011/2012

Reading (4), Southampton (1), West Ham (2)

Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan, Simon Church, Hal Robson-Kanu (REA); Adam Lallana (SOU); Mark Noble, James Tompkins (WHU)

2010/2011

QPR (0), Norwich City (2), Swansea City (1)

Chris Martin, Korey Smith (NOR); Joe Allen (SWA)

Save for one watershed season (2011/2012), the average yearly number of Academy players who featured into more than ten matches among those sides promoted from the Championship to the Premier League per team was 1. In some cases, that single player could have a tremendous impact—Adam Lallana and Wilfred Zaha jump out among those listed here—but on the whole the players who were born from the Academy were largely squad team fodder, bouncing regularly between reserve team matches and first team appearances. Where the evaluation of an Academy’s utility, however, takes on new life is when assessing the teams that stayed up. In that conversation, one can see that the dramatic sale of an Academy player—again, using Zaha and Lallana as examples—netted their respective clubs over 40 million pounds combined in transfer fees. Not bad business considering they may have been acquired for next to nothing. In those cases, the transfer fees handsomely fed transfer kitties and helped finance the club over the near term and in the future through sell-on fees. Additionally, the organizational depth Leicester had through their Academy greatly supported their transition to a Premier League club, and while many of the players who helped their rise now feature more infrequently, their numbers provided affordable reinforcement when needed.

To take this example back to Forest, what this research perhaps reminds us of is the 2002/2003 Forest team that narrowly missed out on promotion. In that squad Forest flaunted an audacious total of 6 homegrown squad members who played feature roles on the team, 7 if one includes Des Walker, who was born from the Academy and returned to the club after a spell away. Gareth Williams, Andy Reid, Michael Dawson, Wes Morgan, John Thompson and David Prutton all joined Walker as regular contributors to the first team, and in the case of four of them (Prutton, Reid, Dawson, and Morgan), netted the club significant transfer fees as finances began to tighten and eventually evaporate.

The lesson in all of this is that the overall importance of an Academy as a means to an end towards promotion to the Premier League is ultimately relative. In contrast, however, the utility of an Academy as a revenue maker and shortcut to squad depth is unrivaled. Thus, the perfect foil for a club trying to avoid repeating the mistakes that landed it soundly under a transfer embargo. Additionally, a strong Academy can be seen as essential for a club seeking to stay in the Premiership, as evidenced by both Crystal Palace and Southampton, where the offloading of old contracts and players helped provide both opportunity and funds for the purchase of new youth team players, which in turn can provide regular revenue via loans to lower league clubs or cheap squad depth when needed in cases of injury or suspension.

As Forest seek to reinvent themselves as a club witting of the rules of play and firmly focused with a universally understood organizational vision towards the future, one can see how important the return of a robust Academy and achieving top Academy status should be. Next to promotion itself, the reinvestment into an Academy should arguably be the chief goal right now. Finding leadership within and around the club that can assist in achieving that goal would be an admirable step to ensure everyone is on the same page and developing their investments properly, seeking to create an organic and self-sustaining talent pool within the club. The impact of ever-mounting transfer and agent fees, the fickle nature of definition and enforcement of League transfer rules, worries over the sense of pride and commitment within our first team, and constant canvassing of loan markets out of desperation over injury crises could all be lessened dramatically as a result. If the 2002/2003 season serves as any indication, Forest’s past could offer a hint at how beneficial the Academy can be towards a more prosperous present and future as well.