It is three years since the last time that a Palace Academy player made a first-team league debut. MATT WOOSNAM says this is a worrying trend
“South London and Proud” read Billboards throughout Croydon and south London. The faces of Sean Scannell, Nathaniel Clyne and others adorned them. Palace were proud of their Academy, and rightly so.Those days are long gone, the club has evolved and those billboards are no longer needed, we are flying high in the Premier League and things are going well.
With progression, comes change. The club’s evolution has been rapid, and unexpected. With that, however, has been the increasing shift away from the Academy and on to the first team.
Palace must not lose sight of how well that system has served them in the past, for they will regret it in the future if they do.
It is more than a thousand days since Kyle de Silva became the last Academy player to make a league debut. Palace are at risk of losing touch with clubs such as Charlton Athletic and Millwall, not to mention slipping further behind other London academies.
This risk is exacerbated with the under-18s forced to play their matches at Goals in Beckenham due to the training ground being too small and inadequate to house the Academy. Compare this to Chelsea, who have roughly 30 pitches, including two which match the first team surface exactly, or Charlton, whose partnership with Greenwich University will allow them to access excellent facilities, and Queens Park Rangers, who share state-of-the-art facilities with Imperial College.
Germany has never been a particularly renowned hunting ground for English players to ply their trade, and so Mandela Egbo’s decision to depart south London for north Germany raises alarm bells over the chances for Palace’s young players to progress into the first team. It is a brave move for the 17-year-old, but it does little to convince youngsters that their future is best served at Palace.
Palace’s Academy recruitment budget has been increased, Gary Issott tells me, but until they find a permanent home for the Academy with facilities suitable for a team looking to chase a European place in the next five years, rather than a League Two side, they will lose out on the best young players. They will lose their best players to clubs who will snare them away with the promise of riches. Who could blame the parents or the kids?
A further issue which is compounded by the lack of a permanent home for the Academy is the highly sought-after Category 1 status. The Elite Player Performance Plan, or EPPP, rules, intended to help develop youth players, dictate that there are a host of complicated hoops to jump through in order for a football club to obtain Category 1 status. But once there, clubs are rewarded significantly. Funding is higher, youngsters are able to test themselves against the elite clubs on a regular basis, with some matches televised, and the clubs can cherry pick the best youngsters from an earlier age or buy them from any club they wish.
Instead, with Palace’s Academy playing at Goals, the reputation for a burgeoning academy that at one point was the talk of England with John Bostock, Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Moses and Lee Hills all highly rated and coming through, risks being damaged.
No longer can they rely on the claim that youngsters will see a clear pathway to the first team. The manager may take a closer interest than Neil Warnock and Tony Pulis did, but the focus has undeniably shifted, and the Academy appears to be on the back-burner.There is, however, no doubt that youth development remains important to the club. Steve Browett, the co-owner, regularly attends under-21 matches and he often speaks positively about the role the Academy has to play.
It is important to appreciate that blooding youngsters in the Premier League is no easy task. Southampton seems to be the exception, and a superb exception at that. The argument of playing when the youngsters are “ready” carries little weight, as a player is only ready when they have experienced that environment, made those mistakes, and learned from them. Nonetheless, they must be of sufficient quality to make that step up.
Saints have the advantage of a wealthy backer, and the money from sales of previous academy products. They also benefited from Portsmouth’s demise to snap up the best players in the area. There are elements of fortune, but a serious focus on youth development is ultimately what has seen their academy grow into perhaps the most productive in the country.
Since de Silva made his league debut for Palace in 2012, the number of players given debuts from Southampton’s academy is in double figures. De Silva remains the last academy player to graduate to the first team and make a league debut for Palace.
That is partly about the quality of players coming through, but it also has its roots in the recruitment, the funding, the facilities, opportunities and the opposition. Palace have fallen behind. Ten managers in five years has hardly provided stability.
There are some green shoots of recovery beginning to break through. The Academy budget has been increased and other sites for a permanent base are being sought out. The emergence of Sullay KaiKai in pre-season this year gives hope to those in the lower age groups.
There are a few others who, if all goes well, could blossom. While 15-year-old Kian Flanagan’s future is up in the air amid interest from Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, should he reject their advances, Palace will have a confident, talented teenager on their hands. Aaron Bissaka’s rise into a talented winger also offers hope.
To hold on to Flanagan would be a statement of intent for Palace, and show that they are beginning to move in the right direction with the Academy once again.
Joining Palace’s Academy still offers great hope and a superb opportunity for young players to make it as professionals, but investment must continue at a faster pace if it is to return to its former glory.
- This is an edited version of an article first published on The Eagles Beak website and is reproduced here with permission
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