IT was supposed to be a game-changer. The hammer which smashed the most precious jewel in Sheffield United’s crown. Render a decade’s worth of hard work a complete and utter irrelevance.
John Stephenson admits the new Elite Player Performance Plan, which supposedly skews youth development in the Premier League’s favour, poses a challenge for the South Yorkshire club.
But, United’s head of football operations told The Star, steps have already been taken to ensure they are overcome. A system responsible for producing the likes of Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker in recent seasons is, he insisted, still well placed to flourish.
“What’s happened is, in my opinion, as big a shift as when English football adopted the academy rather than simply centre of excellent status,” Stephenson said.
“There’s very little in the EPPP you can disagree with other than the com
pensation figures available when someone takes a player.
“But this was voted in so we have to accept it and adapt. I’m confident we can.
“The academy will be as important as ever. It’s something we should be hugely proud of.”
The EPPP, a copy of which sits on Stephenson’s office desk, scrapped the ‘90 minute rule’ which previously prohibited clubs from signing youngsters living more than an hour and a half away from their training complex. Even more controversially, however, was the decision to replace transfer tribunals with a set of fixed-price tariffs.
United, who have been handed ‘Category Two’ status in the new four-tier structure, would be entitled to £3,000 for every year a player aged nine to 11 has spent at Shirecliffe if they are lured elsewhere, rising to £25,000 per year between 12 and 16.
“It’s inevitable that we will lose some but we have a strategy designed to ensure we don’t lose out,” Stephenson said. “It involves formulating relationships with Premier League clubs and also those lower down because, don’t forget, players can move from them to us.
“Clubs can only take on board a certain number of players so, if they take one from us, it means one of their own is going to go. We want to be in a position where the club they are leaving encourages them to come to us because of the excellent programme, staff and facilities we have here.
“Because of that, we are confident of turning them into excellent players. Equally, if we bring someone in, there will be clubs below us where we encourage those leaving to go.
“It’s about creating an ecosystem if you like.”
Together with colleagues including Jamie Hoyland and Tony Walmsley, previously of Central Coast Mariners and Manchester United, Stephenson is already taking steps to cultivate such a structure.
Having joined United following successful spells with Celtic, Reading and Watford, his brief extends beyond Shirecliffe. At Vicarage Road, for example, targets demanding that a set per cent of first-team starts had progressed through the ranks were consistently hit.
“The academy is central to the whole football club,” Stephenson said. “It’s not a separate entity.
“We are always scouring for other players and Danny (Wilson) is always too. Recruitment is not an exact science but we try and minimise the risk.
“We compile 40-page dossiers on everyone we consider, and those detail every touch they make, and references from independent parties.”
Stephenson, who has also worked for companies such as Nestle and Rio Tinto, counts Billy Beane of ‘Moneyball’ fame as a friend but added: “Statistics and analysis are important but they should be used to support what the eye can see.”
United boast a proud record of achievement at academy level having reached the FA Youth Cup Final last year and recently seen Maguire earn his England under-21 spurs.
“We owe a huge debt to Ron Reid and Kevin Fogg who developed great players right on our doorstep,” Stephenson said. “People like them, (academy scout ) Mark Grayson, Matt Morley now and (former coach) John Pemberton too have done the hard work.”
Teams and ref
BRENTFORD (possible): Moore, Craig, Barron, Logan, Dean, Bidwell, Douglas, Diagouraga, Forshaw, Hayes, Donaldson (4-4-2)
UNITED (possible): Long, Westlake, Maguire, Collins, Williams, McAllister, Doyle, McDonald, Blackman, Porter, Miller (4-3-3).
Andy D’Urso: From Essex, the 49-year-old has been taking charge of Football League fixtures since 1994. Did not book a single player when he last officiated a match involving Sheffield United - against Stevenage - in April despite averaging 2.65 cautions per game that season. Took his bookings tally to 31 this term during Tuesday’s match between Crawley and Yeovil.