Frustrations continue, but Ipswich Town refuse to give up on Category One academy status
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich Town’s academy is producing again, but the push for Category One status remains as frustrating as ever. STUART WATSON speaks to managing director Ian Milne about the controversial Elite Player Performance Plan.
A lot has been said and written about the Elite Player Performance Plan since it was introduced in October 2011.
It was hard to argue against the principles – a new, clear, four-tier system for English clubs that would increase the quality of homegrown talent in this country.
And yet, almost four years down the line, it remains as controversial as ever.
Led by the Premier League, all the big boys breezed through the initial audits. Since then, the goalposts have continually moved, the bar keeps getting set higher and higher and for Championship clubs like Ipswich Town the process of achieving top-level status is becoming highly frustrating.
In short, it increasingly seems to be something of a closed shop. The system appears to be all about how much you spend rather than the quality of service you provide.
Bolton Wanderers, one of the few Football League clubs to break down the door, have just taken the decision to step down from Category One to Category Two as a result.
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Ipswich – who fell a somewhat farcical 0.3% short of the 75% mark that was required in July 2014 – are refusing to give up though.
“I had a meeting with (owner) Marcus (Evans) on Wednesday and the news is that we are planning to apply for Category One status, through the audit process, in the autumn of 2016,” revealed managing director Ian Milne.
“They’ve been rehashing the whole rules for about 18 months now, which is very frustrating because it’s hard for us to know, at this present time, what is the new standard and what exactly is required.
“They’ve done a major overhaul of the audit. That’s where the knowledge gap is because their knowledge hasn’t filtered down yet.
“The Premier League really needs to set down quickly what the new standards are that we have to meet.
“On the bits we know about we are working hard on. It’s not like we’re sitting there with our arms crossed and our feet up. We have been and continue to do everything we can do.”
He added: “Theoretically, we could have gone for it this year, but I think that would have been a total waste of time.
“How can you go for something when you don’t know what test you’ve got to pass?”
The famous set-up at Playford Road – which produced the likes of Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright and Titus Bramble in the 90s before going through a lean period – is as good as it’s been in years.
The likes of Teddy Bishop and Matt Clarke broke through into the first-team set-up last year and there is plenty of more young talent in the pipeline under the expert leadership of Bryan Klug.
Category One may just be a number, but it would bring the benefits of being able to recruit from further afield and the club’s youth teams testing themselves against far better opposition.
“It will require a major investment, but that’s not the issue, it’s more about knowing exactly what we have to do,” said Milne.
“One of the issues is that they are clustering clubs. More or less what they’re saying is that we have to be exactly at the standard as other Category One clubs.
“Okay, that’s a great way of setting a high standard, but there has to be an element of judging each case by its merits because we’ve all got different grounds, different geographical areas, etcetera. There are different issues for different clubs.
“It’s a case of, hold on, we need to know exactly what the areas of comparison are and what the standards that are expected.
“They still really haven’t come up with the answers to that and until we’ve got the full package – these are the resources, these are the facilities, these are the staff that are now required – it’s difficult to proceed.
“That’s where we are.”
Milne continued: “It’s worth stressing to supporters that we know exactly what the academy at this club means to them and the history it has.
“Marcus is taking a personal, first hand interest in the academy. He is regularly at the training ground talking to the staff and getting an understanding of what they’re doing.
“He has got the same close relationship with the academy as he has with Mick (McCarthy) when it comes to signing new players. That’s the level of interest he has got.
“It will take an investment. One thing we are going to have to invest in is two 3G pitches – upgrade the one we have at the dome and another. They don’t come cheap.
“Plus, there are additional staff we’d need to employ, classrooms, as well as various other facilities, that we’d need to upgrade, and extra equipment we’d need too.”
With Town supporters having raised thousands of pounds for the Academy Association in recent, highlighted by a recent charity bike ride from London to Amsterdam, Milne’s message to those who continue to put their hands in their pockets is ‘stick with us’.
He added: “As far as I’m concerned Category One shouldn’t just be for the top Premier League clubs.
“I’m happy to say that there are some issues. Are they trying to make it a very exclusive club? “If that’s the case then I think that’s very wrong.
“All 92 clubs should have a fair opportunity to get to Category One if they want to invest and develop their academies.
“We remain very much committed to this.”
IPSWICH TOWN ACADEMY TIMELINE
Ipswich Town chief executive Simon Clegg makes the Blues one of 22 Football League clubs to vote against the Premier League’s proposed new four-tier Elite Player performance Plan. The threat of Premier League solidarity payments to Football League clubs being stopped means a majority vote is secured though.
With more than 5,000 Town supporters having signed a petition urging the club to apply for Category One status, Clegg said: “It’s fair to say I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the way this process has been rolled out and the lack of information that would allow us to properly make our decision.
“People who are meant to know the answers are just giving me more questions. It’s an incredibly bureaucratic process”
Clegg reveals the club would only be applying for Category Two status. He said: “It is a very emotive subject – I recognise that. Having spent the time and effort that I have in terms of researching this though, I’ve decided it’s not right for this football club. We just can’t justify the costs at this time.”
Bryan Klug, the man who helped bring through the likes of Kieron Dyer, Richard Wright and Titus Bramble in the 1990s only to be sacked by Roy Keane in January 2010, returns to the club following three years at Tottenham Hotspur.
Ipswich Town launch the ‘Academy Association’, a charity arm to the club which aims to raise £500,000 a year through sponsorship, business packages, fundraising events and supporters’ paying by monthly direct debit.
Off the back of this, the club makes a bold pledge that half of the first team squad will be homegrown by 2017.
“The goal is obviously to get as many academy graduates as we can into the first team,” said Klug. “But as part of your academy performance plan you have to put some figures on it and we’ve said we’re aiming for at least 50% of the first team squad to be home-grown by 2017.
“This club obviously achieved those sort of figures a few years ago and I think we can get back there again.”
Ipswich Town fall 0.3% short of achieving Category One status following a comprehensive independent audit.
“Right from the start when we knew we were going to go for Category One we knew it was going to be a difficult thing to do,” said Klug. “You have to get the 75% mark and there are some things we couldn’t do anything about. There are 11 KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) where you get your marks and for 10 of them our average mark was 89%. The one we could do nothing about was ‘productivity’ which dragged it down to 74.7%.
“There are conspiracy theories. If we’d been a Premier League club they’d have ushered us through. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.
“This sticks in the throat a little bit, but I know I’ve got good players, I know the staff here are absolutely top notch. We’ve had a knock back but it’s all part of getting better.”
Simon Milton, the club’s fundraiser for the Academy Association, said: “I’ll be disappointed if people say I would have invested if you’d got Category One but I won’t now.
“I can promise people that their money has made a difference. This academy is better than ever and it will continue to get better.”
Klug speaks to this newspaper about the fantastic progress he is making at the rejuvenated Playford Road set-up. He said: “I think, almost three years on from me returning, I can say to you that we’re starting to get close to regularly producing academy players ready for the first team again.
“We’ve had Teddy Bishop and Matt Clarke involved this season, Kundai (Benyu) is threatening to break in now and I’m confident that we have got a whole host of players behind them that could also make it.
“I really do feel as though we’ve got a few special players coming through.”
On the potential threat of rivals Norwich City attracting the region’s best young talent, he said: “They get all their players out of London. If people are from this area and they have to choose then they choose to come here.”