‘For 30 years, we survived by bringing through talent’: where is Tranmere’s next group of homegrown stars?

“Aaron Cresswell crosses for Dale Jennings to slot home!” The quote is fictitious, but as Tranmere prepare for another season in League Two, the club’s fans could be forgiven for wondering how their former left-wing partnership might have influenced the team’s recent fortunes.

Cresswell and Jennings are part of a distinguished line of graduates, including Jason Koumas and Ryan Taylor, from Tranmere’s academy, closed almost three years ago. Whilst the club has performed admirably since scaling back its youth setup, securing consecutive promotions in 2018 and 2019, the decision to shut the academy left a mark on supporters such as Matt Hibbert, co-host of the ‘This Is Tranmere’ podcast.

“We had a reputation as one of the places where it was really good to go as a young player, because you were going to get chances to come through, play your football and go on, so it (closing the academy) was a bitter blow for a lot of fans because it was almost like the end of an era,” says Hibbert.

The academy’s closure is something of a cautionary tale for clubs who lose their Football League status. Making the announcement on 10th March 2018, chairman Mark Palios cited the financial impact of the club’s failure to secure promotion from the National League at the second attempt, following a 3-1 play-off final defeat against Forest Green at the end of the 2016/17 season.   

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Indeed, whilst the club received parachute payments in the two seasons following their relegation from League Two in 2016, a third season in the National League spelt the end of the ‘Basic Award Payments’, at a point where Palios estimated the academy’s running costs to be in the region of £300,000 per year.

A third consecutive campaign in the National League also resulted in the club losing its EFL Academy licence and with it, the ability to claim compensation for players aged 16-years-old and younger who decided to leave. Palios revealed that six of the academy’s brightest prospects had departed under such circumstances during the 2017/18 season.

Tranmere are not the only club to close an academy due to ‘third season syndrome’. In June last year, Barnet followed suit after failing to secure promotion to League Two at the second time of asking, following their relegation from the Football League in 2018.     

Whilst Barnet and Tranmere are victims of very particular circumstances, several other Football League clubs have also felt the impact of the EFL’s Youth Development compensation system, which adopts the regulations established by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

Age group of academy playerAcademy categoryApplicable annual fixed fee
U9 – U11All categories£3,000
U12 – U16Category 1£40,000
U12 – U16Category 2£25,000
U12 – U16Category 3£12,500
Data taken from EFL Charter for Academy Players and Parents

The EPPP was established in 2012, with the aim of creating a ‘world leading academy system’ within English football. The success of the national team since 2012, across different age groups, perhaps demonstrates the EPPP’s positive impact. However, even upwardly mobile clubs such as Wycombe have felt the sharp end of the programme’s compensation system, which mandates higher payments for higher category academies (generally the preserve of bigger clubs) when a player leaves.

In 2012, the Chairboys closed their academy, citing ‘financial limitations’ and the ‘increased demands’ of the EPPP. In an interview last year, Wycombe’s current assistant manager and former academy head, Richard Dobson, talked about the on-the-pitch and off-field toll of losing talented youngsters. 

“These were players that were all within our system at a younger age that we had really high hopes for. We felt that they might have been better than the ones that were coming into our first team at that time,” he said.

“So we lost a lot of good players out of that system. It was devastating for the club and for the people within it.”

Tranmere’s success over the last three years is testament to the fact that clubs do not need an EPPP academy in order to thrive, with Rovers’ youth setup now including an Under-18’s team and affiliated Centre of Development.

However, the average age of the current first-team squad is 27 and Hibbert lists Danny Walker-Rice, Kyle Hayde and Eddie Clarke as the only youngsters to have made a real impression since 2018.  

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There are no easy options for reversing the trend, particularly given the financial impact of coronavirus. When Wycombe were promoted to the Championship, speculation grew that the club might look to re-open the academy, but Dobson spelt out the stark problems with the idea.

“To start it up again would be extremely difficult, purely because of the amount of money that’s being spent at the top end now within academies,” he said.

“When you look at our first team budget, that’s the level that the big clubs are spending now (on academies) and it’s peanuts for them to go and pick off the best players from other clubs and bring them into their programme. So, you actually don’t get the rewards that maybe you used to get from selling a player on.”

Dobson’s words are not dissimilar to those used by Palios in 2018. Given the financial straitjacket imposed on Tranmere at the time, Hibbert is philosophical about the decision taken three years ago and gives credit to the current chairman for the turnaround he has helped engineer.    

“It had been 27 years of nothing but finishing lower and lower, followed by two consecutive relegations from League One to League Two and League Two to National League,” says Hibbert.

“We were so starved of any success that to then get to back-to-back promotions was crazy. It was almost like we didn’t know how to celebrate!”

Whilst Tranmere supporters might not have a Cresswell-Jennings partnership to look to next season, they will be hoping Micky Mellon’s recent reappointment leads to a greater familiarity with celebrating in the months to come.

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