Today was meant to be Bolton U18's last match of the season (it has now been postponed, due to a frozen pitch). My initial reaction was 'well, that makes sense, there are only 8 teams in the league'. This soon gave way to 'but what do they do for the rest of the year?' and 'why are there only 8 teams in the league?' and 'is there not a single dry pitch to play on in Bolton?'. So I set out to answer these questions, to figure out exactly how the Barclays U18 Premier League worked. This turned out to be much more complicated than I had anticipated, as there isn't really a good explanation published by the Premier League, but between many different sources, I believe I have cobbled together an understanding of the system.
The current Professional Development League, which includes both the U21 and U18 levels, is based around something called the Elite Player Performance Plan. The EPPP was ratified by football clubs in October of last year, although with quite a bit of strong-arming from the Premier League, as they threatened to take away funding for youth development if the plan was not approved.
The plan is centred around 6 fundamental principles, including implementing a benchmark by which to judge the quality of academies, and increasing the number of quality home grown players. It also settled a fix rate for the transfer of players when clubs were in a dispute, valuing at £3k per year spent at the academy between the ages of 9-11, and £12k per year spent at the academy between the years of 12-16, along with provisions if the player made any first team appearances. This particular inclusion was one of the most controversial parts of the plan, as it effectively allows larger clubs to buy talented players from smaller clubs at a low fixed rate.
Another change, more important to this article, was the abolition of the old youth system, and it's replacement with a shiny new four tier system in it's place. Each club would be evaluated by an independent audit on various elements, such as training facilities, number of staff, budget, education, and general welfare of the players. The academies were then rated on a scale form 1 to 4, with 1 being elite. Category 1 clubs (including Bolton Wanderers) were put into the U18 and U21 Premier Leagues.
Once inside the league, the teams are randomly split into 3 groups of 8 teams each. Teams will then play the first half of the season within these groups, playing each other team twice for a total of 14 matches. The league then reshuffles for the Spring based upon the results from the earlier tables. The champions and the runners up of each group are placed into an elite group, along with the two 3rd place teams with the highest points. The second group is made up of the last 3rd place team, along with all 4th and 5th place teams, and the 6th place team with the highest point total. The third group is made up of the remaining clubs.
All of the clubs then play the second half of the season within these groups, another 14 matches, for a 28 game season total. The champion of the league is then determined by playoffs, the top 3 teams from the elite group being automatically entered into the semi finals, while the winners of the other two groups must play off against each other to get the fourth spot. The winner of the elite group is seeded 1st, and the winner of the playoff between Group 2 and 3 will be seeded 4th. The second and third place teams from the elite group form the other fixture. The exact nature of the playoffs - whether they will be one or two legged affairs, the venues, etc - is still hazy.
Remember, the U21 league and the U18 league are operating under the exact same template, however Bolton's U18s are doing significantly better than the U21s (who sit rock bottom of their group), so we will focus on them. We've given a lot of press to Bolton's academy side, as they went a good portion of the season undefeated and at the top of their group. With one match to go, they are currently 2nd, two points behind leaders Reading. In order to go top of the group, Bolton would need a win against 4th place West Brom, and would need low-achieving Arsenal to beat Reading. That said, even if Bolton lose they will certainly go through to the Elite Group in the Spring, as they are currently 13 points ahead of 3rd place West Ham.
The match against West Brom has apparently been rescheduled to Wednesday. Given that Reading will have already played their match, Bolton's place may well be decided by then, but it remains an important match for West Brom because with a win (and a few other factors going their way) they could qualify to be the 3rd place team going into the elite group.
We wish the best of luck to the Bolton U18s in their final match of Part A of the season, and look forward to following their success in the Elite Group.
Thanks to Steve Schmidt of We Ain't Got No History for his help in filling in many of the blanks!