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Opinion: Scrap the academy and go all in on a Bolton B-Team

Sentimentality be damned. Lets make the smart choice

Brentford v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship - Playoff - Final - Wembley Stadium
Brentford have proven it can work and work well
Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

There is something very heart warming and exciting about a local lad coming through the youth ranks at his hometown club and graduating to the first team. It’s like watching your own personal dream being played out in front of you. Maybe he’ll lead us to glory? Maybe he’ll be the next big thing? Scenes and thoughts like this are what give academies such a special place in our hearts. They create that palpable buzz when a new name appears in an U18 team sheet or makes the bench in a cup game. There’s a sense that it’s how football ‘should’ be - local lads being the next generation of their local club. Whilst I agree and feel all of that, the reality is that those views are outdated...much like the academy model.

The reality is that football academies have become more advantageous for the wealthy clubs and an expensive, inefficient burden for the rest of the pyramid. To see how inefficient, it’s as easy as looking back at our academy over the last 10 or so years. We’ve produced one player who was good enough to be a consistent Premier League player in Rob Holding (sold for £2.5m). One or two players’ who’ve cut the mustard at the level below such as Danny Ward (sold for £1m) and a few more at the level below that. The vast majority of our academy output over that time either plays non-league, Sunday league or not at all. This isn’t a Wanderers problem, the likelihood of making it to the first team as an academy kid is on average under 0.5% (0.012% for making it in the Premier League). This inefficiency gets compounded by bad decision making such as releasing Aaron Ramsdale (England and Arsenal keeper) and Aaron Morley (whom we paid nearly 100k to get back).

People often point to the examples of selling Holding (£2.5m) and Clough (£2.5m) ect. and state how an academy provides a good revenue stream for a club as well as a production line. The problem with that assertion is assuming an academy costs no money to run. In fact, it costed an estimated £2.4m per annum back in 2015 to run a category 1 academy and £1.4m per annum to run a category 2 (one would assume these figures are higher now). That means selling the best player our academy has produced in the last decade would have covered about a year of running costs at category 1 level or just over a year and a half at category 2.

Wanderers have sidestepped these lofty costs by dropping down to a category 3 academy but this comes with more issues. Not only does it make us a less attractive proposition for talented youngsters it also means we end up with less cash when we do end up selling. The category 1 teams have so much invested in scouting and acquiring new talent now that they’re swooping for players before they sign professional deals leaving lower category clubs with miserly compensation deals. The sale of Luca Connell to Celtic and Regan Riley to Norwich for 250k a pop would have likely only partially covered the academy running costs for the respective years they wold ere sold.

Luckily a team has shown that there is an alternative. Brentford ditched their academy set up in 2016 in response to a lot of the issues mentioned so far. They also suffered in a similar fashion to Bolton in being surrounded by a lot of big clubs with well funded academies that hoovered up the top local talent and would snatch any decent prospects Brentford had worked hard enough to cultivate for peanuts. After two high profile end-of-scholarship exists to Manchester United and Manchester City, Bradford had discussions about what the most efficient way to get players in to the first team. Enter the B-team model.

So what is a B team?

This was not a simple re-branding exercise, Bradford dissolved their academy, opted out of the Elite Player Performance Plan and used the money to set about recruiting young players to play for a stand alone team that would be treated as its own distinct entity. This approach came with big benefits to the first team and the players according to James Purdue, Brentford’s strength and conditioning coach, speaking in 2020:

“The games programme tests them more physically and better prepares them for first team football. It’s also treated a lot more like a first team so the environment that they’re used to is not dissimilar when they step up, as we’ve seen with our players over the course of the last four years, the transition becomes easier. It doesn’t mean they’re ready to slot straight in all the time, but it means that they understand the requirements...”

Obviously without an academy the players for this team have to be sourced from somewhere. Some will come from the enormous pool of released youngsters from this country. Some of these might be 17/18 year olds who haven’t been offered professional terms whereas others might be 19/20/21/22 year olds who clubs don’t see a future for past U23 football. Whilst this can feel like feeding on scraps its worth noting that a lot of amazing talent is released every year who go on to do far better than was expected. A lot might be late bloomers and a lot might not be good enough for the likes of Manchester City but be absolute stars in League One or the Championship. This is likely to solve the productivity issue as it allows Wanderers to be selective from a pool of thousands of youngsters who’ve had world leading coaching. This increases the likelihood of producing a first team level player. Brentford have shown this to be the case with 10 ‘promotions’ from the B-team to the senior team in the 5 year period (2016-2021) since the change. This promotion rate is certainly higher than our (and probably most academies) graduation rate. Profit is also more likely as these are players on professional deals. No more miserly Elite Player Performance Plan mandated compensation for youth players on scholarship contracts. If someone wants a B-team player, the club decides the value.

In a move I would emulate, Brentford also looked further afield with their recruitment in a masterstroke which helped level the playing field against the bigger spenders in the English market. Director of Football, Robert Rowen described the recruitment process as:

“Being able to identify different leagues where the physical qualities are often overlooked in favour of the tactical qualities, whereas in England if you are physical you have a good chance of being a good player. The tactical side of things can be taught...there isn’t much point in us going to scout young talent in lower league clubs as every Premier League club can out-spend and out-resource us.”

To this day their B-team reflects this international focus with players from: Denmark, Aurstralia, Albania, Finland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Scotland as well as a host of English talent picked up from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Aston Villa.

This recruitment has been aided by forming links with affiliated clubs such as: UMF Selfoss (Iceland) The Combined Counties Football League (Ireland), FC Midtjylland (Denmark), Käpylän Pallo (Finland), Next Gen USA (United States, Gulu United (Uganda).

I see no reason why Wanderers couldn’t take a similar approach. Our recent history has given us a decent profile and a good reputation in various countries. It would finally let us utilise the former players’, whom still love the club and are still big names in their native lands to grease the wheels of these endeavours (especially in Iceland where we seem to be the destination of choice).

So how would a Wanderers B-team look?

  • Start by dissolving the academy, offering those that are good enough a spot on the B-team and helping the rest to find alternative clubs. Withdraw from the Elite Player Performance plan. Use the cash saved for the following.
  • Increase spending on scouting and build connections with and recruit from high status academies in the UK. Leverage our position of being so close to so many top level academies (City, United and Liverpool). Offer them ‘first team’ football rather than the usual youth team football.
  • Emulate Brentford’s fixture model by making a full fixture list of non-league, academy, cup competitions, high status teams who put out an XI side and foreign sides (Brentford B did mini tours of Scandinavia, eastern Europe and played the likes of Jong PSV.
  • Use Wanderers alumni to forge links with foreign clubs with a view to eventually forming official affiliations and scouting partnerships. If funding allows (through direct funding or player sales), eventually look to purchase good talent for low prices in these leagues.

It’s worth stressing that this would be a long term project. We don’t have the funds Brentford had to put in to this. The more glamorous parts (large transfer fees and foreign fixtures) would likely have to come once the team was funding itself through player sales. The club has one advantage over Brentford which is a larger fanbase that would probably leap at the chance to watch more Bolton Wanderers. If the club went all in on this they could probably get a decent fan base following and helping to fund this endeavour.

It would be a sad day to say goodbye to the wonderful story of local lads coming through and playing for their team but the truth is that this is becoming rarer and rarer anyhow. Wanderers have the chance to be innovators and early adopters of a successful model that might well become the norm in the future. For once we have a board and a manager who exude the qualities you’d need to make this sort of thing work. I say sentiment be damned. Lets be pragmatic. Go all in on Bolton-B.

Would you be willing to sacrifice our academy for a B-team model? Let us know in the poll below?

Poll

Would you rather an academy or B-team model?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Academy
    (26 votes)
  • 81%
    B-team
    (117 votes)
143 votes total Vote Now