The Premier League is ready to bring forward its overhaul of youth-team football and introduce a revolutionary Champions League-style competition at under-21 and under-18 levels for the coming season.
Representatives of 23 clubs — 17 from the Barclays Premier League and six from the npower Championship — will meet at the Emirates Stadium next Thursday to rubber-stamp the proposals, which will introduce the two new competitions, the Barclays Under-21 and Under-18 Premier Leagues, to replace the longstanding reserve-team structure.
Queens Park Rangers, Swansea City and Wigan Athletic will not take part in the inaugural campaign, having not been in a position to apply for “Category One” status in the forthcoming grading of English clubs’ youth academies as part of the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The six Championship clubs that have applied for “Category One” are understood to include Blackburn Rovers, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The new competitions will consist of two group stages. For the first, which will run until December, the 23 clubs will be split into three groups — two of eight teams and one of seven teams — and will play the other teams in their group at home and away. At the end of this process, depending on where they finish, they will either go into the elite group stage, for the best eight teams, or qualification group tier one or two. The idea is that all 23 teams will still be playing competitive matches as they look to qualify for the end-of-season knockout stage.
While the EPPP is primarily designed to raise standards in youth development, it was felt essential that a new league was introduced to replace the traditional reserve-team structure, which is regarded by many managers and academy directors as lacking the competitive edge needed to help development. Three over-age players will be allowed, plus an over-age goalkeeper, but the idea is that elite youngsters such as Josh McEachran, of Chelsea, Raheem Sterling, of Liverpool, and Will Keane, of Manchester United, will play regular competitive football against players of a similar level.
Terry Westley, who has been on the EPPP youth working committee, has laid out the thinking behind the changes in the new Premier League Yearbook. “The Barclays Under-18 and Under-21 Premier Leagues have been designed to offer an alternative,” the former Birmingham City and Derby County youth academy director said. “The vision is for the best young players to compete against each other in a ‘best versus best’ scenario, which can only enhance their development and take them closer to the competitive nature of first-team football.
“The games will be structured to complement the Premier League match weekend. So, as a first-team manager there is a great benefit in knowing that you can have your under-21 player on the bench for the Premier League, but if he doesn’t play then there’s still the option for him to have high-quality football that weekend in the Under-21 League. A competitive situation, where fans are coming along to watch the next generation of talented young players, is what we must aspire to.”
The initial plan was to introduce the new format for the 2013-14 season, once the various youth academies have been categorised, but there was an overwhelming feeling among the clubs that they should accelerate the process and base the first campaign on the projected categorisations.
Provisions will be made for QPR, Swansea and Wigan to join the other Category Two clubs, which include most of the Championship, at a secondary level next season while they strive to attain Category One status.
Champions of the future
• At both under-21 and under-18 level there will be three groups: two groups of eight teams (National Groups 1 and 2) and one group of seven teams (National Group 3). These will not be regionalised. Clubs play each other home and away. At under-21 level teams will be allowed to play up to three over-age outfield players plus an over-age goalkeeper
• At the end of the first group stage, the top three teams in National Groups 1 and 2 and the top two from National Group 3 will proceed to the Elite Group stage. The remaining teams will be in Qualification Groups 1 and 2, depending on where they finished. The idea is that the best players and teams will be playing against each other in the Elite Group, competing for three of the five places in the knockout stage. The clubs in the second and third tiers will also still have the opportunity to reach the knockout stage
• In the knockout stage, the teams finishing top of the two Qualification Groups will play each other to decide who makes the semi-final against the winner of the Elite Group Stage.
The teams finishing second and third in the Elite Group Stage play in the other semi-final. The winners contest the final for the right to be crowned Barclays Under-21 and Under-18 Premier League champions