Boro Ticking All The Right Boxes On Elite Academy Plan
IT HAS been a tense few days at Hurworth as men with clipboards have examined every aspect of the club's innards as part of the tough grading in Boro's bid for Category One status under the new national Academy set-up.
The box-ticking exercise could be the most significant action of the summer as far as Boro's long term footballing strategy is concerned.
An inspection team has been assessing the entire Academy set-up in-depth as part of Boro's bid to achieve Category One status prior to the implementation of the Elite Player Performance Plan - the new national youth development structure to be introduced from next season.
The new four tier system will hand more power to the top clubs as it scraps the long established 90 minute drive time rule for scholars, effectively allowing nationwide talent trawling rather than marking out strict catchment areas.
Crucially it also sets fixed compensation fees for scholars who move elsewhere - with a cap of £100,000, a fee big clubs can afford to write off if the kids doesn't come through - so it makes it easier and cheaper to cherry-pick talent from lower ranked Academies.
Category One clubs even have the right to turn up to watch lower rated Academy kids train and play at 48 hours notice.
That presents a major problem for the likes of Boro if they do not get the top ranking. Suddenly they could be going head-to-head with Manchester United of Liverpool or Chelsea for talent. No matter what compelling arguments the club can marshall as to why a 15-year-old wonderkid from Stokesley or Stockton should sign up - logistical ease, proven success rate, realistic chance of making the first team - there is no question that heads will be turned, both the star struck youngster's and the parents'.
The big clubs see an opportunity to up their home grown squad content on the cheap ready for UEFA's quota system, looming on the horizon.
Incredibly, Football League clubs voted for this green-light to poaching - all but 22 did anyway - after being cajoled by Premier League clubs.
The sweetener was a £42m a season 'development' payment split across the 72 clubs, many of who were persuaded that it was better in these austere times to accept a fixed income rather than take a chance of unearthing a gem.
It came with a veiled threat that if the deal did not go through then the Premier League 'solidarity' payments that filter down the divisions - principally the parachute payments to relegated sides but also smaller slices that are eeked out and form a crucial part of the budget in Leagues One and Two - would be severely cut back.
Given that Boro can no longer spend their way to success - not just because of the legacy of post-relegation debt but also due to the looming Financial Fair Play rules - they will need to be more concerned with careful husbandry. The Academy has a bigger role to play than ever as the club rebuilds.
And to that end Boro rightly see that getting a top ranking is crucial. It will protect them from poachers - and help them widen their own recruitment patch. Become poachers themselves if need be.
It will also mean they can still sell on talent for potentially substantial fees rather than for peanuts. Recent stories have linked next big thing Bryn Morris with a string of big clubs. As it stands Boro can ask for a development compensation fee and sell on clauses. Under the new system - assuming they did not make the grade - could whisk him away and contemptuously throw the £100k on the floor.
Having top teen talent stolen away earlier and for little cash would mean fewer getting into the first team. And that means fewer assets to sell for serious money further down the line. Adam Johnson would have gone at 17, not for a much needed £7m later on.
Failing would be a major strategic blow of incalculable significance and would be a severe dent to the club's perceived status. The Academy is one of Boro's few saving graces right now. It underpins our prospects for rebuilding. Imagine if it was down-graded, devalued and pillaged. Imagine if Dave Parnaby and his know-how were stolen away too, as he surely would if Boro could no longer compete at the level he deserves.
It won't be easy for Boro to make the grade. The new system sets the bar very high indeed, marking out the exact structure and staffing levels of a Category One Academy. And that doesn't come cheap.
The running costs of a Category One Academy are estimated at £2.4m a year - the current set-up costs £800,000 - which will price out a lot of cash-strapped middling clubs. Which of course is partly the point.
But Boro are ready to splash out and fight to defend their turf and protect Dave Parnaby's long established production line.
The club have a justified glowing reputation for growing their own. It would be easy to select a decent team of former Academy lads playing in the top division. And Boro have brought in over £35m in transfer fees in the past decade by selling their graduates.
At the business end of the season Stewart Downing has picked up a Carling Cup winners medal, Adam Johnson a title gong and Ross Turnbull has got a Champions League one to complete the set.
And over the course of the campaign Boro have used 10 players in the first team who have come through the ranks. Given the current belt-tightening that is a trend that looks set to continue. Indeed, it could become the central plank of club planning.
But past success doesn't make Category One a foregone conclusion. The check-list is comprehensive and complex and there is no room for errors as the auditors go through the club's detailed proposals.
At first glance Boro should be a shoo-in. Everyone who walks into the plush Rockcliffe Park training complex is impressed. The FIFA World Cup inspection certainly were when they assessed England's proposed 2018 bid to host the tournament. As were Olympic chiefs looking for a venue for the Team GB warm-up. That's no surprise. The facilities are second to none.
But the inspectors - from Foot PASS England, the independent standards body appointed by the Premier League, Football League, and the FA to carry out all the audits - are looking beyond the building, pitches, gyms and catering.
They are careful considering the numbers and quality of Academy coaching staff; the tactical and technical preparation before sessions and the leadership and clarity of the execution during them; the academic and social support networks in place to nurture hot-housed young talent; the nutritional and medical advice; and the proven and planned progression of scholars through the system from junior sides to first team.
And they are also looking at the detailed plans in place to dramatically and quickly expand and transform the current Academy set up to reach the exacting demands of a new Category One grading.
The new system will insist on more fully badged up coaching staff at every age level and massively increase the contact time with young talent.
In Boro's case it would see a threefold increase in budget and double the number of staff to meet the strict guidelines - and it is an investment the club are eager to make.
Interviews are already underway to ensure if they get the nod they can quickly bring staffing level sup to scratch.
The investment is huge - certainly more new money will be made available for this than to Tony Mowbray for summer rebuilding of the first team.
And arguably it is a more important. The new Financial Fair Play rules looming rapidly over the horizon will severely limit what the club can spend on transfer fees and wages - Boro would be allowed to 'lose' just £12m next year and it will drop annually after that - and give the wage bill is already around that level it will make traditional signings harder to fit into a tightening budget.
But Academy investment does not count in FFP figures. It is investment the club can make without punishment. And one that can reap dividends.
A successful Academy can produce players for the first team - almost certainly on relatively lower wages than signings - and bring in vital extra cash that can be set against FFP losses if they are flogged on.
It would allow Boro to rebalance their finances and position themselves in a way that is affordable and sustainable... provided the talent keeps coming through. And to ensure they can control their own destiny on that front they need to get Category One.
All last term's Premier League clubs applied for Category One status along with six Championship outfits - the three promoted side plus Boro, Palace and Watford - and inspectors have warned that no-one will pass unless they meet every aspect
Hence the nail-biting.
THERE'S very little money for transfers and some gaping holes in the first team squad.
But there's no need for panic. The transfer market has fundamental changed in a way that makes successful shrewd shopping more than possible.
Just as Boro have seven players out of contract or facing massive wage cuts to stay, so have every team at this level. West Ham have just released seven players, Southampton 11, Reading 11, Leeds 10, Portsmouth 12, Ipswich, Palace and Leicester six each.
Relegated Bolton have released 12 including former targets Gretar Steinsson, Paul Robinson, Robbie Blake, Ivan Klasnic, Ricardo Gardner and Rhys' kid brother Ryan.
Some of the others up for grabs include Adam Clayton of U2 and Leeds, Darius Vassell and Chris Weale at Leicester and Andy Griffin of Reading. They could 'do a job.'
From July 1st there are hundreds of players from the Championship, lower levels of the Premier League and upper fringes of League One who will be unemployed.
Of course, they may not all be world beaters - but neither are Boro. And, let's be honest a lot of the players freed this summer would walk into a squad found wanting in depth, experience and skills set. Plenty of them have helped tear Boro apart this term.
Crucially, they may not only be free but will be expected to come in on much lower wages than the players they replace leaving Mogga - and other bosses - with a bit of wriggle-room to spend a little bit on his marquee signings.
Take the mooted first piece of the jigsaw, Grant Leadbitter, released by Ipswich. He is reported to have been on £15,000 a week at Portman Road after his big money move from Sunderland under Roy Keane and is said to have rejected a new deal offered by the Tractor Boys on just half of that.
Boro hope to top that offer, but not by much. Certainly he would be on much less than Barry Robson, who he is replacing. The balance could then fund another similar move.
Justin Hoyte was one of Boro's top earners with his Premier League wage probably close to the £25,000 mark. That will pay for five players at this level. And you can't seriously argue you won't find a better right back on 20% of his old wage.
Some players at all these clubs have been offered new deals at vastly reduced wages, as Julio Arca was last summer. Many will take the new deal - but players are ego driven and many will move for about the same as they have rejected.
There will be more players available than ever, at greatly depressed salaries. It is a buyers market. Clubs can no longer be held to ransom by players demanding big wages threatening to go elsewhere. In the past it was always a fear that other clubs would be daft enough to offer another £1,000 a week plus a bigger signing on fee.
But new Financial Fair Play rules now puts strict limits on what clubs can spend.Everyone is in the same boat. Two or three clubs aside, those ready to take a reckless gamble on an all out tilt at promotion or throw a £1m at a non-league striker say , no one has the leeway in their budget to throw money at average squad players.
With strict auditing of expenditure, financial penalties for over-spending and transfer embargoes looming as punishment for piling up debt, no one can afford to be cavalier.
For the first time in 25 years players (and agents) must accept the fact that money in football is finite. At this level, the boom time is over.