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Premier League Plan For Elite Boarders

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The construction of six £25 million boarding schools, stocked exclusively with the best 11- to 16-year-old footballers in the country, is being planned by the Premier League in a move that will revolutionise academy football.


The construction of six £25 million boarding schools, stocked exclusively with the best 11- to 16-year-old footballers in the country, is being planned by the Premier League in a move that will revolutionise academy football. It will also alarm many Football League clubs and may damage the Football Association’s proposed National Football Centre at Burton.


Manchester United are already considering building their own boarding school, but the Premier League proposal will have the main star pupils of all 20 elite clubs stationed at educational establishments in the North-East, the Midlands and two centres each in the North-West and London.


The scheme will allow Premier League clubs access to the most promising youngsters currently outside their reach because of the Football Association’s controversial 90-minute rule. The rule was designed to stop schoolboys spending most of their evenings travelling to and from clubs after school. It is also aimed at protecting smaller clubs from losing the talent on their doorstep to distant, but more attractive clubs.


The rule has been a source of constant frustration to directors of leading Premier League academies, some of whom have turned to overseas talent like Spain’s Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal because of the restrictions on them domestically.


United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has constantly voiced his desire for his club’s high-class cadre of youth-team coaches to work with starlets from across England, not just from within 90 minutes of Old Trafford. The champions argue that it makes more sense for them, and also in the long run for England, if tyros come under their enlightened wing earlier.


Under the Premier League plan, the most gifted 11-year-olds would be invited by a club to attend one of these six hot-house footballing centres where they would work towards GCSEs but spend part of the curriculum nurturing their technique under Uefa Pro-licensed coaches. Aged 16, they would then sign forms with their parent clubs or be released.


In the Football League, some of Watford’s players currently attend school at the specialist Harefield Academy, mixing French lessons with shooting sessions, though it is non-residential.


The complexities of running six boarding schools, from finding suitable sites to recruiting teaching staff, has yet to be sorted out but the buildings would be funded by money generated from the next domestic television deal, which is expected to exceed the current £1.7 billion.


If BT Vision or ESPN join Setanta and Sky in chasing the coveted Sunday 4pm slot, a bidding war could easily produce the additional £150 million required for the six schools. The Premier League would also fund running costs by charging clubs an annual boarding fee of around £25,000 per pupil.


For all the obvious attractions of these Premier League boarding schools, notably the quality of the coaching, the more “contact time’’ with young footballers and the reality that schoolboys will not be involved in exhausting car journeys three nights a week, there are inevitable concerns.


Many children might not wish to leave home at the age of 11, nor might many parents be willing to part with their offspring so young, though the level of teaching will undoubtedly echo the Premier League’s commitment to excellence. Those who do not want to board will simply continue training with their own academies.


The circumvention of the 90-minute rule will cause immediate concern among many Football League clubs who have relied on selling home-grown youngsters to survive. The scouting networks of the elite clubs are so sophisticated that they will have already spotted nascent talent outside their current 90-minute area.


Aston Villa controversially brought in Hastings-born Gareth Barry from Brighton & Hove Albion aged 17, whereas the boarding school system would allow them to lure a similar talent at 11. Brighton were extremely unhappy at the Tribunal-decided fee for Barry and their mood would darken further if their best kids are plucked away at an even younger age.


Such are the myriad sensitivities over player-development that the Premier League face some awkward talks with the Football League,


though there is the chance that prominent clubs outside the elite division will be included in the boarding school set-up. The Premier League plan does, however, allow relegated clubs to keep their pupils in the boarding system.


If the Football League are worried about the impact on their youth development structure, the FA will also be alarmed by the potential damage to their proposed £80 million National Football Centre at Burton. If the Premier League’s six boarding schools offer the best footballing education to the nation’s young pretenders then Burton’s raison d’etre may be questioned.


In any case, one thing is sure: the Premier League plan is sure to stir up controversy.


Going for a Burton


The proposed National Football Centre in Burton has been a political football for almost a decade. The £80 million project, modelled on the French academy in Clairefontaine, was launched in 2001, but the FA put it on hold in 2003 as the Wembley Stadium redevelopment ran into trouble.


A scaled-down version was announced in 2005, but last December the Government said Burton was just one of the sites being considered. In May, the FA decided Burton was the way forward and suggested it would be ready by 2010.

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