Once again English football spent more than any other European league on players in this transfer window – a Premier League record for the season of £760m – demonstrating that we are decidedly a nation of consumers, not producers. Greg Dyke and the FA Commission, and indeed anyone who wants to see a successful England team, will naturally wish that it was otherwise, that we could grow and develop more players for our elite clubs. Increased efforts to reverse the trend were introduced as the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2011. So how is it doing?
My initial scepticism around the scheme was high. I had heard a lot of criticism regarding the set-up. There were buzzwords being thrown about such as "contact time", the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to create an elite performer. Nice headline but in itself practise only ever makes permanent, not necessarily perfect. I also met a lot of coaches who moaned about the amount of paperwork involved.
Then there was the criticism from football clubs who felt that EPPP unfairly favoured the Premier League. Some disbanded their academies, claiming they were no longer financially viable. Others complained that their academy players would now sell at discounted prices or that the abolition of the 90-minute rule (whereby clubs could only recruit young players within a 90-minute radius) meant that the richest outlets were now able to recruit nationally.
But what was the scheme doing to develop players? After all, this was the primary aim. Speaking to a selection of coaches from clubs across the football pyramid I was pleasantly surprised. As always, the problem with new systems is that they challenge old school values. I listened to Peter Schmeichel on Match of the Day talking about how Tottenham are doing so much better under Tim Sherwood because he has gone back to basics rather than picking a team off a computer. It's that age-old suspicion, that inherent hangover from yesteryear that forever says: "My eye is better than your laptop." Well, what happens if you combine both? The EPPP has introduced a high level of accountability through data collection and to my mind that information is invaluable.
We know that elite football is investing ever more in sophisticated data analysis systems to help clubs choose players and scrutinise performances in a more meaningful way (say, not merely how many shots has a keeper saved but using algorithms to understand the quality of each of those saves).
For academy football to be doing the same, to be monitoring young players' progress across every facet on a daily basis, is a good thing. It's building a statistical picture of a player's development over a number of years. It's analysing the bigger picture behind why a player has weaknesses – whether the player is inherently not good enough or whether the coaching is not actively working on those weaknesses. It's the idea that what you practise is what you perform. It's so logical you have to wonder why it hasn't been done before.
Liverpool told me they have been using a similar system for five years. What effect has it had? Last season Liverpool had the most under-20 players making first-team starts in the Premier League – by a country mile – Raheem Sterling accounting for 18 of those.
As a parent I was also heartened to hear that, for once, education is being taken seriously under the new system. When I was at Watford any kid who was academic was seen as a misnomer. Balls and books simply did not mix. But the clubs I spoke to were building schools, cultivating a separate learning environment and producing impressive academic results. Liverpool told me that some of their former academy players still return for career advice, that they are kept in the system so that whatever happens in their football career they still have the club to fall back on.
As with anything there is no doubt that the EPPP has its faults. The idea that any category one club can arrive at a training ground with 48 hours notice to watch an academy player is ludicrous. The abolition of the reserves league, replaced by the under-21s league is intolerable. Where there was once a stepping stone to the first team, the under-21 league just looks like a dead end. One glance at the current under-21 league table says all you need to know. While in the Premier League Sunderland, West Ham and Fulham are all languishing at the foot of the table, in the under-21s table they are in the top five.
Several clubs have complained that the EPPP favours the rich. No doubt about it, English football is mirroring the changes in the rest of society. It's supermarkets versus Bob the grocers. None of us like it but few of us change our shopping habits to challenge the system. And big clubs flexing their muscles is not a new predicament. When I was playing in the youth team at Watford there were stories of clubs buying houses for academy players so that their parents would sign up.
Ultimately, academies do still make sense financially. Running at very near the equivalent value of a single players' annual wages – category one academies cost £1.5m a year, just over the Premier League average annual wage of £1.16m per player, while category four academies cost £100k a year, just over the average £80k a year for a League One players – for a stable of young talent that can be fed into the team, or sold off to generate revenue, that looks a good business model to me.
Yes there are things we can do to improve the system. Like place a restriction on the number of players allowed in every academy at every age group. Like banning trawler fishing, it would prevent the richest clubs from hoovering up all of the talent.
Ultimately, though, football cannot stay where it was, with young and talented English footballers not getting the elite development they deserve and having to compete with too many cheap foreign imports. EPPP is in its infancy. And it's not perfect. So let's improve it. If Dyke's FA commission really want something to get their teeth stuck into, it's sitting here right under their noses.
David James has donated his fee for this column to charity