BCFC: The Academy Restructure

Birmingham City dropped a bombshell announcement on Monday evening, confirming that the club was looking to restructure the club’s Academy, replacing younger age groups with “B”and “C” teams in a model similar to that at Brentford. The club cited pressures such as Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic forcing them to revaluate the way the club recruited players.

Birmingham City FC

The announcement came on the back of a story in The Athletic earlier on Monday saying that changes were in the offing and in all probability was released as a reaction to that story being published.

Rumours of a restructure had been swirling since it was confirmed that Academy Manager Kristjaan Speakman was in talks with Sunderland and tied in with earlier rumours that Speakman and club CEO Ren Xuandong had fallen out.

It was one of those rumours that one hopes just isn’t true; the fallout online was predictable even though it’s possible that there are some solid financial reasons for the move.

It’s obvious that the club have some financial issues to contend with this season. The transfer fee for Jude Bellingham was forward funded by the club to give it access to cashflow this season, while the partial sale of the club was brought about due to the whopping £110M that the club owes to its Hong Kong parent company Birmingham Sports Holdings.

While Bellingham’s transfer brought in a huge amount of money, the club could possibly point to the fact while 20 academy graduates have played for the first team since Trillion Trophy Asia took over in October 2016, barring Bellingham only Wes Harding has been sold for any money at all in that time.

There are no academy graduates who have made more than one league appearance this season for the club and only Adan George has made more than one appearance in total. George is currently on loan at Walsall in League Two currently and can’t get into the matchday squad, let alone make appearances for the team.

It’s possible that the club have made the cold-hearted decision that they are unlikely to reap the rewards again as they did with Jude Bellingham; while his brother Jobe is in the academy it’s asking a lot of a young player to make the same sort of impact his brother did.

However, it’s hard to see this decision as one the club has made after a lot of thought.

On 18 June 2019, when the club sacked Garry Monk the announcement said that:

“The Club has a pool of talented players and those emerging via the Academy and Under-23s will be embraced, even more so than before. We are certain these young players – as those in our first team already – will be hungry to succeed as we begin a new chapter.”

This theme was continued just three months ago, when the club confirmed on 2 September 2020 that they were going for Category 1 status for the Academy. Blues CEO Ren Xuandong himself said:

“We are extremely proud of our Academy programme and it represents the backbone of our football structure.

“Whilst the Category 2 conditions were sufficient for our strategy, we have continued to invest and surpass the requirements for this level. Following a comprehensive review over the last 12 months, we feel the time is right to make the final changes to our infrastructure and processes allowing us the opportunity of becoming a Category 1 Club.”

One has to be concerned that a comprehensive review over 12 months to September 2020 has been superseded by another internal review which has been “conducted extensively and in close consultation with key stakeholders”.

I’ve tried to think about this as calmly as I can, but the only conclusion I can come to is the club have got scared of the investment required – up to £4M per year for Category 1 – and have backed away from it.

That seems myopic at best – especially in the knowledge the club have committed to large salaries over multiple years for players this summer. With all this talk of a “three year project”, is it possible that the club have in reality decided “promotion or bust” might be a better strategy?

It’s true that Brentford have made a similar model work to some degree, with a fair number of players coming into the team and then being sold for large amounts of money to maintain operations.

However, Brentford have an excellent scouting and recruitment set up – on the other hand, it’s my understanding that Blues’ recruitment staff are currently on furlough.

The whole situation seems like another PR own goal from a club who have made a knack of it in recent months.

Kids have basically been told a couple of weeks before Christmas that the club is curtailing their futures – and for what? Is it so Blues can gamble on a player in January in the desperate hope they’ll work miracles and take the team into the top six?

My heart goes out to those kids and parents who are caught up in this – and I have no doubt our loss will be our local rivals gain in this situation.

For me, the reactions of Jude Bellingham and Nathan Redmond to the news on Twitter speak volumes about what this move means.

Both were with the club from an early age and developed an affinity for the club which might not have been there before; Jude’s father Mark is a Southend fan while Nathan’s mom Michelle supports the mob from across the expressway.

I can understand that there is a lot of investment required for an academy – but it’s investment that can work out for the best of everyone when an academy is run correctly.

Dickhead Dong

Ren tried his best to defuse this situation with a jokey riposte to Bellingham’s disbelief – which led to many fans either telling the CEO to go forth and multiply or variations of it.

As I myself said on Twitter, it’s going to need something better than a jokey quip on Twitter from Ren to convince people this is the right move.

Ren has a track record for ruining kid’s dreams at football academies in China. If we’re not careful, he’s going to do it again in B9.

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