I’ve already posted a four-part series of my thoughts on who the club should keep, who they should try to sell and who they should release which can be found from the home page of this site
However, what I don’t think I’ve touched on is some of the issues the club faces, particularly with regards to retaining and releasing younger players. With this in mind I’ve put this article together to try to explain the situation and why some players might be on their way this summer despite Blues’ best efforts.
One of the things I’ve frequently seen on Blues fan social media is confusion surrounding how contracts, scholarships and transfers for young players work.
While the saga surrounding Jude Bellingham’s eventual move to Borussia Dortmund did much to help fans understand some of the mechanics surrounding professional contracts and young players, I think it’s worthwhile recapping what the regulations are.
As the season draws to a close, there are three groups of young players who will be finalising their futures with the club.
The first group are the young professionals who are going out of contract. These players have signed professional contracts with the club which are now coming close to the date of expiry.
By now, I expect most of them will be aware of what the club are planning to do.
Some players will have the option in their contract taken up, which will automatically tie them to the club for the duration of that option – normally a year.
Then there are those young players who have been offered new deals, and they will have to decide whether to accept or not.
Young players who are considering not signing a new deal and moving on will need to be aware that under EFL regulation 68.3, Blues will be entitled to a compensation fee for them if the new deal that they have been offered is not less favourable than their existing one.
Those who haven’t been offered new deals will be free to leave the club at the end of the season and they’ll probably be busy with their agents trying to sort out trials with new clubs.
The second group of players are the second- and third-year scholars.
Players sign scholarship contracts with the club at the end of the season they turn 16. These contracts are normally two years long, and are the stepping stone between being an Academy player and a full professional.
Sometimes a player will have a third year as a scholar; this option normally being offered to a player which a club wants to keep and whose scholarship has been severely disrupted by injuries.
While players can sign a professional deal the day they turn 17, many players aren’t offered a professional deal until the end of their scholarship.
The second- and third- year scholars at Blues will have been notified if they are being offered deals and they too will have decisions to make about what they are doing next.
The third group of players are the under-16s. These players will have already been told if they are to be offered scholarship contracts, and they will be deciding whether to sign this or to move to another club to complete this part of their footballing education.
If a player does decide to turn down a scholarship opportunity, then Blues will again be offered compensation. This will be in line with the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) rules as noted above.
To us fans, it might seem the obvious thing for any young player to do would be to stay at the club. In the past few years we’ve seen a few young players depart only to find their careers dead end at new clubs; surely it’s in the best interests of a young player to stay at St Andrew’s.
Sadly, there are a few reasons why young players will choose to move on.
The biggest and most obvious reason for any player to reject the opportunity to stay at Birmingham City is going to be money.
While Blues have the hopes of new ownership on the horizon, there can be no doubt that money issues won’t immediately disappear.
The last few years of heavy losses are going to make P&S limits a tough ask this year; as player wages make up the largest cost the club has, Blues have to do what they can to bring the wage budget into a more sustainable situation.
While it’s true that younger players don’t get paid a lot – especially in comparison to first team stars, Blues are still quite careful what they offer to younger players.
The problem with this is that it’s easy for players heads to get turned by the chance to sign for a big club where even first year professionals could get offered a fairly decent whack.
I personally don’t think we can blame kids or parents for having their heads turned; the fact is footballers don’t have long careers and one injury can easily end it all. If a player is offered the chance to maximise their income at an early age it would be very hard to resist.
For some young players, playing time is also an issue.
While a first-year professional might not reasonably expect to get that many first team minutes, a 20- or 21-year-old might feel that they should be pushing for a squad place sooner rather than later.
This is additionally complicated by the limits Blues will have on squad size for players over the age of 21.
The cut-off date for players to be registered is if they are 21 years old before January 1 the year the season starts. This means that for this season (22/23), if a young Blues player is born before 01/01/2001 they have to be registered in the first team squad.
If a player is not close to the first team at the point they have to be registered it makes little sense for the club to take up a space that could be offered to another player who has a better chance of making appearances.
I think for some young players, there is also a need to be sure of their future at the club.
It doesn’t happen very often, but I can think of at least a couple of players in the past few years who have moved on from Blues simply because they felt their faces didn’t fit.
Coaches, managers and other training staff are human after all, and personality clashes do happen. If a player feels that there is nothing they can do to get on the right side of the coaching staff, then there ends up being little doubt that they will have to move on for their own career.
There are many factors that may make a young player think twice about signing a scholarship or a pro contract, and I think as fans we need to accept that things aren’t quite as black and white as they look.
What’s important really is that the club does its best to reduce obstacles to keeping the young players they really want.
On the face of it, there do seem to be fairly easy solutions to Blues keeping young players; ie pay more money and ensure a first team pathway.
In absolute fairness to Blues, the pathway to the first team does appear to be there.
⏲️ EFL MINUTES FOR U20’s
🧒Players aged 20 and under
❌ Loanees excluded
⚽️ EFL league minutes #ColU #BristolCity #AFCW #NCFC #BCFC #pufc #Swans #CreweAlex #htafc #ftfc pic.twitter.com/YOjAkJMCKf
— Blues Breakdown (@blues_breakdown) April 17, 2023
According to this graphic posted by the excellent @Blues_Breakdown account, as of April 17 Blues were the fifth best team for giving first team minutes to u20 players (not including loanees).
Players such as George Hall, Alfie Chang and Jobe Bellingham have all made regular starts while Josh Williams has also had a run in the team earlier in the season.
I think there has been criticism in some quarters regarding the number of loaned players that have come into the squad and how that has blocked some young Blues players from making progress.
Sometimes it’s a financial decision to play young loan players as Blues can be penalised by loan contracts for not playing a young player that they have on loan.
On the other hand, young player wages is definitely an issue that Blues are struggling with, and I’m not sure how they can get around it.
I think this is a bigger issue for players signing first professional deals and scholarships than players higher up the chain.
The EPPP has made it easier for big clubs to poach young players, especially with the Blues Academy being Category 2.
The only defence I can see Blues having in this situation is that the pathway to the first team is easier than a player going to a team like Liverpool or Chelsea.
I think it’s for this reason that we’ve seen under-16 players such as Romelle Donovan and Trevan Sanusi training with the first team and appearing on the bench for the FA Cup ties.
However, bringing young players into first team training raises the biggest and most difficult problem of them all which is internal politics.
There has to be a fine balancing act between convincing a young player to stay and doing so much that other young players get resentful.
It’s a balancing act that Blues have struggled with at times and there is always a danger the club will let other young players slip through their net as they attempt to keep their best prospects.
It would be wrong to think that this is just a Blues issue too; I’m fairly sure that this problem is replicated at clubs throughout the country due to the enormous financial disparities between losing a player due to EPPP and a proper transfer fee.
I think this summer we’re going to see multiple transfer stories breaking about some of Birmingham City’s best talents; I think it’s also inevitable that we are going to see at least one or two depart.
The only thing we can hope for realistically is that the club does the best it can to ensure it gets the best compensation for any players that do decide to move on.
Football isn’t a nice industry at times and I think with young players specifically we see some of the uglier sides of it. As a parent myself, I hope that any young player at Blues makes a decision this summer for the benefit of their future and their career rather than any other reason.