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What is the difference between a Category 1 and 3 Academy as part of EPPP changes?
When the news emerged on Tuesday that Watford plan to downgrade their academy status from potentially Category 1 to 3, shocked fans flocked to social networks and forums to express their concern about what this means for the future of, not only the Hornets' youth system, but the club as a whole.
Are the new owners neglecting the club’s home-grown traditions? How will the changes actually affect Watford’s youth system? And what does the future really hold for Vicarage Road ’s brightest young talents?
It is important to stress Watford had only applied for Category 1 status and were awaiting assessment - this will be the first year where the new rating system is used.
So while the Hornets may not have had their application for Category 1 approved, the club's announcement this week confirms the application will be withdrawn and perhaps offers some clues as to how the club might move forward.
The club's exact plans are still unclear and this decision does not force them to make changes but it does mean the minimum requirements demanded by the FA are significantly relaxed.
Consequently - if they choose to do so - the club will be allowed to make significant cutbacks, some of which could be more damaging to Watford’s academy than others.
The new Category 3 status will be fixed for a minimum of three years and, crucially, will allow the club to make important financial savings.
FA rules state that a club with Category 1 status must have several full time employees that, under Category 3, can be made part-time or removed all together.
Among the roles which could be reviewed are sports scientist, coach developer, strength and conditioning coach, performance analyst and head of education.
In reality, such wholesale changes are unlikely to materialise in the immediate term at least, but other, more subtle, adjustments could be made.
For example, the number of coaches employed to work with players under the age of 16 can be reduced.
In a Category 1 training session there has to be at least one coach for every eight players. In Category 3 that ratio is relaxed to one in ten.
And the recommended budget guidelines – which clubs do not have to follow – suggest a Category 1 Academy should spend £2.3m per year, while a Category 3 club’s recommended spending is only £500,000.
Such financial savings would be understandable but of greater concern to fans may be that the club could, if it chooses to do so, slash the number of coaching hours given to their youngest academy players.
Under Category 1, Under-11 players have eight hours coaching a week for 46 weeks a year, meaning those players receive an annual total of at least 368 hours of tuition.
Under Category 3 however, Watford’s Under-11s could receive as little as 120 hours a year, more than a third of Category 1's requirements.
None of these changes are compulsory, and the Hornets may well opt to continue with the same training programmes it adopts now.
What is certain though is that Watford’s youth teams will no longer be testing themselves against the country’s most challenging opposition in a league format.
Watford’s youngsters will continue to play friendlies against the big clubs in behind-closed-doors games but competitive fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham will be replaced with the likes of Luton Town and Stevenage Borough.
And if their players impress, the Hornets may find it harder to prevent bigger clubs from poaching their brightest talents with Category 3 rules demanding less compensation for young stars.
Under the new rules, a talented 16-year-old registered with a Category 1 Academy since Under-9 level could sign for another club and his current team would be due £200,000 in compensation. For the same player, a Category 3 club would receive £71,500.
However, there is a strong argument that the fee is almost irrelevant because the likes of Sean Murray would surely leave regardless if the larger lights came calling.
In the past, there was a tribunal system which protected the smaller clubs.
When Manchester City wanted to sign Murray as a 16-year-old, they were put off by the threat of going to a tribunal, where the fees were not structured in such a way.
The club are yet to clarify what the future holds with regards to their relationship with the Harefield Academy, its facilities and the level of funding available.
As a Category 1 Academy, clubs are required to have a floodlit grass pitch, an indoor surface available all year round and match analysis suites. These are not a requirement for Category 3 sides but there is as yet no suggestion Watford will ditch the facilities they currently have.
It is Watford who hold all the cards and, if nothing else, the new status simply gives the club more freedom to play their hand as they see fit.
Hornets fans will be hoping that this freedom is used sensibly to cut unnecessary luxuries rather than usher in a new era where the club’s youth system is no longer a priority.
The FA's Youth Development Rules document can be seen here . There will be more on Watford's decision to downgrade their academy status shortly.