Wrexham youngsters left in limbo as club's academy grading bid rejected – so what next?

Wrexham’s bid to achieve Category Three status for their academy has been rejected.

The decision — which is under appeal — is a blow for the ambitious Welsh club, who are understood to have been turned down due to their facilities not meeting the required standard.

As a fourth-tier youth setup, Wrexham can only operate teams from under-17s upwards. Remaining at the lowest level would come as a huge blow to the youngsters who had signed up for the lower-age teams with a view to representing the club in the 2024-25 season.

With other clubs in the local area having already recruited their own squads, this would leave dozens of young players potentially in limbo if the appeal is rejected.

Parents were informed of the decision by the Professional Game Academy Audit Company (PGAAC) via a letter dated May 31 — seen by The Athletic — and signed by academy manager Andy Lowe.

He stated that an appeal was underway but added: “I must reiterate there is still no guarantee of achieving Category Three status for the new season and at this stage we will remain a Category Four academy”.

Wrexham are understood to have been proactive since then in trying to find a solution, including a search for alternative training sites capable of meeting the facilities threshold.

A decision on the appeal to the PGAAC, who undertook a four-day audit during early spring before rejecting the initial application, is expected to be imminent.

Regardless of that verdict, the current uncertainty again underlines the long-term need for a new training ground capable of housing not only Wrexham’s men’s first team but also the women’s team and youth setups.

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney made this a key target following their takeover in 2021, but finding a suitable site has proved difficult. As a result, Phil Parkinson’s team train at a series of rented facilities, including the Colliers Park complex once owned by Wrexham but sold by a previous ownership to the Football Association of Wales to alleviate financial problems.

Finding a permanent replacement for Colliers Park will be key to Wrexham’s setup reaching a level to compete for the best young players, especially with neighbours such as Crewe Alexandra already boasting a Category Two academy.

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McElhenney and Reynolds made improving Wrexham’s training facilities a key target (Peter Byrne/Getty Images)

Under the Elite Player Performance Plan implemented as a joint initiative between the Premier League and EFL in 2012, every club’s youth setup is graded on various criteria, including facilities, staffing levels and investment.

Audits are carried out by the PGAAC and clubs can apply to move up a level annually, as Wrexham did after initially being granted Category Four status following their promotion back to the EFL in 2023.

Category One is the top level and traditionally the domain of elite clubs, such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Last season, three-quarters of the 20 Premier League clubs boasted Category One academies, along with another 11 in the EFL. Two of those, Southampton and Leicester City, have since been promoted to the top flight.

To achieve the highest status, playing facilities must include enough grass pitches to accommodate all the various age levels, at least one floodlit grass pitch enclosed with perimeter fencing and designated areas for spectators, a floodlit artificial surface, and an indoor pitch, no smaller than 60 yards by 40 yards, that must be owned by the club.

Under the EPPP rules, Category One to Three academies can register players from under-9s to professionals. Category Four, in contrast, is regarded solely as a late development model, meaning clubs can only operate teams from under-17s upwards.

Clubs can move up and down the pyramid, with Wrexham’s fellow League One side Birmingham City being Category One as recently as 2022 but now classed as Category Two. Birmingham’s biggest recent academy success is Jude Bellingham, the Real Madrid and England midfielder.

The value of Wrexham developing their own talent has been illustrated in recent months by Max Cleworth, the academy graduate having signed a three-year contract extension after starring during the promotion run-in.

However, the 21-year-old central defender is the exception rather than the norm at a club whose 15 years in the National League until that 2023 promotion meant the youth setup inevitably suffered from a lack of investment.

Plenty of talented players have emerged from the Wrexham area in the past decade or so only to be picked up by clubs with more resources and a better infrastructure, including a trio of Welsh internationals in Nottingham Forest full-back Neco Williams, Fulham winger Harry Wilson and Rangers midfielder Tom Lawrence.

Wrexham are determined to change that. Speaking last year after the club had applied for Category Four status following promotion, executive director Humphrey Ker said: “Ever since the takeover of the football club, Rob and Ryan have been clear in their ambition to build a sustainable model for success, as well as reinforcing the legacies and traditions of Wrexham AFC.

“As a club, we’ve missed out on the opportunity to sign lots of local talent, including the likes of Neco Williams, Harry Wilson and Tom Lawrence, as we’ve not had the infrastructure to support their development going forward.

“This will now change. We have ambitious and exciting plans to build an infrastructure capable of nurturing North Wales’ finest talents.”

(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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