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Change is Needed - How to Resurrect the Youth System in England

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa marked the final opportunity for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ to make their mark on the global stage. The likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand were supposed to be the backbone of the team that was going to take the world by storm. However, tournament after tournament has come and gone with only disappointment. A series of quarter-final appearances the best they could achieve. But where are the next generation coming from?

There have been numerous reports commission to try and determine why we do not seem to produce the same quantity of gifted players as other countries. Holland, which has just reached the World Cup final, has a population of just over 16 million, compared to around 51 million people in England. However, we glance enviously at the list of talented, technically brilliant players that they continue to produce – Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Johan Neeskens and Dennis Bergkamp just to name a couple. So where are we going wrong? This article will look at a few of the reasons and some potential solutions.

The first major issue is the style of coaching that children receive in England, compared to countries on the continent. In England, we introduce the players to competitive matches on full-sized pitches from a very early age. Furthermore, we have competitive leagues right down to the youngest age groups, putting a huge emphasis on the idea that winning is everything. This leads to teams picking the bigger, stronger children, at the expense of the smaller, more talented players.

Let us take Spain as an alternative example. There are far fewer leagues for small children in Spain, with a greater emphasis on making football more fun and focussing on teaching them the technical skills needed. There is a huge amount of small 5-a-side football played amongst the younger groups, which leads to each child touching the ball more, having more shots, making more passes, and so developing the skills.

The lack of focus on winning at all costs means that the children have greater freedom to try new things without the criticism that would come their way. It is an interesting question to ask whether the smaller, Spanish passing players, such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta, would have developed to become such good players under the English system.

The problem with this emphasis on winning at all costs is not only constrained to the younger age groups. We put great pressure on the England youth teams to win their respective tournaments. Whilst England has indeed had success in recent times in these competitions, there has not been the progression into the senior team. Maybe it is the fact that we have bred a team of strong and quick players, who are able to perform well at the youth level, but are unable to make the step up to full international level.

The likes of the Dutch and the Spanish put far less emphasis on these tournaments. Rather, they see them as an opportunity for the players to develop their skills and intelligence. Whether they win or not is a secondary issue. As former U18 winning captain Darren Caskey said, “The youth teams should be about bringing players through to the England team, not about winning.”

However, the difference in the coaching that young players receive in England compared with Holland is staggering. If we take an 18-year old academy graduate at Ajax, he will have received around 6,500 hours of dedicated coaching within his club. If we take an 18-year old academy graduate at an English club, he will only have received 2,500 hours of dedicated coaching. Given these facts, it is hardly surprising that the Dutch produce more technically able players than England.

We can make comparisons closer to home as well. A 15-year old footballer in England will be having around 5 hours of dedicated coaching per week. A 15-year old swimmer will be doing around 15 hours of dedicated training with a coach each week. Why should an aspiring footballer receive so much less training than an aspiring swimmer? We need to provide far more access to coaching for aspiring young footballers.

The problem is that we do not have the coaches. In England, we have 2,770 UEFA qualified coaches. Whilst this may sound like quite a large number, Spain has over 24,000 UEFA qualified coaches, and Germany has over 35,000. How can we expect to produce quality footballers if we have fewer coaches and provide less training for the children and teenagers that are supposedly the future of the national team?

The next issue is the facilities that are provided for young players to develop. England has more footballing academies than any other country in Europe. However, as we have seen, they do not seem to produce the quality. Maybe there should be more of a focus on quality rather than quantity. France has a total of 12 elite regional academies – the best known of these is Clairefontaine, which has produced the likes of Nicholas Anelka, Louis Saha, William Gallas, Thierry Henry, Hatem Ben Arfa, Sebastien Bassong and Jerome Rothen amongst other in recent years.

Similarly, the Dutch have merged many of the smaller local academies to form 14 large regional academies. This has helped to improve the quality of coaching and of the facilities in recent years. This also allows the best young players to play with and against each other on a far more regular basis, learning from each other in the process. A recent experiment has been tried in the Midlands to try and replicate this, where the academy players of Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom have been training together. Whether the National Football Centre that is expected to finally open in Burton in 2012 will help to move toward the continental system is still to be seen.

Furthermore, the Premiership regulations that 13 to 16 year old children may only sign for a club within 90 minutes drive of their home may be helping to restrict the opportunities for the most talented players to reach their potential. Manchester United has excellent youth facilities and has an excellent record of bringing young players through. David Beckham and Ryan Giggs are two of the best players that have come through as part of their golden generation. However, under the new regulations, neither would have been able to train at the Manchester United academy. Would Giggs have been the same player if he had to stay and train at the Cardiff academy instead of at Old Trafford?

One of the most commonly heard excuses is that there are too many foreign players in the Premiership, meaning that young English players do not receive the opportunities to break into the first-team. Whilst it is true that there is a growing proportion of foreign players in the league, this cannot be taken seriously as a reason for the lack of talented English young players. As Arsene Wenger has stated, it does not matter where a player is from, if he is good enough, he will play. No manager, even if he is foreign, is going to discriminate against an English player if he is good enough to play for their team.

Arsenal receives a huge amount of criticism for not bringing through English players. However, in the past 15 years, their academy has produced Stuart Taylor, Jamie O’Hara, David Bentley, Ashley Cole, Matthew Upson, Justin Hoyte, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere amongst others. All of these have gone on to have careers at the top level, and even internationally. However, they are not quite good enough to play for Arsenal, one of the best teams in the country. They did not play for Arsenal because they did not have the talent, not because they were not given the opportunity.

Whilst there are a growing number of foreign players playing in the Premiership, the younger players constantly complain that they are not given the chance to prove themselves. Maybe there could be an argument that these players should be more proactive and give themselves the opportunity. There are very few English players playing abroad. Why do some of these players, who do not get the opportunity at the age of 18-23, move to clubs in Europe? The likes of the Dutch and Belgian leagues in particular, but also the French and Portuguese leagues would be ideal for these players to develop by playing first-team football. Not only this, they would also learn a new style of play from these foreign league that would help them further.

There are very few English players that have ventured abroad, despite the obvious benefits that are associated with the move. A major reason for this is the mentality of young players. There are far too many youngsters who are in the game for the wrong reason – the lure of the money and lifestyle of a professional footballer, rather than for the challenge of being a great player. When we combine this with the fact that young players are paid far more in England than they would be elsewhere in Europe, we can see why the players stay. For these players, signing a professional contract with an English Premiership team is a sign that they have made it. In reality, they have barely even started.

The English system means that when a player graduates from the club’s academy at the age of 18, he must be ready to move straight into the first team. This obviously discriminates against those late developers. For those that are not ready for the first team, there is somewhat of a void. The reserve team is often made up of senior players trying to regain their fitness or the journeymen players that are no longer good enough for the first team. There are limited opportunities for the young players. There is a strong argument for introducing an U21 league, possibly even at the expense of the reserve league. Not only would it benefit the development of these players to play competitively at this level, there could also be a commercial opportunity. In the USA, they have the equivalent of an U23 league in all the major sports – the college system. Crowds of in excess of 100,000 people pack the stadia for the matches between the biggest colleges. Now whilst an U21 league would never reach these levels, it could easily garner public support if successfully marketed.

Finally, the Premier League has begun to try and address this problem. From this season onward, clubs must include 8 ‘home-grown’ players in a squad of 25 players over the age of 21. Whilst this sounds like a promising move, it is hampered by EU regulations that ban any restrictions on freedom of movement of labour. As a result, the Premier League cannot restrict teams to having to have a certain number of English players. Therefore, we have the idea of a ‘home-grown’ player. This is a player who has trained with an English club for at least 36 months before the end of the season when they turn 21.

This means that Arsenal are perfectly entitled to register Cesc Fabregas as a ‘home-grown’ player. Similarly, Carlos Vela, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Alex Song, Armand Traore, Johan Djourou and Wojciech Szczesny would all qualify as ‘home-grown’. Therefore, Arsenal can meet the requirement of 8 ‘home-grown’ players in their squad, without naming a single English player. With the increasing frequency of young players in academies – 45 of the 300 players between 16 and 18 years old – being foreign, these regulations are relatively lax. Whilst the Premier League are hamstrung by EU regulations, there is an argument that the cap should be raised to 12 ‘home-grown’ players, as in Germany. Very few teams would have that many foreign players in their academy, forcing them to name English players.

However, this returns to the earlier argument that teams should not be forced to play English players if they are not good enough. There is a fine-line to be trod here. We do not want to hinder the quality of the league as a whole, and undoubtedly the foreign players have improved the league, but we do want quality young English players to be given the opportunity to play. As mentioned earlier though, if they are good enough, they will play.

Unfortunately, the sheer sums of money involved in the game now hinder the strategy of building for the future at the expense of instant success. Even the end-of-season games where teams used to blood new young players once survival was ensured and European football was beyond them are now taken more seriously. Sam Allardyce admitted that the additional £500k per finishing position in the league meant that it was not worth giving young players a chance. The only time young players get their opportunity now is when a club has an injury crisis, leaving them as the only option. Often on these occasions, the young players seize their opportunity. Phil Jones came in for Blackburn last season, impressed, and is now being talked about as a first-team regular. It is unlikely that he would even have had the chance to play otherwise.

It is money though that is likely to prove the solution. At the moment, the FA only invests 1% of its money into the development of young players. Rather, it relies on some of its major sponsors to provide projects aimed at the young kids. The FA Tesco Skills Programme is a good example of this type of project. Considering the FA pays Fabio Capello a salary of around £6m per year, it might be more effective to hire a less expensive coach and direct some of those funds toward youth development. No matter how good the coach is, if there are no good players coming through the system, England will not experience international success.

Germany has proved that investment can reap rewards. Ten years ago, the German FA, the Bundesliga and the German government all agreed to work together to resurrect the German game. They embarked on a £500m investment project (£50m per year) and they are now seeing the results. Victory in the U21 European Championships last year have been followed by an impressive number of those players making their mark at this year’s World Cup. Bayern Munich impressed in Europe with a team including a number of German players – the likes of Philipp Lahm, Holger Badstuber, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller are testament to the quality of players that are coming through the system at Bayern Munich.

With the money that is being pumped into the English game, major investment is needed to transform the youth system. Whilst the current economic climate means that investment on the German scale is overly ambitious, something needs to be done to change the style of coaching, the facilities, the quality and quantity of qualified coaches, and support for players to gain experience abroad. There is a worrying lack of talent being produced in the past decade, and if something is not done to restructure the youth system, England can look forward to a bleak future for the national team.

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