A Misspent Youth….

There are plenty of examples of other nations ripping up their rule book and starting again in regards to their youth policy. In 2000 Belgium spent a large share of their profits from co-hosting the 2000 European Championships on revamping their youth system.

This isn’t Juve related but it’s a topic I love to debate. There were two significant moments for the England national team over the summer, 15th July and 11th June, England’s under-19 and under-20 teams lifted the UEFA Championship and World Cup respectively. A magnificent achievement and reward for the hard work of Keith Downing and Paul Simpson. Unfortunately these events are rarely given any credit by the English media as the attitudes towards these competitions are less than complimentary, they fail to notice, however, these players are our future senior team players.

The test now for the Football Association (FA) is to ensure this chance to bring these players into the the senior side is not wasted. These kids should be the foundation of future World Cup squads. The trouble is there is an evident gap in the success of the national youth teams and the under 21’s and senior team. It really isn’t difficult to see the link between this and the foreign player obsessed Premier League. The under 21’s have failed to win a tournament for over 30 years, their one final appearance since then coming in 2009. The senior team’s failings are well documented, the glass ceiling of three quarter final appearances in the mid-00’s represents their furthest progress since 1990. During this time Turkey and South Korea made a World Cup semi final, the Czech Republic made a European final and Greece won a European tournament.

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Why is this so? I briefly mentioned above about how the Premier League has massively influenced the lack of success by the senior side. Only five of the current Premier League managers are English (four until Roy Hodgson’s appointment at Crystal Palace last week). Of the big six (Manchester United/City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool) only Tottenham are owned by a British company. The owners of the rest have less of an interest in the fortunes of the England national team and therefore are more unlikely to want to invest in youth where more glamorous signings can be found across Europe. This money obsession creates an acceptance of this practice as the norm; clubs spend vile amounts of money at the expense of youth players patiently waiting for their chance in the reserves or on loan at lower league clubs. The question should be asked, why wouldn’t you? When faced with the chance to sign exotic player A, a teenage goal scoring sensation from Spain or playing player B, a home grown kid from a town close to the ground, which one would you choose? Therein lies the problem; big names sell shirts in China, adds followers to the club’s Twitter account and puts bums on seats in the ground every week. Local kids just don’t. The trouble with promoting youth team players is time. It takes years to mould a first team ready player, time is one thing the 21st century Premier League club doesn’t have. When there are more talented foreign players available who can step in to the first team this is route clubs take. The ‘fast food’ and instant gratification attitude to football has been around for years, it is now expected that Premier League clubs will chase the stars of continental clubs because it’s the way a top club flexes its financial muscles. The result of this greed for the English players at these clubs is to find a living lower down the leagues in a lower standard of football and away from the gaze of the national team. The national team suffers from a lack of quality players to choose from and our results on the pitch suffer too. In 2017 the players who played for the Under-20s in the World Cup final combined to play around 12 matches between them for their clubs, seven of them failed to play a minute in the Premier League. For them one cannot see another winners medal being in their possession.

There are plenty of examples of other nations ripping up their rule book and starting again in regards to their youth policy. In 2000 Belgium spent a large share of their profits from co-hosting the 2000 European Championships on revamping their youth system. They focused on player development, on passing and dribbling, they play 3 versus 3, 5v5 and 8v8, with the philosophy that small sided games give the players more chances to touch the ball and be more involved. They avoided using rankings and presenting trophies to hammer home the focus on player development and they also provided the best 14-18 year old players extra training sessions alongside their educational studies, the sessions focus on their technical abilities. This gives the best players double the amount of training sessions and thus a better chance of making the senior national team. Of course you may recall the FA had a similar system at Lilleshall back in the 80’s and 90’s, this was closed as a result of the introduction of Premier League academies in 1999 and it wasn’t until 2007, when the purpose built St George’s Park opened in Burton upon Trent, that this was replaced. During youth games in Belgium tackling is banned, the focus is on technical and mental development. Players are trained to become intelligent readers of the game rather than kick-and-rush, ball-and-man, tackling beasts which is the badge of honour of most English fans and players. Graduates of this revolutionary system include, Courtois, de Bruyne, Lukaku, Witsel, Kompany, Benteke, Januzaj, Mertens, Hazard, Vermaelen and Vertonghen.

Another post Euro 2000 shake up saw Germany set up youth academies across the country, this was after they finished bottom of their group containing a talented Portugal team and very average English and Romanian teams. Again the focus is on technical development, but the crucial difference between Germany and England is they overhauled the ‘German mentality’ of strength and organisation. They now value flair, skill and technical proficiency, something which may have been overlooked 20 years ago. The German FA (DFB) made massive upgrades to their facilities and employed thousands more coaches (at the moment Germany has over 22,000 more youth coaches than England). The DFB runs the academies rather than the clubs themselves which boosts the relationship between the two. They quickly reaped the rewards of such an extensive set up as two German teams contested the 2013 Champions League Final, of the two squads that day 26 players were eligible to play for Germany. They also won the World Cup the year after. Who can argue with their methods when they produced players such as Ozil, Hummels, Muller, Draxler, Kroos, Reus, Goetze and Neuer.

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These systems are music to the ears of anyone who has witnessed kids in England playing on full size pitches and coached to be the fastest and strongest while the smaller, flair players tend to lose out. The German relationship between the clubs and the DFB is a model the FA would do well to emulate, the Premier League has grown far bigger than anyone could imagine and they hold the real power in the English game funded by a TV deal from heaven. The latest deal saw Premier League clubs given a share of over £8bn. With that kind of cash clubs in the bottom half are instantly attractive to Europe’s top players. The viscous cycle continues and will continue to turn until the Premier League brand becomes less and less attractive to Sky subscribers. This is unlikely to happen because another cycle of increased ticket prices pricing people out of attending games leading to an increase in the number of Sky and BT subscribers is in motion. By boycotting the games you are merely funding your club’s greed via your Sky/BT subscription.

I have mentioned the club’s greed and penchant for buying ready made foreign players, another part of the problem is the players’ attitude to the game. The players are in a bubble in these academies, everything, from the age of 12, is done for them, no cleaning boots, carrying nets or hosing out the dressing rooms. Once they have their designer wash bag their hunger for the game diminishes. Why would they want to risk injury playing for England when they have the Champions League and Premier League riches in their lap? It’s argued no one cares about playing for the national team any longer, while the comfort of the Premier League and Champions League remain within easy reach, this will always be the case.

It would be wrong to suggest no good comes from the current youth set up as there are obvious success stories coming from Premier League academies. Nine of the eleven starters in Manchester City’s 2015 FA Youth Cup final team were from Manchester and two thirds of their academy players come from the city or the surrounding area. In May 2017, Manchester United started six youth team players versus Crystal Palace with Josh Harrop scoring on his debut. Harry Kane, Delle Ali and Marcus Rashford are three of England’s brightest stars. Speaking of success I haven’t forgotten the famous ‘Class of ’92’ players from Manchester United’s youth academy. They were truly a once in a generation crop of players but they came from a time when facilities and the standard of coaching are not what they are today. Given the money in the game today their story should be the rule rather than the exception.

Pep Guardiola recently mentioned the lack of competitive games for academy teams in England and pointed out the Spanish system of allowing the top team’s reserves entry into the professional leagues. The system has worked well for years by giving academy players a regular taste of competitive near-top league experience rather than playing against their peers in near empty lower league stadiums. This leads to a higher quality of player turning out for their national youth teams and eventually the senior team. I hardly need to tell you of Spain’s national team successes in recent years, while 12 of the 25 players in Barcelona’s 2014/2015 squad were products of their youth team and plied their trade at Barcelona ‘B’ in the Segunda Division during their academy years. In England the Checkatrade Trophy was used to give academy teams a greater taste of competitive football by allowing them to enter last season. People moaned about the devaluation of the competition but failed to acknowledge the good it will do the representatives of academy teams, choosing to focus on the here and now rather than the bigger picture of national team success. The Football League would do well to agree to a Spanish style system of Premier League academies being allowed to enter the Football League with financial incentives for fielding youth players from the reserves in their first teams. This will never happen because of the outcry caused by the supposed devaluation of a competition rarely given any credit even by those taking part, there is also the logistical factor of relegating more professional teams at the expense of academy teams.

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The England senior team are in a period of underachievement by our own media’s high standards but this is a result of years of focus on buying foreign players and lack of attention in producing quality English players who represent their clubs in the Premier League every week. A quota similar to that of the old Champions League ‘three foreigner’ rule should be implemented, thus giving academy players more competitive playing time. As we know there are already squad rules in place for teams competing in European competition, these surround the number of domestic born players and around players who have been at the club for a number of years. When Britain finally leaves the EU we should see rules restricting the number of foreign players come into effect, what this will be in reality remains to be seen. However with the amount of cash the Premier League generates I can’t see a majority vote in favour of this and so a watered down version of these rules seems likely. Our German counterparts have demonstrated a healthy working relationship between Football association and league can work. We in England need to do the same, again the amount of money in the game should mean there is more than enough to seriously invest in youth academies and their development. It should also be used to promote, educate and hire hundreds more coaches.

England’s youth teams have proven to be actual world beaters on the field, however it will be years, if ever, before the senior side emulates their feat if the current attitudes remain the same.

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