Give youth a chance

Clubs must stop chasing glamorous players and remember they have a duty to their youngsters, warns Jon Spurling

The prize for this summer’s most revealing soundbite must surely be awarded to Dutch defender Michael Reiziger. Shortly before the 31-year-old completed his transfer to Mid­dlesbrough, he commented: “I’m getting to the end of my career and I want to be able to say that I have played in the Premiership.” Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s views on moving to Tee­sside also spoke volumes: “This move will make my family financially secure.” Avoiding any mention of future challenges – much less the possibility of actually winning trophies – the pair neatly encapsulated the prevailing attitude that exists at the top level in English football. Many Premiership chairmen, ever-conscious of season-ticket and replica-shirt sales, would rather spend large sums of money on a seasoned continental star, than invest time and patience in nurturing young British talent.

The media has been busy playing the blame game since England’s Euro 2004 exit, with the short-term thinking of leading Premiership executives coming in for particular criticism. Rather than a thriving academy for young British talent, the Premiership is now widely regarded as a pre-retirement paradise for ageing overseas stars. Recent FIFA recommendations will, according to the News of the World, “cut the number of foreign stars coming to the Premiership and ensure that more Wayne Rooneys graduate into the England team.” That prospect appears highly unlikely.

The most newsworthy proposal – that squad sizes be reduced to a maximum of 25 – would merely see an extension to the practice of year-long loans. Last season’s top five had an average of 34 players at their disposal, after those deemed unworthy even for the Carling Cup had been farmed out. Cash-strapped lower- division clubs may benefit from the windfall of talent. But fears over the lack of emerging national talent are unlikely to be allayed. How many managers will be brave enough to take a long-term view on a youngster? It’s a much safer option to buy a “name” and this could prove disastrous. Arsenal’s England Under-21 players David Bentley and Jermaine Pennant may gain crucial experience at Norwich and Leeds, but they appear fated not play in the Champions League. Should they eventually graduate to the full national squad, a key aspect of their career development will be missing.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter argues that up to four squad members must be products of a club’s academy and a further four should be trained in the same country. By implementing these recommendations, he believes that “the development of future international stars in each country will be safeguarded”. The Premiership’s chosen few are likely to regard this stipulation as a rule to be bent. Due to European Union laws, FIFA cannot state that the four youth-team products need necessarily have been born in the country in which they ply their trade. The whole issue of training is a grey area anyway. Clubs with extensive networks of European talent scouts would inevitably exploit the loopholes. In the past year, Arsenal and Manchester United have signed Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique from Barcelona As they are both 16 years old, their clubs can legitimately claim to have “trained” the pair in this country. In anticipation of such a ruling, the trickle of young EU-based starlets to the Premiership has become a flood.

Leading club executives, such as Arsenal’s David Dein and Southampton’s Rupert Lowe, also advocate a relaxation of the ruling which stipulates that non-EU signings must have played in at least 75 per cent of their national team’s matches over the past two years. This would bring the Premiership into line with Serie A and La Liga. Dein and Lowe speak from experience. Dein was helpless as young Brazilian star Kaka signed for AC Milan despite favouring a move to Highbury. Egyptian striker Ahmed Has­san drifted out of South­ampton’s clutches to Ajax. Dein claims: “It’s only right that the best young foreign teenage talent should play in the Premiership.”

Blatter has trumpeted his own proposals, claiming that “supporters and national-team coaches can enjoy watching their country’s stars blossom in the future”. FIFA’s president spoke grandly of the “winds of change blowing across European football”. The vast majority of Premiership chairmen are doing their utmost to ensure that it is only a light breeze.

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month