Where the Hart is

Andy Lyons asks Nottingham Forest manager Paul Hart about the way young players are brought up in England and the pitfalls of blooding them at an early age

With Howard Wilkinson now departing as England’s technical director, how successful would you say his reforms have been?
In terms of getting clubs to focus on producing young players, I think he’s been pretty successful. The criteria laid down to become an academy, including the fact that all players have to live within an hour and half’s travelling time of the club they join, I think was neccesary. It depends which end of the scale you’re at. If you’re one of the bigger clubs, then I don’t know whether they would see it as restrictive for their recruitment. But for me it’s been the right thing. We had three Notts boys last year represent England at different levels.

Are the young players coming through the academies noticeably better than they were a few years ago?
We’re five years into the academy system now and I think that recruitment is the key. If you’ve got a good scouting network and you’re bringing in quality players, that will determine the success of your academy. Because we’ve intensified everything, we are producing better technical players. Whether we will continue to produce the hunger that needs to go with it, the jury’s out at the moment – I just don’t know yet.

English coaching has been criticised for not encouraging youngsters to work on ball skills enough. Do you feel there is still too much of an emphasis on results at an early age?
I can only speak for Forest and I don’t think it’s the case at this club. Young people will always be competitive, of course. The importance of winning is a problem. We take that out at the early stage, with what we call the babies. We only start talking about winning football matches, strategy and tactics at the age of 14 and 15. Obviously, players have got to learn how to win at some point, but before that age, no. Even at 15, if we have per­formed and done things right, the result is immaterial. In the schools and Sunday League football there is definitely a “win­ning at all costs” environment. But when the players come to us, we talk about performance more than winning.

How much harder is it to get players to play passing football at an age when they will sometimes be out-fought physically by more direct opponents?
We notice throughout the academy that size at certain ages does play a huge part in success, or what you perceive to be suc­cess. If you’re big and strong and you’ve got ability then you’ve got an advantage, but if you’re big and strong with no real ability, then you’ve still got a head start at certain age groups. But strength becomes less of an advantage by the age of 16 or so, it starts to even out. We have certain principles about the style of play at Nottingham Forest, going back to the Clough days, that we adhere to. It’s not always easy to play the way we do but the supporters like it too and they understand. If players are being muscled out, it’s not easy but they’ve got to live with it and overcome it. The strength of this club is that a boy moving through the various age groups from school level up to the first team will see similarities and hear the same watchwords throughout – most times will even have the same set pieces – so the transition is made slightly easier.

If you had become Forest manager directly after relegation in 1999, you would have had a lot more money to spend. Presumably there would be some more experienced players at the club now?
That could have been the case but it’s down to the person, not the situation. I’m a builder, I’m a Taurean, it’s my nature. It’s arguable whether I would have hit the chequebook at Forest quite as hard as it had been hit directly before I became man­ager. But we were well placed to deal with the financial prob­lems the club had in that we worked hard in our academy for four years and it was called upon in the fifth year. And because of the hard work the staff – not just me – put in, the players were well prepared to step up. We will always give young players an opportunity. If a parent comes to me and says “Is my son going to be given a chance at your club?”, I can honestly say yes, provided he works hard and his development continues, we will give him the chance. If he’s better than the man who’s already in there, he’s in. That’s management, it’s bringing them in and moving them on, it’s the production line.

In recent years there has been a trend to bring in foreign players at a very young age. Is that something we’ll see more of?

To do your absolute best as a manager of a club, you have a duty to keep as many options open as you can. I really do keep an open mind on where to bring players in from. We’ve got three German boys at academy level, Eugen Bopp’s one of them, now in the first team. I would prefer to produce our own English players but I’m not daft enough to think I can provide this team with 11 home-grown lads now. Due to the situation we’re in, I’ve brought in just the two players in 15 months, Des Walker and Eoin Jess, at no cost. We’re still in debt and we have to man­age that as well as building a team that can compete.

How much has the technical level of young British players improved in recent years? And how far is it still behind some other countries?
I think we could improve in a lot of areas, we’re not perfect by any means. But I also think that the Mediterranean climate and the diet gives a natural advantage to the likes of the French and the Portuguese. They’re often quite big at younger ages in comparison to English boys. There are probably stats that say because of that physical prowess, their body composite, they develop quicker, they’re like stocky men when our boys are still boys. That also applies to the young players from Africa that a lot French clubs are bringing through. I know that we catch up physically to a degree at 19 or 20.

The teams you coached at Leeds won youth cups and many of them have made it in the first team. But often players who are stars at 18 do not succeed. They don’t lose their skill but there is something missing. How big a part does confidence play?
Psychology plays a huge part. If you’re a player at Leeds United, once you get signed at 16, generally you’re going to have tons of ability. But ability on its own doesn’t always get you to the top. It needs to be allied to mental strength, how you deal with disappointment, and of course physical fitness and how you look after yourself generally. You can’t isolate ability and not have the rest of it – there are plenty of skilful players in the lower divisions or non-League. There’s an amount of what you might call social work in­volved. The players have to know that you care about them. It can be the toughest regime that you want it to be, as long as those players know that you’re there to help them. You can’t help everybody, but we’ve got a support system here that in­volves a psychologist and nutritionist as well as doctors and physios. Managers are always going to have to adapt in how they deal with young players, because times change. Your own son is different to you. I’m not saying that someone like Brian Clough, say, couldn’t manage players now – I’m sure he could – but the world is different.

Is it harder to motivate teenagers than it used to be, when they are already on such phenomenal wages, or know that they soon will be?
I’ve not had too many problems in that area and that goes back to the principles we bring them up on. Playing well intermittently doesn’t bring good contracts, but hard work and practice eventually bring success, so we don’t expect to face difficulties in that area. We want them to experience media exposure but in the right way so we monitor it carefully, drip feed them into it. We also now have a company that comes in to advise them on media training.

Should clubs withhold players from age-related England squads when they are already in first team, such as Wayne Rooney?

You’ve got to ask the question: will he learn more from playing against men in the Premiership, or even in Ever­ton’s reserves, or from playing against other 16-year-olds? What does he have to prove at that age level? I can see that the Under-21s have an important role relative to England’s full squad, because you travel and you’re prepared in the England way for international football. But I’ve had that argument about the youth teams many times with England managers when I’ve had players in our first team who’ve had to go to the Under-19s.

Quite a few players who don’t play for their Premiership clubs are now being picked for the England Under-21 side. Do players lower down get overlooked for national squads generally?
If you’re playing at the highest level it’s common sense that you’d be better equipped to play for Eng­land. These days, of course, you would see the Prem­iership as the top level. But I heard Sven-Goran Eriks- son make a comment the other week in answer to a question about David Thompson, saying that he wasn’t considered for the England squad last season because he was at Coventry in the First Division, which I found slightly disturbing. I understand the mentality behind that point of view, but I was saddened to hear what he said.

From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month