In southern Spain, former England manager Glenn Hoddle is rebuilding the careers of young players. Steve Wilson reports
It would be understandable for the players of Notts County to be pinching themselves at the thought of pre-season under the guidance of Sven-Göran Eriksson. The chance to work with a former England manager, despite career paths that appeared to have closed off such a possibility, might appear unique to them. Elsewhere, however, the same, equally unexpected opportunity has befallen another set of hopefuls. At least four of whom would give glowing reports as to the redemptive qualities such an experience brings.
It was the unedifying sight of men crying, on being told that they were not to be offered contracts when he was Swindon Town boss, that had a lasting effect on Glenn Hoddle and sowed a seed that last summer led to the opening of his academy. Based in a resort in Andalucia – chosen for a favourable climate and with the added draw of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course – Hoddle offers some of those young players cast aside by clubs intensive coaching with a view to returning them to the professional ranks.
Considering the trouble the subject has caused him in the past you might imagine Hoddle would give a wide berth to themes of redemption and second chances, but recent evidence suggests he may be on to something. Iketchi Anya, once deemed surplus to requirements at Wycombe and on the point of quitting the game as he drifted in to the amateur ranks, last month signed a two-year contract with Sevilla after a year under the care of a coaching team that includes Graham Rix, Nigel Spackman and Dave Beasant. That followed Chris Fagan’s move to Lincoln. Since then a further two players, Dave Cowley and Lino Goncalves, discarded by West Ham and Fulham respectively, have found a home with Huelva in the Spanish second tier.
“This to me is as good as winning a trophy,” says Hoddle of Anya’s elevation from non-League player to a Champions League squad in the space of a year. “Getting these boys back – it’s more than trophies. When you win a trophy everyone pats you on the back and you go down in history [but] we’re changing people’s lives here. They’ve got to go and make it work. But we’ve given them that opportunity that they never thought they were going to have.”
Hoddle initially approached the Premier League with his idea but, showing a consistent failure to address what he repeatedly refers to as “a lack of development” in the English game, they declined the offer. Each of the 20 or so players on the academy’s books over the last 12 months, sourced through scouting and summer trials, are on effective scholarships and based most of the year at the resort near Jerez. The funding for the scheme comes from a combination of Hoddle’s own money and commercial backers.
They currently have in place funds for another year, though the almost immediate success should see the academy grow. Sell-on clauses and development fees for players will help. “I don’t know if there is someone out there who, rather than buying a club for £12 million in the second division, thinks ‘I quite like that concept’ and might help it. It could collapse in a year or we could have three or four more in the next ten years. That’s the challenge and the excitement over what we can do. Certainly the concept works.”
The academy received “a bit” of money from Anya’s move but, for now at least, the most tangible payback is the sight of the player’s beaming smile as he delivers a farewell speech to his now former classmates. “It didn’t even really hit me that I was going to get as big a team as this,” Anya says. “This academy is predominantly for Premiership and Championship players so, coming from Wycombe, getting in was an achievement in itself. To be one of the first players to leave the nest, so to speak, is a great feeling.”
Hoddle’s belief that decisions on whether or not players will make it in the game are made too early appears to have already been swiftly vindicated, and those running Premier League academies in England would do well to take note. The imperative to win matches will never be far from the minds of clubs in the top divisions but there exists a short-termism in youth development that is littering the British game with the broken dreams of hundreds of young hopefuls annually.
“Every year there is a conveyor belt of talent dropping out of the game,” says Hoddle. “Clubs need to rethink the development side of football. Though if they do, I suppose, my concept doesn’t work any more.”
From WSC 271 September 2009