Age of chance

Ever-fewer home-grown players are breaking through at major clubs as managers look abroad for youngsters as well as first-team players. Gavin Willacy examines what’s going wrong for British kids

As another summer of frantic buying draws to a close, I have yet to hear a single manager say they are steering clear of the shark-infested transfer market and sticking instead with their youth system. For all their Football Icon hype, there is still no sign of a first-team regular emerging from Chelsea’s academy – ten years to the month since John Terry turned pro, the last Chelsea trainee to make it to the top. Arsenal had yet to field a locally farmed player this season before Justin Hoyte appeared in the second leg of their Champions League tie against Sparta Prague, a match that was largely a formality. Liverpool fielded just one Brit in their return match against Toulouse (Peter Crouch). Only the absent Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard in their entire first-team squad are home-grown. Meanwhile, Rafa Benítez has signed 20 teenagers from other clubs in the past two years, many of them foreign.

However, this collecting of potential rather than creating it is merely a new twist to an old tale. Scanning a paper from this month in 1989, when English football was just starting to emerge from the abyss and the top clubs were still suffering from the European ban, not one of Liverpool’s 13 players was brought through the Anfield system. Nor were any of Tottenham’s team that were hammered at home by Chelsea – Spurs were in the “Big Five” then, Chelsea only a few months on from being watched by four-figure gates in the second tier – while “Fergie’s Puddings” started without a home-grown player, bringing Russell Beardsmore off the bench. Everton went top with just Welshman Kevin Ratcliffe of their “own” players on the field.

Only Arsenal, with five (David O’Leary, Tony Adams, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson, David Rocastle) had a sizeable number of players that had learned the pro game under their own auspices. And this on a weekend when the 20 top-flight clubs fielded just 11 ­non‑British or Irish players between them (most teenage players from the Republic of Ireland were joining English clubs at 15 or 16, hence “home-grown”). Instead, England’s top clubs merely picked off the best talent coming through from lower down: Ian Rush from Chester, Lee Sharpe from Torquay and even Perry Groves from Colchester. Now, as well as at least 11 foreign players at each club forcing the English players down the pyramid, our top clubs are ­cherry‑picking the best youngsters in the world: Arsenal in Africa, Liverpool in South America, Chelsea in the Iberian peninsula.

The one-in-ten youth-team players who make a career out of football rarely do so at the club where they were trained. Every club is producing players for teams lower down the footballing food chain than them: for example Arsenal for Crystal Palace, Palace for Brentford, Brentford for Woking etc. What has changed now is that clubs are questioning the economic viability of such a system. While many supporters would consider having a youth team a moral imperative, some chairmen fail to be convinced by the cost versus community argument.

So far, most have swung the axe in an alternative direction: killing off the reserve team (Derby and Crewe) or getting a local college to provide their youth teams (Barnet and Bristol Rovers). Alex Ferguson ensures Manchester United receive a return on their investment by demanding reasonable fees for every academy graduate who signs a pro deal elsewhere at the end of their training. The deficiencies of youth development can be seen throughout English professional football. My club, Preston North End, are seen as a traditional, community-based club. But, limited by finance and facilities to a centre of excellence rather than a full-blown academy, they trail not only the behemoths in Liverpool and Manchester but Blackburn, Bolton and Wigan in the queue to sign the best youngsters in the north-west. Taking the left-overs from that lot is hardly going to help unearth Championship-calibre players and, sure enough, a succession of youth bosses have failed to provide a single first-team regular at Deepdale for ten years.

Under those conditions, it would be hard to argue with any club who do not have an academy deciding to cull their youth team and spend the six-figure annual saving on free transfers from elsewhere. And yet talent production – or rather identification and nurturing – is by no means a problem everywhere. Not having an academy has not prevented Brighton, where former England Schoolboys boss Vic Bragg is in charge of player development, from fielding a whole team of youth-team products in League One. Even in the Premier League, ­Middlesbrough’s ­reputation is such that they are attracting many of the best boys in the north-east, many of whom have gone all the way to the first team. Likewise, to a lesser degree, at Newcastle, but Sunderland have struggled to follow suit.

In the midlands, Birmingham buy talent in, while Aston Villa have a production line working nicely for Martin O’Neill. On the south coast, more young talent seems to be coming through from Southampton’s much vaunted academy than manages to do so down the road at Portsmouth, but then Pompey need players capable of keeping them in the top flight. Unlike at West Ham, where he gave opportunities to Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, Harry Redknapp has opted to spend millions on ready-made players.

It would seem easier for clubs in the middle of the Premier League to give youth a chance. Those who start the season fearing a relegation battle are reluctant to put faith in untried youngsters and will resort to them only in a crisis. Those at the top need players capable of playing against the best in Europe and/or getting them into Europe via the league or cup triumphs.

If our teenage players aren’t good enough, why not? Perhaps it is a lack of hunger, fed by the scholarship system that no longer requires trainees to sweep the terraces and clean the pros’ boots or the toilets. Instead, adolescents are handed six-figure salaries before making a first-team ­appearance, seven-figure ones after a season at the top. How can they keep a grip on reality or be blamed for losing the drive that got them that far in the first place? One top manager banned the youth team from the main dressing room and downgraded their lounge area at the training ground, saying that to grant them such comforts would give misleading messages to impressionable young men.

Maybe it’s the quality of coaching. But we are now a decade into a comprehensive new regime at the FA that has seen a far more structured coaching system imposed on the game, coupled with an increasing willingness to employ foreign youth-team coaches and take ideas from other sports.

My conclusion is that our players are probably just as good as they ever were, only different: fitter, stronger, quicker, but less creative and instinctive. The problem is, they used to have to be just the best in Britain. Now they have to be better than players from all over the world if they are to make it in the Premier League.

From WSC 248 October 2007