Stunted growth

Taylor Parkes reflects on a new book that paints a gloomy picture of how young players are treated in Britain

In 1997, concerned that English football was falling behind in terms of youth development, the FA brought in Howard Wilkinson (then, as now, the last English manager to win the League). His mission was to produce a document which would outline the problems and propose a fresh approach; the amusingly titled A Charter for Quality still forms the basis of our youth coaching system. Its changes were far-reaching: clubs would take sole charge of recruiting and developing young players, while the age at which kids could be taken on “full time” dropped from 14 to nine. In the first half of last season, just 66 graduates of Premier League academies appeared on Premier League teamsheets, many of them confirmed benchwarmers. What went wrong?

Every Boy’s Dream, a new book by Chris Green, takes a long hard look at the state of youth coaching and its findings are predictably grim. Students of English football will not be surprised that Green has uncovered a total disconnect between the game’s top brass and the kids at the sharp end – concern for their welfare and general development, much less the health of the game as a whole, is never allowed to interfere with the dogged pursuit of wealth and success.

Due to its sheer financial clout, the Premier League effectively runs the game in this country and the wishes of its privately owned businesses prevail. Young hopefuls are treated as commodities, traded between clubs with no money passing to their families (nor to non-League youth development leagues, which receive no compensation should one of their charges be snapped up). Clubs adopt a quick-and-dirty approach, trawling huge numbers of kids in the hope of securing valuable stock at the earliest possible age – Green hears of one would-be Rooney who, when he bent down to pick up the ball, was revealed to be wearing a nappy underneath his shorts. The vast majority who don’t make the grade, or fall foul of some quirk of the system, are just collateral damage.

As well as being less than conducive to the fine-tuning of talent, this system is clumsy and counter-productively harsh. Top clubs’ training centres tend to be situated deep in the countryside, miles from public transport links, but insist on prompt arrival and near-100 per cent attendance. If you’re late more than once, you don’t get picked at the weekend. For kids whose parents don’t have cars, or happen to work the wrong hours, that’s tough luck (several coaches note that their intake is increasingly middle class).

At lower-league “centres of excellence” we find 12-year-olds trained military-style until they vomit, their parents obliged to stump up money for kit and expenses. Few of these “centres of excellence” have their own training ground, often commandeering playing fields from the local school or youth club, while for a weekly contribution of two training sessions and a match on the weekend, coaches are paid £75 – out of which they must buy their own petrol. On matchday, kids might travel eight hours for 30 minutes of football. Returning home on weekdays as late as 11pm, they can struggle to keep up with homework and fall asleep in class the next day.

Via a loophole in Wilkinson’s charter, clubs can place promising youngsters under contract for several years but are free to drop their side of the agreement when they choose. As a result, clubs will sometimes hold a boy’s registration long after he’s been discarded, preventing him from playing elsewhere while offering no further assistance. Green’s book is full of stories of boys cast aside with no thought given to their mental wellbeing (inc-luding a six-year-old in-formed that he’d been “culled”); despite pleas from parents to time the news carefully, kids receive rejection letters on their 13th birthday, mixed in with the cards. Many of them, let down with a thump, lose interest in football altogether.

Compounding this un-subtle approach is a deep-rooted English distrust of anything that smacks of academia. England has far fewer qualified coaches than any comparable footballing nation. By 2012, the FA predicts that just 40 more Englishmen will obtain the top qualification, the UEFA Pro Licence, bringing our total to just under 150 (Spain has 2,140). Things get worse further down the scale: there are 895 UEFA “A” qualified coaches in England. In Spain, there are 12,720. This culture extends deep into the youth system, where the decent coaches complain that they’re judged solely on results and argue in vain that playing to win might not bring the best out of a nine-year-old child.

Oddly enough, clubs which follow the plan least faithfully seem to have the best results. Aston Villa take on far fewer recruits than is usual, which minimises the inevitable heartbreak and allows the few to be coached more comprehensively. Somewhat predictably, Manchester United do things their way – against academy rules, their nine- to 11-year-olds play four-a-side rather than eight-a-side. It’s no coincidence that these two clubs tend to produce more professionals than their Premier League peers (even if few of United’s break into their own first team).

Ten years after Wilkinson’s Charter, the FA brought in Richard Lewis, executive chairman of the Rugby Football League, to conduct a full review. It was left to Lewis to suggest the idea of a national coaching syllabus: in ten years, the academy system had not bothered to produce one. (“In fact,” reveals Green, “there were no age-specific coaching qualifications available.”) The Lewis report, which made 66 key recommendations, has so far had no effect.

To the dismay of Trevor Brooking, keen to involve the LMA, PFA and FA Coaches Association, the group formed to oversee the changes only included representatives from the FA, Premier League and Football League. Brooking’s fear – that the leagues would “only look at it from the club owners’ point of view” – was well founded. Discussions were scuppered by financial self-interest and, after several years of squabbling, the group fell apart this January (to the eye-rolling disgust of Fabio Capello). Still, the FA have announced the formation of a new group to take over where they left off, which, according to an FA statement, “will involve representatives from the Football League, the Premier League and the FA”.

Meanwhile, every year, thousands of young people’s dreams are popped unceremoniously and the English game looks little better for it. Brian Jones, academy director at Aston Villa, admits that at youth level “the quality just isn’t there”. Howard Wilkinson, who first attempted to clear up the mess more than a decade ago, is characteristically blunt: “I am starting to lose hope,” he says.

From WSC 273 November 2009