Elite soccer schools get the yellow card

Premier clubs defend hothouses for young talent. By Mark Rowe
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Britain's top football clubs have been accused of putting their interests before vulnerable young people's with plans to take talented future players away from home and educate them in specially selected schools.

Up to nine Premier League clubs are studying ways to sign up young talent from around the country, place them in local schools and provide hostel accommodation.

The scheme is based on the Football Association's national school for excellence at Lilleshall in Shropshire which has been looking after boys in a similar way for several years.

Objections have been raised because many clubs are seeking to place the boys, aged 14 to 16, in grant-maintained schools, exploiting regulations which allow such schools to give 25 per cent of places to youngsters showing exceptional ability in music, the arts or sport.

Among the clubs keen to set up such a system are Arsenal, Leeds United, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers. Plans are at an advanced stage and the first could be in place within a year.

But the English Schools Football Association, which oversees football in schools in this country, has expressed fears that taking boys aged 14 and older out of their family environment may have negative effects.

"I have doubts about hand-picking the boys and putting them into such a situation," said Malcolm Berry, the ESFA's chief executive. "It's a very difficult time for them emotionally and physically. I'm not sure the clubs have the right coaches and staff to deal with the boys." Mr Berry said he was also concerned about provision for boys who did not make the top grade in football.

The ESFA, which represents 15,000 schools, questioned the Premier League clubs' motives, suspecting it would be a way of funding an "Academy of Excellence" on the cheap. "It's quite a selfish approach," said Mr Berry. "All they are looking for is a couple of players coming through into the first team."

Clubs are not allowed to accommodate boys under 14 away from home. A trial scheme for under-14s has recently been introduced at Nottingham Forest. Some 26 boys, aged 12 and 13, are picked up from their schools at 2.30pm twice a week and taken to the club for training. They have dinner, do their homework under the supervision of retired teachers linked to their schools and then have a further training session. They then return to their parents.

Now Forest are keen to take the 14-to-16-year-olds under their wing on a residential basis. The club has bought a house near its stadium for boys to live and are in talks with a local school to see if promising players can be placed there with scholarships.

In return the school gains the potential prestige of seeing pupils move on to the fame and riches of the Premier League, so giving an impetus to the school's own sporting prowess. Clubs would lend their own coaches to soccer classes at the school and could make financial contributions.

The Premier League's youth development officer Dave Richardson said: "We will look to establish criteria regarding the quality of staff before we would permit a club to go ahead. The personnel would have to be of the highest order."