Football: Arsenal's young ones prove a league apart

Andrew Longmore sees English football rediscover the value of growing your own
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The Independent Online
As a vision of the future, a long wooden bench was hardly a match for the millenium site, nor much of an advertisement for a footballing youth movement which is gathering pace with every day. The personnel sitting on it gave a better clue to the significance of the moment: Don Givens, Manchester United and Republic of Ireland international, and Don Howe, one of England's few recognised world-class coaches. On the touchline, the director of youth coaching, Liam Brady, added his ha'porth. High-quality guidance for a youth team.

In years to come, the debut of the Football Association Premier Youth League might be vested with an importance not apparent on a chilly, sunlit morning in Hertfordshire. This might have been the start of another humdrum season in the South East Counties League where the likes of Colchester and Southend cross swords with the London giants, but for the bench. No benches in the South East Counties League. Not much of a benchmark either for clubs like Arsenal, who have 130 boys on their books aged nine to 19 and a chairman anxious to grow his own in the manner of Ajax and, well, Crewe Alex.

English clubs have at long last discovered the importance of developing young players, not just in the casual way which led so many of them to reward an old club stalwart with a job in charge of the youth team, but with serious intent to stem the cashflow to the Continent and encourage an unfashionable sense of loyalty. Liverpool are investing pounds 13m in a brand new football academy on a 54-acre site in Kirkby, complete with classroom, Arsenal have to make do with Portakabins for changing-rooms in London Colney, but have plans for a new training centre.

The Charter for Quality, pushed through by Howard Wilkinson with much banging together of heads, will hand the clubs more responsibility for the development of young players - in football and life - and shed some of the more rusty shackles imposed by the English Schools' Football Association. In the past, the clubs' own attitudes have laid themselves open to accusations of criminal neglect. No longer. Survival will depend on the young talent nurtured through the academies which have been lent competitive cohesion by the formation of the first National Youth League.

The league has had a hesitant start, not all of its own making. Some of the big northern clubs - Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle - have stayed away for this season and the funeral of the Princess of Wales halted the first round of fixtures between the 16 clubs brave enough to take the plunge. The are enough big names - such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Leeds - to give the tournament, with its end of season play-offs and two-leg final, a feel of the Premier League, which is half the point of the exercise.

"Playing Sheffield Wednesday gives them more of a buzz than playing Southend," Howe said. "It switches on the young players, has given them something new to think about. They will be staying overnight for some games and that helps make them more professional in their attitudes and they will have a chance to compare standards with other league clubs."

The comparison hardly bore thinking about for Brian Roberts, coach of the Coventry side who found themselves 4-0 down well before David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, made a belated appearance 10 minutes after kick-off.

That Arsenal kept their foot on the pedal said more for the competitiveness of their own system than the fledgling league. Young players of the calibre of Tommy Black, Paulo Venezza, Richard Hughes and Matthew Wicks are testimony to the principles being preached by the backroom boys long before Arsene Wenger arrived. The irony is that just as the best of the homegrown bunch blossom into maturity, exotic foreign species have perfumed the garden.

"It has put us all back down a place or two, which is discouraging in a way," Omar Riza, one of the most promising of the crop, said. "But you can learn from all the foreign players too. They're so professional about their jobs. Starting this youth league is great because it's given us something else to aim for."

Poor Coventry must have wished they had stayed in the Midlands Melville League, trouncing the likes of Lincoln and Shrewsbury. "No, not a bit of it," Roberts stressed. "This is brilliant. We'll have better opposition, better facilities, play on better pitches with better refs, that's beneficial to all of us. We can match ourselves against the best." They did and a 10-1 final scoreline spoke volumes for the difference in class.

"It would be nice to say that scorelines don't matter. But they do. And should. But we mustn't put too much on the result. I just hope my chairman doesn't find out," Roberts added. And that is the danger.

The Premier League are already considering interest from television. Sponsors will surely follow and, perhaps, four-figure crowds. Admirable though the support is, youth football can do without the more virulent forms of Premier League hype. The wooden bench is quite glamour enough.

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