Football / FA Cup Countdown: Gunners set their sights at young age: Arsenal look for the triumph of youth against Tottenham at Wembley. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
THE youngsters are having problems with the drill. The ball goes astray, the routine breaks down. One unhappy coach. 'Keep hold of it,' he barks at them, 'this isn't Wimbledon.'

Even before their 10th birthday Arsenal habits are being laid down and absorbed; the first whirl of a youth policy whose success will be displayed all over Wembley's lush greensward on Sunday when the Gunners contest North London rivalry with Tottenham for a place in the FA Cup final. Adams, Merson, Davis, Campbell, Hillier, Morrow, Parlour, Selley, Flatts; all have been through the system and now serve as inspiration for the Arsenal teams of tomorrow and the day after that. Before them Rocastle, Thomas and Quinn were the star graduates and before them Brady, Stapleton and O'Leary. In the Arsenal Double-winning side paid-for players were the exception: home- grown the rule as personified by George, Radford, Kennedy, Storey etc.

Great names in a great team, yet a different era, and they will not all be familiar to the fresh faces being put through their paces in 1993. Some look as if they came for the job as team mascot and took a wrong turning until, that is, you see them with the ball at their feet.

Watching the session from a distance is Terry Murphy, for 10 years the Arsenal youth development officer and a prime force in discovering and developing the youngsters before dispatching them into the first team. Now his work also takes him among the Under-10s, a recent development aimed at arresting the decline in technical ability among England's young players.

Anything that puts them under the wing of the professionals and away from the maniacal manager-father figures imposing bad habits from the park touchlines every Saturday and Sunday is to be welcomed. Yet Murphy has reservations.

'At so young an age boys can change physically so quickly and it's so hard to be certain that any of them will make it,' he said. 'Inevitably many fall by the wayside, their dreams of stardom crushed, and it's hard for them to take.

'At Arsenal we have always pursued a policy of quality rather than quantity. Those that come take confidence because they are one of the chosen few. It's a tough business and becoming more competitive. Liverpool and Manchester United, who in the past have relied on the transfer market, are now competing strongly at youth level. As transfer fees get ever higher clubs are making it more of a priority.'

Nobody, though, does it better than Arsenal. The manager, George Graham, said: 'It's always been a hallmark of Arsenal teams to have a strong nucleus of home-grown players and we are one of the few to consistently produce our own talent in teams capable of winning the big prizes.'

Murphy has a network of part-time scouts with their own lines of communications and feeders. Frustration is when genuine talent slips through and when Ian Wright arrived for pounds 2.5m from Crystal Palace, Murphy was intrigued how they and other clubs missed out on him in his formative years particularly as south London has been such a profitable hunting ground for them (Rocastle, Thomas, Davis, Hillier and Campbell). 'Ian said he was with the Blackheath club at under-14 but only played twice because they considered he was too small. As players get older they tend to drift out of the picture and are easily overlooked.

'The whole situation is fraught with obstacles and pitfalls. We once had two lads at 14 in the same position. We took one on and he went on to captain the reserves but no higher. The other lad we released and at that time no other professional club was interested in him. He drifted out and went into non-League but later came back to make his mark. He was Stuart Pearce.'

But for every own goal there are many that go in at the other end. Tomorrow's hopes centre around two 19- year-old Pauls, Read and Shaw, who last season were a prolific youth-team goal-scoring combination.

Martin Keown, spotted by Murphy himself in Oxford at 13, recently returned to Highbury after improving his defensive skills and reputation at Aston Villa and Everton. 'We look for one particular asset in a boy and try to build up the rest of his game,' Murphy said. 'Martin was no different from anyone else at that age except that he could move from A to B 10 yards away quicker than the rest.

'At 14 Tony Adams was as mature as he is now. He was 6ft and had a rare feel for the game. He always seemed to be in the right place and it made up for his lack of pace. In his debut here he fumbled a pass and Coventry took the lead. It would have crucified some players but he had the temperament to put it behind him and prove to be the man of the match and I always hold him up as an example to the boys when they are feeling down or frustrated.

'Like Ray Parlour he came from Essex and was wanted by other clubs like West Ham who they used to support. It's a tribute to Arsenal and our staff that they chose us and it's a tribute to the support we get from the top, including the manager, who won't hesitate to bring them on, that they have done so well. We look after them and make them feel comfortable from an early age but we don't exert heavy pressure on them to sign for us. We only want boys who want to play for Arsenal.

'If they stay and come through the system it breeds a special kind of loyalty and camaraderie that doesn't often exist in a player who arrives from the transfer market.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- GRAHAM'S GRADUATES ----------------------------------------------------------------- DEBUT SEASON 1986-87 Apps Goals Michael Thomas 207 30 Paul Merson 245 64 1990-91 David Hillier 92 2 Kevin Campbell 130 34 1991-92 Andrew Cole 1 0 Ray Parlour 29 2 Steve Morrow 22 0 Neal Heaney 2 0 1992-93 Mark Flatts 9 0 Ian Selley 7 0 Alan Miller 1 0 Paul Dickov 1 0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)