Football: Youth opportunity develops nappy rash

Ronald Atkin finds fears are growing as clubs raid the nurseries
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IF YOUR little bundle of joy demonstrates an impressive first touch when controlling a lively nursery ball, guard him well. Then wait for the offers to roll in from football clubs anxious to provide everything from complimentary nappies to a pounds 2m investment fund.

That, inexorably, is the way the game seems headed following the news that West Ham have targeted John Megicks, a six-year-old from Enfield. It is part of a gathering swing among the far-sighted and the cash-strapped football clubs to grow talent at home rather than buy it abroad. Young master Megicks would appear in no immediate danger of exploitation just yet, however.

For one thing, West Ham have a record of decent behaviour and for another there are rules in place that preserve kids - and their parents - from having to sign anything until, thank heavens, they are all of eight years old.

Don Howe, Arsenal's youth coach and wise old head, finds the present extent of the talent drive a little disturbing. "Nobody can tell me you can look at a six-year-old and say the lad is going to be a great player," he said. "There ain't nobody been that clever. When I was at the FA I worked with Michael Owen. Everybody could see the kid had potential, but you have to let it blossom.

"At the Arsenal we have never had a kid as young as six but we are looking at nine-year-olds. If we don't, some other club will. The age level is so much younger nowadays because if you don't start early you don't get them. A lot of clubs are now investing a terrific amount on youth development. Liverpool are spending pounds 15m on a beautiful complex because they are in competition with Everton, the two Manchester clubs and Blackburn, all fighting for the talent in that area."

Liverpool's new academy, where boys as young as seven are invited to train two nights a week, was unveiled last week. "Clubs like us and Liverpool can only do things like that on the say-so of parents," said Howe. "If a boy said to his father some night, `Do I have to go?' the parent could say, `No son, you don't.'

"We all want the young ones to play for fun. If they come to the Arsenal it isn't training they get, just a game where they can enjoy themselves. It is all fun at that age. After they leave junior school, then coaching and the techniques are introduced. The positive side of all this is that many clubs are spending their money on development of kids rather than players from all over the world. The down side of it is that perhaps the search is being extended to the very young."

This trend is causing concern at the English Schools FA, whose chief executive, Malcolm Berry, said: "Getting everybody working together in the best interests of the game is difficult because League clubs are very selfish, competing for the top young players.

"The ESFA are mainly concerned about the educational aspect of clubs' academy and excellence programmes, but to some it is just a way for them to stress football, football and not consider too much the morality and age aspects. Under the excellence scheme there was monitoring. Now that has gone, the leagues are self- regulating, which is a weakness.

"It is only by chance now that we hear of incidents such as Coventry City attempting to set up what they call development centres in other areas of the country, specifically in this case Nottingham. It is quite wrong that Coventry should be doing this in areas other than their own, inviting children of seven or eight along, cherry-picking the best boys and attempting to link them to their academy.

"Also worrying is the recent tendency of clubs to sell on these youngsters. That was never the original concept. The plan was to develop young players within their community and help take forward the game as a whole. And clubs should certainly not be discussing anything with parents of boys as young as six."

Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, stressed: "The first consideration has got to be the health and welfare of the children. Anything that might affect this would cause concern. But there are all sorts of agencies which cater for five to 10-year-olds in their leisure time, so why not football clubs, as long as it is done in the proper manner?

"Obviously there is an ulterior motive for the kids to become affiliated with the club, but that's no bad thing.

"Clubs like Man United, Aston Villa and Leeds have all derived massive benefit from bringing up their own, and in the long run it might help to start redressing the balance because at the moment over half the players in the Premiership are foreign."