It takes around 45 minutes to travel from Leyland, where on Wednesday the Football Association launched their latest attempt to revive the grass-roots development of young English footballers, to Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park. Had any FA officials made the journey, thoughts of another brave new dawn would have faded as soon as they saw the team-sheet for that night’s Capital One Cup tie.
Oldham’s visitors were Middlesbrough, a Championship side that once had one of the country’s most productive academies. Now they have a Spanish manager and Aitor Karanka named seven foreigners in his first XI. Their goalscorers in a 3-1 win, Yanic Wildschut and Christian Stuani, highlighted two of the issues facing English players.
Wildschut arrived on Teesside at the end of last August’s transfer window for about £600,000. He was 22 but had more than 100 matches under his belt in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, a technically good, low-salaried league that is again one of the main sources of players for English clubs.
Stuani, 28, has a better pedigree, with 22 Uruguayan caps and five seasons in La Liga. Although he seems to be a career substitute, notably for his country with only five starts, his £3.5m fee compares very favourably with the £15m asking price for an English equivalent, such as Charlie Austin.
With fellow Championship clubs Brentford, Charlton, Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday also having a significant foreign presence (and foreign managers) it seems it is not only the Premier League which is squeezing out native talent.
However, there were signs of hope at the other end of the country on Wednesday night. In one of the stand-out results of a round of shocks, League Two Portsmouth knocked out Championship favourites Derby County. Derby had made eight changes from the team that opened their league campaign on Saturday, but Pompey made seven of their own, and unlike Derby could not still deploy a team featuring eight internationals plus a new £3m centre-half.
Instead Paul Cook fielded seven English players aged 21 or under, including five teenagers. Wisely led by the experienced Danny Hollands, the kids belied their youth, patiently passing the ball even when under pressure. This approach culminated in Portsmouth’s winner, beautifully taken by 18-year-old substitute Conor Chaplin after a passing move begun by Adam Webster (age 20) and also involving Ben Close (19) and Ben Tollitt (20).
Chaplin, Webster and Close were three of four home-grown players, suggesting that even as the club collapsed amid financial disarray after winning the FA Cup in 2008, the youth system flourished.
It helped that the youth development grant (currently £275,000, about 85 per cent from the Premier League, the rest from the FA) is ring-fenced, but much of the credit must go to Andy Awford, a long-time Pompey player who returned to run the academy in January 2011 only to be, as so often happens, promoted to first-team manager, then sacked.
Awford’s expertise is now being employed by Luton Town, but he watched with pride as Chaplin, Close & Co beat Derby: “The first team has to get a result, but winning in youth development is getting players into the first team – or being sold for good money, so it was great to see them playing so well. There are times when you have to get it forward, that applies to every team, but we encouraged them to get on the ball and be confident in possession.”
There is a similar philosophy at another club to pull off a Capital One Cup upset, Walsall, who won 4-3 at Nottingham Forest. Dean Smith, another former player who became youth coach, stepped up to become first-team manager in early 2011. Four seasons on they have held on to League One status despite one of the division’s lowest wage bills and acquired a reputation for developing young players.
Smith fielded nine under-24s on Tuesday against Forest, eight of them born in England. While Tom Bradshaw, who scored a hat-trick, arrived via Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury, and three more came through Walsall’s youth system, five had been picked up from bigger clubs after being released.
Smith said: “We have a major selling point – you will get a chance to play in our first team and be a professional footballer. It is very difficult to make the grade at the big clubs, you have to be exceptional to get a chance. I think some clubs take on too many players as they are scared of missing out, then in six months decide they are not good enough. That is tough for the kids. They have been dreaming of playing in the Premier League and their confidence has taken a knock, but we tell them ‘go and prove them wrong’. Proving people wrong drives a lot of successful people in life.”
Both Awford and Smith made the point that improved lower-division pitches, and training facilities, have enabled clubs to eschew direct football. A side-effect is that lower-league football is much more watchable than 20 years ago, which in an era when football fans can watch Barcelona and Real Madrid every week in their living rooms has probably helped maintain the impressive level of Football League attendances.
However, the pair also stressed technique only takes a player so far. “They need the right coaching and the right upbringing,” said Awford. “I’m hard on them, but they need that discipline. The first-team manager needs to know he can trust them to do their job.” Smith added that academy-bred teenagers who may have been very well paid at their Premier League club, and brought up in softer environments than 20 years ago, have to have their attitude right to prosper in the adult game.
Back to Boundary Park, where there was a shaft of light for any visiting FA official. Wildschut scored, but was making only his fourth start in a year at Boro. He has been kept out of the league team by Adam Reach, a locally-born winger who has responded positively to Wildschut’s arrival.
There is evidence to suggest the many reforms of youth development, from Howard Wilkinson’s 1997 Charter for Quality, through the Elite Player Performance Plan, to this week’s FA initiative, are bearing fruit. But the coaches can only do so much – eventually it comes down to the players, like Reach, to rise to the challenge.Reuse content