Comment: Brilliant NextGen series sadly sidelined in favour of Uefa Youth Cup

Ryan McLaughlin has been denied a European role by Uefa

The Champions League is back – with the ubiquitous blue livery, “Zadok the Priest” and, this year, a new bit of razzle-dazzle. The new Uefa Youth Cup, parading its own swishy new typeface and featuring the Under-19 teams of this season’s 32 Champions League group stage competitors, also swings into action today. “The competition has already received its own sprinkling of stardust,” the governing body gushes, reporting Nicky Butt’s role in running Manchester United’s team and the involvement of Patrick Vieira, whose Manchester City players will step out at Viktoria Plzen’s training ground in the Czech Republic this afternoon.

Well, forgive Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish for not sharing the sense of euphoria. Or the young Spurs striker Shaquille Coulthirst and Liverpool’s Ryan McLaughlin, for that matter. These are the young British players, learning their trade away from the bright lights of this season’s Champions League aristocracy, who in the past two years had suddenly found a European stage. It was provided for them by the NextGen series, the tournament which quickly established itself as the Champions League for Europe’s best young players.

Necessity being the mother of invention, some of the competition’s clubs knew a thing or two about running good academies because they simply couldn’t afford to go out and hoover up the continent’s best players. And it showed. Villa won the competition last season. Liverpool beat Internazionale 4-1 at Anfield in a game which will always remain with man-of-the-match McLaughlin, Conor Coady and Jordan Ibe. Talk had turned to how Everton – with their immense reputation for developing young players – would fair when they entered this year. Valencia, Gothenburg and Villarreal were all set to join, too.

None of those clubs’ youth teams will be competing in Europe this season, though. It will be back to stodgy midweek games in front a few dozen people for them because Uefa has – temporarily and quite possibly permanently – killed off the competition.

There was always a sense that Michel Platini’s organisation had been monitoring NextGen, despite offering it official sanction, and last season the founders of the competition –Justin Andrews and Mark Warburton – began hearing noises about Uefa launching a version of its own. The two men sought a compromise, proposing to Uefa a 48-team tournament, with some clubs selected on the basis of their commitment to youth development, complemented by those who reached the last 16 of the previous season’s Champions League.

There were hardly gasps of open astonishment when Uefa rejected that plan and opted to reinforce the European status quo with a tournament for which the 32 Champions League competitors will take Under-19 teams along for the ride, regardless of their ability. The inevitability of the outcome stemmed from the fact that NextGen was beginning to ask some searching questions of Uefa. The tournament’s £8 family tickets were enabling fans to see excellent young players in elite stadiums under floodlights. Scheduling around first-team matches was tricky but not insurmountable, Andrews and Warburton found. There were crowds of 20,000 at some NextGen games – more than on some Thursday nights in the Europa League.

When Uefa rejected the compromise, Andrews and Warburton suspended their own competition for a year. A “lack of definite funding” was the formally stated reason, though they just did not see room in the calendar for two competitions. Throwing a further £2m at their own event, which was shorn of key teams, with Eurosport signed up to cover the competitor as well as them, made no sense.

Villa’s young players are understandably disconsolate about not being able to defend their title. “We’re bitterly disappointed by this,” said their academy director, Bryan Jones. “The competition is one of the greatest development tools for young professional players in this country… and it will be lost to us. It’s shameful.”

Other impressive academies will be in and out of the new competition, too. There are no guarantees for Ajax, whose Viktor Fischer devastated Liverpool in the 2011-12 semi-finals before graduating to the senior side’s No 7 jersey.

Academy directors will tell you that it is the opportunity to get players into the routine of travelling around Europe – the flight, the hotel, the preparation – which they will miss as much as, if not more than, the football itself.

And even those teenagers who are fortunate enough to grace a club which is playing in the new Uefa tournament will find something lacking. Games will generally kick off between 11am and 4pm at training grounds and reserve-team stadiums – a far cry from the environment of playing at elite grounds under lights which NextGen offered, in an attempt to create a learning environment for the players and – as the competition’s name suggests – equip them to make the next step.

Andrews is surprisingly sanguine about this and reluctant to criticise Uefa. “Rather than go up against the new competition we decided to see how it would work out,” he says. “We should just wait and see how people would react to what the new competition brings.”

That reaction may be a loud call to Uefa to bring NextGen and its philosophies back into the fold. Don’t be blinded by the livery and the anthems this week. A little light has gone out across Europe.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of Jane Austen classic - with a twist

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes hobby look 'dysfunctional'
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week