Graham Kelly: Academies' success must not rule out national centre

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The Independent Football

The new Football Association chief executive, Mark Palios, refused to give any firm commitment to the national football centre, which is under construction at Burton-on-Trent, when he gave his first media briefing last week. He said that, in the light of the facilities currently offered at clubs in the academy programme, the business plan of the proposed national centre would be subject to further review.

Lilleshall, the FA's national school for 14 to 16-year-olds, was a beacon of excellence lit by the enthusiasm of Bobby Robson and Dave Sexton and sustained by the likes of John Cartwright and Keith Blunt for almost 20 years. But even they could not guarantee to select the best 16 players in the country at the age of 14 and, if they had, the squad might not have been capable of beating the French or Dutch.

Then, of course, the clubs who contributed to the costs tended to complain and the schools authorities expressed their own reservations about élitism. It was, therefore, a master stroke for the incoming FA technical director, Howard Wilkinson, at the height of the television boom in 1997, to design the academy programme, under which clubs are allowed unprecedented access to players from age 7 to 19 so long as they meet the required criteria on investment in facilities and personnel.

Going around the academies, as I have done this last week or so, watching the 13 and 14-year-olds returning from their summer break to be put through their skills routines on pitches like bowling greens under the watchful eyes of coaches who really care, it was striking to see the attention lavished upon them. Any parent who shouts too much in the monastic confines of these educational environments is hauled off to the coach's office for a dressing-down. Long gone are the days of the gnarled ex-pro who yelled destructive abuse.

Contrary to what happens higher up the scale, the amount of football academy boys play is strictly controlled. The chances of stress injuries, which used to bedevil players in great demand, have been much reduced. Schools football is allowed, but not youth, or community, football, thankfully, which has its place but where not too long ago I witnessed a "manager" hopping up and down, subjecting a qualified referee to disgraceful abuse and threatening to take his bewildered 12-year-old charges off the pitch.

Previous generations of promising players suffered by playing in too many competitive matches of a poor quality, losing the amount of time they had to improve their skills. So emphatic are the academies that competition must not become too keen that results of matches between clubs are not recorded below under-17 level.

Dave Richardson, the Premier League's director of youth, says the secret to creating the best players is simple. "It's like a recipe handed down from your mother," he reckons. "It was handed down the generations and although the method slightly changed, because sometimes there were different ingredients, you knew what you were getting and knew it would be good. That is like the format we have here - we need to know what we are getting."

The 13 and 14-year-olds are now under the care of a system that looks after them - in as much as it is able. Watching them troop through the car park with their mates, bright-eyed and chattering animatedly, lugging their enormous sponsored kitbags with little wheels it was difficult not to experience mixed emotions.

On the one hand, they stand on the threshold of an opportunity so enormous it almost takes the breath away. Conversely - and, given the statistics, it is much more likely - as they are always warned, they will face the immense heartache of being pulled into an office and told, "Sorry, son, but you're not going to make it". Every academy has a qualified teacher as head of education and welfare, and it will be at times like these when they earn their corn, if not the immediate thanks of those across the desk.

The constant warnings about the high drop-out rate are akin to Government health warnings on cigarette packets when the glamour of the top stars is thrust at our youngsters everywhere they look. American research shows, if we did not already know, that professional sport can be extremely self-centred and insular, its personalities often shielded from the realities of their behaviour.

The academy directors do their best to tell it like it is, providing their charges with a holistic sporting education for as long as they stay in the privileged system. Nevertheless the benefits of one centre, as a focus for the international teams of all levels, such as the French have, are not something that the game should lightly ignore.